Cognitive Neuroscience and Education, today

Both The Quick and the Ed and Intelligence Testing  blogs mention the American Educator article Brain-based” Learning: More Fiction than Fact, by cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham.

The article does a very good job at debunking some myths, and showing a skeptic face to the educational value of ultra-sophisticated fMRI scans. I fully agree with his attempt to debunk those myths, and with his pragmatic approach in terms of fMRIs. I would add that what in most classrooms today is called “brain-based learning” is quasi-common-sense in a pretty dress, with no base on solid research and clinical evidence.

The 3 specific myths he covers are:
1. Some people are left-brained, some are right-brained, and schools are designed for left-brain students;
2. Schools are designed to fit girls’ brains;
3. Classical music is a proven intervention to make young brains smarter

Now, I think the author premises don’t warrant his drastic and pessimistic conclusion that “the payoff (of neuroscience research) is likely to come only in the distant future, not in the next five or 10 years”.

Let’s review some neuroscience-findings that are being useful TODAY. Certainly they are not mainstream practices yet, but are helping thousands of kids. Which reminds me of the quote “The future is already here -it’s just unevenly distributed”.

Let me break them down in 2 categories:

a) Neuroscience-informed Instruction: books such as The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, by neurobiologist and educator Dr. James Zull, provide a great overview for educators who want to better understand how people learn. And, therefore, how we can better teach. The core concept is that there is an effective Learning Cycle, or Learning How to Learn muscle, that we must practice, with 4 stages: 1) get information, 2) make meaning of that information, 3) create new ideas from these meanings and 4) act on those ideas. And then back to 1). From this he proposes that there are four pillars of learning: gathering, analyzing, creating, and acting. You can read our interview with Dr. Zull on Learning, from which we extract the following:

AF (me): “Do you think this (Learning Cycle, Learning to Learn) is happening today in our schools?”

JZ (James Zull): “I don’t think so. First, of all, too many people still believe that Education means the process by which students passively absorb information. Even if many educators would like to ensure a more participatory and active approach, we still use the structures and priorities of another era. For example, we still pay too much attention to categorizing some kids as intelligent, some as not so, instead of focusing on how they could all learn more.”…

AF: “can you give us an example (of Prof. Zull’s emphasis on the need to help the learner make connections based on what they already know)”

JZ: “Well, an example I use in my books is that middle school students often have a hard time learning about Martin Luther and the Reformation because they confuse him with Martin Luther King Jr. We can choose to become frustrated about that. Or we can exploit this saying something like, “Yes! Martin Luther King was a lot like Martin Luther. In fact, why do you think Martin Luther King’s parents named him that? Why didn’t they name him Sam King?”

In short, we should pay more attention to Learning to Learn. Based on neurobiology. Yet, we don’t.

b) Clinically-validated Computer-based Cognitive Training Programs: we must find a sexier name (we are trying Brain Fitness Programs), but the fact is that a number of these programs are helping thousands of kids, today. Yes, maybe these programs require a change in how teachers perceive themselves, and the value they bring to education (maybe they will become the personal brain trainers of the future?), but we should not neglect them simply because they are different to the way we typically think about education and schools.

Targeted computer-based exercises can be extremely helpful, right now, for people who have specific “learning readiness bottlenecks”, or cognitive deficits, and are being refined for all students. If a kid doesn’t possess enough working memory, it is simply fruitless for a teacher to repeat a question 50 times and hope the kid will perform a complex mental calculation. We need to help the kid overcome his or her problem, at the root. Some cognitive challenges that affect many of our children, and where neuroscientists have already designed programs and shown results, are:

1) Dyslexia: a proven intervention is Scientific Learning’s FastForword. Check their research page

2) Working Memory Deficits (which affects a large proportion of kids with ADD/ ADHD): a proven intervention is Cogmed’s Working Memory Training program, RoboMemo. Not in US schools yet, but available through schools in Sweden and clinical practices in Europe and the US. Even “normal” students and adults have been shown to expand their working memory.

Some readings:
Interview with Dr. Torkel Klingberg, Working Memory Training leading researcher
Interview with Dr. David Rabiner, ADD/ ADHD leading researcher
Reflections at a meeting with a number of school superintendents

3) Anxiety and stress: not only test anxiety, but overall high-levels of anxiety that inhibit learning and higher-order thinking: a program already used in many schools, and with promising research results, is the Institute of HeartMath’s Freeze-Framer. Read How stress and anxiety may affect Learning Readiness, and Why chronic stress is something to avoid.

For anyone interested in this topic, and I’d say every parent and educator, 2 books are required reading:
– Dr. Marian Diamond’s Magic Trees of the Mind : How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence
– Dr. Mel Levine’s: A Mind at a Time.

A bit more technical, but very enlightening:
– By the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning .
– Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg’s: The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind .

You can also check more information on Brain Fitness and Brain Fitness Programs.

Obviously, there is a lot of room for future programs. Neuroscientists are just at the begginning of this journey. But the journey has started. Neuroscience is already helping thousands of kids, today. True, focused first on kids who need help the most. But other kids are benefiting, too. It will take, in my view, less than 10 years, even less than 5, for significant numbers of students, beyond Special Ed, to benefit from what neuroscience can offer them.

We will approach Daniel Willingham, author of the American Educator article. We would enjoy being able to contribute with input and research, to a future column. And to bring the best tools of each trade to our common goal: to better equip our children (and why not, adults) for the future.


  1. […] Je partage plutôt l’avis de Cognitive Neuroscience and Education, today de Alvaro Fernandez mets en avant la pédagogie neuroscientifique et les entrainements cognitifs basé sur des résultats clinique (”Brain Fitness”). […]

  2. Elona said

    An absolutely great resource. Thanks for pointing me towards your article. Later this weekend I will take the time to read it thoroughly and pass it on to the other special ed/special needs teachers at my school. I’m particularly interested in the working memory deficits article. Many of my students have this problem and although I have taught them strategies to try to compensate for memory problems in my learning strategies class, I’m always looking for new strategies to share. Thanks. 🙂

  3. […] SharpBrains discusses topics in cognitive neuroscience and education. Commenting on a paper in the American Educator, this post reviews some neuroscience research findings that are being useful it today’s schools. (selected by the Neurophilosopher) […]

  4. Alvaro said

    The author of the French blog above (first comment) mentioned some stress and anxiety management programs being used now in Germany. We asked him for information about those programs-and thanked him for his article.

    See his answer below (in French in his site).

  5. Hi,I did answer in my blog, but here’s an answer in English language :
    Seen in the documentary: that was broadcasted in that,CmC=972546.html

    Scientifics Papers should be available in :Center for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI Evidence-based Policy Research in Education).,2688,en_2649_35845581_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

    Anyway the stress control thing was giving “stress handling lessons” to students using EEG device so that they monitor themselves their stress level (seems like the EEG neurofeedback used at but using a sort of ear clip monitoring heat, heartbeat, etc…Teachers were sensibilized with some studies and experiments on the subject so that they seriously try to reduce stress in class. Very alike the “learning ambiance” Montessori thought that was a pillar for learning.

  6. Alvaro said

    Hi Elona, please let me know what you think. Now, there are 2 different concepts here: 1) learning “strategies”, 2) training and expanding cognitive skills/ mental muscles. Both are important and complementary.

    What is new is that those computer programs are designed to train and expand specific cognitive skills/ mental muscles in ways that learning “coping strategies” can not accomplish.


  7. amylundberg said

    I have done a study on how classical music plays a vital role and is a proven intervention to make young brains fresh, smart and energetic. Classical music helps to relieve stress, relax and coax your mind to get diverted to other things for some time. A very proven strategy.

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