Lack of Evidence Plagues Neuroeducation Programs

As summer marches inexorably towards fall, Christine Stittsworth returns to her fourth grade classroom in Wichita, Kansas, to prepare for the next batch of young minds she has been assigned to mold. Teaching is never easy, and Stittsworth has it harder than many. Her school serves many low-income students—93% receive free or reduced cost lunches—and many know more about drug addiction, violence, and neglect than any child should. Regardless of what’s happening in the world around them, Stittsworth must help them learn huge volumes of new information.

In her years as a teacher and teacher’s assistant, Stittsworth has accumulated her own mountain of knowledge about how kids learn. Hungry kids struggle to pay attention. So do stressed ones. Her students were generally both. Although she couldn’t do anything about their lives outside the classroom, she had trained with a teacher who used innovative strategies to help her kids learn inside the classroom.

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Neuroeducation programs have popped up in thousands of school districts around the U.S., but scientists are skeptical of their claims.

Both Stittsworth’s mentor and her school recommended a product called BrainGym, which uses a series of short physical activities to prime a children’s brain to learn. The company says that “moving with intention leads to optimal learning,” and although they don’t really know why this program works, they claim it leads to improvements in concentration, memory, math, reading, and more.

“In some of my kiddos, I saw big improvements in their reading abilities once we started using BrainGym. They really tapped into something about those movements,” she said.

Neuroeducation programs like BrainGym are extremely popular and are used in thousands of school districts around the U.S. and around the world. But they’re not universally lauded. The problem, say experts in educational neuroscience, is that although these programs aren’t harmful, there’s no real evidence that they work, either.

“Wrap a curriculum in neuroscience language and it gains instant credibility, despite a constant stream of warnings from academics,” says Sashank Varma, a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota.

Scientists and educators have only begun to tap the edges of how neuroscience can inform how teachers teach and students learn. There are a few places where researchers have made significant progress—for example, in helping children with specific deficits in reading and math and in training young brains tune out distractions. For the rest of the class, however, our understanding of neural circuitry is simply too primitive to be of much use.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface. We’re only just at the beginning of understanding the potentials and limits of how neuroscience informs education,” Varma says.

Still, this hasn’t stopped companies like BrainGym and NeuroNet Learning from marketing their curricula and turning a profit. Nor has it stopped neuroscientists and educators from trying desperately to catch up and understand the fundamentals of one of the most basic questions in neuroscience: how do we learn?

Neuroscience in Schools

How children learn—and how parents and educators can assist in this process—was one of the earliest questions tackled by psychologists and neuroscientists.

In the early 20th century, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget formulated his landmark theory of childhood cognitive development. Not only were young brains fundamentally different than adult brains, Piaget argued, but they were different in very specific ways. Very young children can’t always understand what other people might be thinking; they tend to think in very concrete ways. As children get older, their thinking styles became more and more “adult-like.” For teachers like Stittsworth, this creates differences not only in what she teaches but how she teaches it. For example, her current fourth grade class can sit still for longer and master far more complex material than her previous class of first graders. These kids, just three years older, can also work more independently.

Decades after Piaget, in the 1990s, dubbed the “Decade of the Brain” by President George H. W. Bush, introduced neuroscience into educational settings, which had previously been dominated by psychology. Measuring different strategies to help children learn to read began to appear almost primitive when scientists could identify specific neurotransmitters and brain circuits that responded to specific types of information. It seemed inevitable that this research would revolutionize education—all you needed to do was pop kids in a brain scanner to select a curriculum that would match their cognitive strengths and address their weaknesses. But as years of research would later prove, moving from functional MRIs (fMRI) to the classroom was far more complex.

That didn’t stop educators from using neuroscience as the clarion call for trying to fix all of education’s problems, says Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia.

“The problem is that the fundamental data of neuroscience is anatomy and neural activity. Teachers aren’t worrying about the activation of the amygdala or the hippocampus in their students. They just want to know how to help their students read better,” Willingham says.

The neuroscience-as-panacea was so concerning to cognitive scientist John T. Bruer that he penned a hugely influential article in the journal Educational Researcher called “Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far” in 1997, arguing that “Educational applications of brain science may come eventually, but as of now neuroscience has little to offer teachers in terms of informing classroom practice.” Simply put, neuroscientists know too little about how the brain works and develops to make a meaningful difference in the classroom. This paper is now nearly 20 years old, but according to Varma, little has changed.

Real-World Limits

Scientific researchers are typically very reserved and cautious when talking about their results and what they mean. As with many areas of biology, neuroscience work may be carried out in animals like flies, worms, or mice. Human neurons are often studied in a cell culture and not as part of a whole, functioning brain. When researchers do examine how the brain responds to certain inputs, they generally try to answer that question by placing a person into a brain scanner and measuring the response to that particular stimulus. Real life is far more complex than a sterile white tube and a single input.

Take the idea of spacing: Trying to learn course material by cramming the night before isn’t effective. To better master the material, you need to space out your studying, reviewing throughout the class rather than pulling an all-nighter before an exam. Although this advice is most often prescribed for at-home studying, it’s also true for mastering material in the classroom, too. Teachers used this strategy by reviewing older material during class, expecting that their students would more readily retain the information they had been taught. That’s not what happened. Instead, student performance actually declined, Varma says.

When researchers looked at what happened, they realized that the lab studies didn’t translate directly to the classroom. Participants in research studies were motivated to learn due to payment for participation; students in your average classroom didn’t have that. Repeating material is boring—that’s why students don’t like doing it at home, either. Although spacing does appear to help students learn, when you add motivation to learn (or lack thereof) into the mix, it becomes a much less potent force than anyone thought.

Translating neuroscience studies into the classroom is even more fraught with potential for error or misapplication since the gap between the lab and the classroom is even larger than with the spacing studies.

“People who are advocating for greater use of neuroscience in the classroom generally describe something that teachers already know, but they’ll talk about the neuroscience that underlies what’s happening and act as though there’s something new,” Willingham says. Because it has to do with the brain, it sounds exciting, novel, and important.

Researchers call this the “seductive allure of neuroscience.” In a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists presented laypeople with one of four brief descriptions of psychological concepts. Two of the explanations were rated as good, containing genuine explanations; the other two were bad, consisting mainly of circular reasoning. To one of each of these explanations, the researchers added an irrelevant neuroscience fact. The neuroscience information had relatively little effect on the participants’ views of the quality of information in the good explanation, but it significantly boosted their opinion of the bad explanation. Later studies showed that even placing a picture of a brain in an explanation causes people to rate the accompanying information as higher quality.

It’s not just teachers who are seduced, says Juliana Paré-Blagoev, a researcher in human development and neuroeducation at George Washington University. “Neuroimaging might not add much information to a research project, but it makes grant proposals sound sexier at the cost of $700 per hour imaging fees,” she says. “What are we actually buying with this?”

Varma says that it’s this same quality that makes commercial neuroeducation products so appealing. Especially in an age when it seems to be all about the brain, it’s hard to deny that boosting brainpower sounds like a good plan to give students an edge. Gary Weisserman, Head of School at Milken Community Schools outside Los Angeles, it’s easy to be drawn in.

“It sounds cutting edge,” he says.

But Weisserman shares the skepticism about neuroeducation programs, calling them buzzwords rather than educational tools. “We’re often just guessing. There’s not a whole lot of data to go on,” he says.

“New Paint”

Jonathan Rowe founded NeuroNet Learning after watching his mother, an audiologist, try to figure out why kids with the same amount of hearing loss would have markedly different abilities to learn speech and reading. After reading through the scientific literature, Rowe’s mother hypothesized that pairing learning with rhythm and movement helped her students learn better, regardless of their hearing abilities. Rowe, who has a background in business, believed that other young children could benefit from these techniques. The result was NeuroNet.

Rowe cites studies that he says back up his claims, such as the fact that physically fit children learn better than their sedentary counterparts and that the ability to keep a beat is related to a person’s reading and math skills. All of which are well and good, says Matt Wall, a neuroimaging expert at Imperial College London, but none of this is exactly new. Kids explore and learn with their bodies, and they’re not very good at sitting still for long periods, thus the point of recess. And rhythm has long been used as a learning tool: kids learning the ABC song and reciting times tables in a sing-song voice. Although the understanding of exactly what brain circuits are involved is novel, it won’t have much effect on what’s actually going on in the classroom.

“A lot of it is the Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s old stuff with new paint,” Wall says.

Still, Rowe holds that pairing the learning with specific movements is a key aspect of his program’s success, and he is currently in the process of testing NeuroNet against traditional instruction to see whether it helps children learn, and if so, how. He won’t be measuring brain circuits—that’s too cumbersome and expensive. Instead, he will be measuring more basic outcomes, like reading and math skills.

“Behavior is what’s most important, it’s the major educational yardstick, and we’re using a curriculum informed by neuroscience to get there,” Rowe says.

Varma’s children use BrainGym in their schools, but that didn’t stop him from co-signing a letter along with other educational neuroscientists expressing their concerns about “brain training games.” Some of these games, like Lumosity, are aimed at older adults hoping to stave off cognitive decline, but the same issues are present in many of the products geared towards children. Claims made by these products are “frequently exaggerated and at times misleading,” they wrote in their letter.

Such misleading notions of human cognition go well beyond commercial products. Paré-Blagoev says myths like “you only use 10% of your brain” or that people who are good at math and science are “right-brained” and people who are good at the arts are “left-brained” are potentially even more harmful. Many teachers continue to believe that you can group students together by whether they are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners, and that teaching to a child’s preferred style will improve their ability to learn.

Certainly, different students like to learn differently. Some people love videos, others love to dive in and get their hands dirty, while still others prefer to read a book. It may take more effort for a person to learn one way compared to another, but one learning style is not superior. Teaching exclusively to a person’s preference also deprives them of the opportunity to bolster their other, less-favored skills. Material can’t always be tailored to perfectly match a student’s needs, and educators are failing to teach a valuable skill if they don’t help young people learn through multiple senses, Paré-Blagoev said.

Understanding Learning Difficulties

Although educational neuroscience may not have lived up to the hype so far, it’s also not completely useless. Paré-Blagoev has seen it help teachers understand that many struggling students aren’t bad kids or otherwise unintelligent. Being able to see that they didn’t create their own learning difficulties helps teachers think of them as in need of help, not necessarily discipline.

One area where educational neuroscience has made the greatest strides is in helping children with specific learning difficulties, such as with reading (dyslexia) or math (dyscalculia). These learning difficulties not only affect a student’s skills in that particular area, they can also increase the likelihood of dropping out of school as well as developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. These known impacts, combined with the very specific nature of these difficulties, made them relatively easy targets for neuroscientists to tackle.

Various fMRI studies showed that while reading, individuals with dyslexia show less activity in the part of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus. Deficits in this area were seen in readers of English, Italian, and French. This part of the brain has been linked to language processing, and some of these earliest fMRI studies were key in helping to dispel the myth that kids with dyslexia were lazy or unintelligent. When adults with dyslexia underwent training designed to target their reading difficulties, not only did their reading abilities improve, their brain activity shifted much closer to normal readers, too.

Scientists did something similar for dyscalculia, the math equivalent of dyslexia which affects a similar proportion of the population (approximately one in 20). They followed a similar tack, first identifying the brain regions that seemed to be functioning differently in individuals with dyscalculia. In this case, neuroscientists have linked dyscalculia to specific abnormalities in the function of the parietal lobe. Other studies showed problems in how the brain represents fingers, important because most of us first learn to count on our fingers. Working with educators, neuroscientists then helped to create computer games that specifically target these deficits, improving both math skills and brain activity.

Researchers have even begun making inroads in helping children learn specific skills. Today, Dan Schwartz is Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, but less than 20 years ago, he was a middle school teacher in some of the most disadvantaged schools in California. His years in the classroom triggered his interest in teaching children difficult math concepts like negative numbers.

“Negative numbers are hugely abstract. Our ancestors didn’t run into them in the forest, and our brains have to figure out a way to deal with them,” Schwartz says.

They can be a sticking point for young minds, as negative numbers are often a person’s first exposure to abstract math concepts. Difficulty here can make it harder to progress further down the line. Schwartz wanted to understand how the brain made sense of negative numbers and see whether teaching the subject differently could help students catch on faster. He and his colleagues started by asking adults to calculate the midpoint between a positive number and a negative number. That 2012 study revealed that these adults provided an answer more quickly when zero fell more toward the middle of the positive and negative numbers. In other words, they calculated the midpoint between 4 and -6 more quickly than they did -1 and 9. When the study participants were working with the more symmetric numbers, fMRI scans revealed increased activity in the parts of the brain that interpreted visual symmetry.

To Schwartz, this provided the first clue that visual symmetry was key to understanding negative numbers, and his teaching years told him that symmetry was typically not included in lesson plans.

He began to translate this finding into something teachers could use. He hypothesized that improving visual symmetry in fourth graders would also help them learn negative numbers more quickly, so his team created a tool for students to manipulate. At the base is a numbered plastic strip with zero in the middle. Positive numbers stretch to the right and negative numbers to the left. Students stacked blocks representing the positive and negative numbers on a hinged board that pivoted about zero. This allowed students to make their calculations while also calling on students’ innate understanding of visual symmetry, according to results published in Cognition and Instruction.

In four hours of teaching over three weeks, the students using the devices showed significant improvements in their ability to handle negative numbers compared with students who received the usual instruction.

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“By understanding how the children’s brains built up a representation of these numbers, we found a better way to teach them,” Schwartz says.

Bridging the Gap

Ultimately, what made Schwartz’s interventions successful was not neuroscience alone, but rather the collaboration with educators. As Varma and his colleagues note in a 2011 Science paper on dyscalculia: “Although the neuroscience may suggest what should be taught, it does not specify how it should be taught.”

The bridge between the suggestion and the prescription, researchers say, is what must be built. A product’s or experiment’s claim that it creates new brain pathways doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot if it doesn’t help someone learn better or read better. It’s why Weisserman has continued to eschew neuroeducation for other types of innovative curricula that have a more solid foundation. The answer, to teachers and educators, is not rejecting neuroeducation but understanding the current limitations of neuroscience and developing better ways of translating what researchers see in the lab and in the scanner.

“Just because science has found the neural correlate of some aspect of cognition or motivation, that doesn’t mean we all of a sudden have the piece to a puzzle that we lacked before,” Varma says. “It’s not a panacea.”