An almost manic enthrallment with neuroscience is sweeping the world and stimulating a booming market for educational technologies and programs to feed our obsession with making ourselves “smarter” and more productive. Neuroscience is shiny, new, and exciting, and some speculate that neuroscientific explanations are the key to solving the problems of education and learning. Despite the hype, we should approach neuroscientific quick-fixes with caution.
There’s no doubt that neuroscience is compelling. For one thing, neuroimaging is beautiful. Check out NOVA’s Mapping the Brain interactive to see what I mean. You can see how the brain is viewed using different neuroimaging techniques, and highlight specific parts of the brain implicated in processes such as memory, emotion, and the vital and involuntary mechanisms that keep us alive (e.g. breathing and heart rate). For a start, highlight “amygdala” to see where our fear response comes from, or select “hippocampus” to see the part of the brain most important to explicit memory formation. Info buttons can be found throughout the interactive for an overview of the most important imaging technologies in neuroscience today, along with the structures and functions they examine.
Data, images and digital resources provided by the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA.
The beauty of neuroimaging, though, is part of what makes neuroscience explanations so believable. In fact, research (1) shows that the inclusion of brain imaging in explanations of psychological phenomena can make weak justifications seem more satisfying and valid for non-experts, even when the data are incorrect or irrelevant. In other words, when you talk about the brain, people believe you—even when they shouldn’t.
Why does that matter?
When a new finding in neuroscience takes hold in the media and the public imagination, it’s like a game of telephone: As information is whispered down the line from person to person, findings are generalized, taken out of context, and inappropriately simplified until the final message is far removed the author’s original intent. The outcome is a garbled mess of exaggerated research findings, sweeping generalizations, misapplications, and inappropriate policy recommendations.
For example, you may have heard that we only use 10% of our brains, or that people are either “left-brained” or “right-brained.” Both statements are inaccurate, misleading, and reflect that real-life game of telephone. Unfortunately, some school districts are justifying exorbitant expenditures based on just this kind of distorted information. They are attempting to improve student performance by investing in technologies and methods that lack sufficient empirical backing. Neuroscience research pulled out of context can lead us to make decisions based on “neuromyths” that, while well-intentioned, could be hurting our children and wasting valuable financial resources.
So if all these things we thought we knew are, in fact, incorrect, what can neuroscience tell us that applies to education?
The theme in neuroscience that I find the most hopeful and relevant is that of neuroplasticity—the brain’s amazing capability to rewire itself to learn, adapt to environment, and recover from injury throughout the lifespan. It’s not over after a critical period in infancy, and it’s not even over after puberty. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong phenomenon, occurring from our earliest development in utero until the day we die.
So, how can we make sense of all this neuroscience information?
Be careful. Be skeptical. Check your sources. Know the power of brain science, but also its limitations. Claims that seem “too good to be true” probably are, especially if reaping the benefits requires large financial investment. So, ask yourself: Are the people publishing the literature supporting commercial products or techniques the same ones benefiting from sales? If the literature on “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius” is published in a journal called “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius Quarterly,” alarm bells should start ringing. Run the other way, fast.
Finally, understand that neuroscience in still its infancy. With the rapid advancement of scientific knowledge, the “neuro-truths” we take for granted today may very well be the debunked myths of tomorrow.
1.) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Weisberg DS, Keil FC, Goodstein J, Rawson E, Gray JR. J Cogn Neurosci. 2008 Mar; 20(3):470-7.
You’ve seen videos of the “seven minutes of terror” and the first stunning shots of the “Red Planet” taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover. Now you want to bring the excitement of NASA’s most recent Mars mission to your classroom.
Well, there’s good news! There are lots of excellent resources online that will incite creativity, spark imagination, and help your students learn to solve the real-world problems of the future.
Our new program, Ultimate Mars Challenge, provides an overview of all that is Curiosity and the latest deployment, landing, and sample collection technology in space exploration. NOVA goes behind the scenes of NASA’s latest mission to discover the secrets looming on the Red Planet. Viewers can follow along as scientists and engineers grapple with the problems NASA anticipated and the solutions they developed to overcome them, including landing the largest Rover ever on the surface of Mars by lowering it down from a massive sky crane as pictured below. You can watch the show streaming in its entirety online, or purchase a DVD.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Also, check out this video to relive the excitementof the landingalong with the NASA team!
Whatever the plan for the day, chances are you can incorporate some of the exciting new developments from Mars exploration into your lesson that will make classwork both fun for students and relatable to current events. If you’re a math or physics teacher, why not talk about the relative sizes of the planets, or how NASA calculated when to launch the rocket carrying the rover? If you’re an earth sciences or chemistry teacher, your students may be interested in the natural resources available on Mars, the chemical composition of the soil and air (why does Mars appear red?), and how Mars could be made habitable for human life. Even in a social studies class – how might social life and interactions on Mars be different from those on Earth? (Do we still shake hands in spacesuits?) And what kinds of new jobs might there have to be on Mars?
For inspiration, NASA has some excellent ready-made lesson plans for all ages as part of their Imagine Mars Project, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Each lesson plan incorporates hands-on activities, reflection, discussion and elaboration of new skills and knowledge. In addition, short video clips accompany many lessons. These are perfect for some quick background knowledge presented in a clear, concise, and attention-grabbing way.
My favorite is the Soda Straw Rockets, where students get to make their own paper rockets, then aim and 3…2…1…blast off! at a model of a planetary target. Based on their results, students can make adjustments to the size and shape of their rockets to see if they can make them travel faster, farther, and more accurately. Students use the scientific method to make hypotheses, evaluate their results, and refine their methods.
Alternatively, you could have your students make a short infomercial or informational pamphlet to prepare the first Mars settlers for what they might expect. After all, the first humans to live on Mars might be in for a bit of a shock based on how different life will have to be out there! Each student can play an expert in a particular field, advising newcomers on what they’ll need to survive on their new home. (Don’t forget your ski goggles for those planet-blanketing dust storms. And you may want to pack an extra pair of gloves for when it’s 200-below!)
At Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse, NY, eighth grade students already have Curiosity on the mind. Six teachers have teamed up for a trans-disciplinary, project-based curriculum for their 8th grade students, focusing on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (S.T.E.A.M.). November marked the beginning of their six-week long ROVER drop project, during which students will design and build robots that will be able to land safely, orient themselves, navigate rough terrain, avoid obstacles, and collect data (temperature and pH) from a body of liquid they find on the surface of “Mars”.
The project works like this: During Phase 1, groups of 4 students follow blueprints to build LEGO Mindstorms robots of increasing complexity. The robots are controlled using ROBOLAB software, which allows students to create programs to perform simple tasks. During Phase 2, the students increase their skill sets while learning to solve increasingly complex problems and work around design issues. During the final phase, groups will join forces with classmates to build and program one ROVER per class to be deployed on the Martian terrain. Each small group will design, build, and program one system for their class’ ROVER. On drop day, each class of 24 students will run Mission Control for their robot, commanding its behavior remotely by running and sending computer programs to an iPod Touch affixed to each rover.
We will be following the development of the project as students simulate the experience of being at JPL, and discover how what they learn in the classroom is used to solve important, real-world problems. You can follow along too on the class Twitter and website linked below, where you can click on <ROVER> to learn more about the project and see daily progress updates. On drop day in January, you’ll be able to watch all of the excitement along with the team on their Mission Control Cam.
If you’re interested in the possibility of life elsewhere on Mars and beyond, don’t forget NOVA’s Education Collection, Finding Life Beyond Earth. Included are lesson plans, video clips, and other resources to bring exciting science to the classroom, and drive your students’ scientific inquiry. In addition, the Education Collection includes a chart of K-8 National Science Education Standards that align with the activities included therein.
If you have incorporated the Mars Curiosity Rover into your lesson plans in a creative way, we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email at NOVAeducation@wgbh.org.
Kelly Marchisio is a Master’s candidate in the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In her course of study, she learns how the latest research in psychology and neuroscience can be used to improve learning across ages and contexts. In particular, Kelly is interested in informal and adult education, and learning as a life-long process. Into the future, Kelly hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology or neuroscience.