How Neuroscience Research Can Inform Academic Interventions

In recent years, the field of neuroscience has been attracting attention in the realm of education. Merriam Webster defines neuroscience as a “branch of life sciences that deals with the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry…[and] their relation to behavior and learning” neuroscience has understandably been a subject of curiosity and exploration. Adding neuroscience to the mix would, potentially, allow teachers to trace those concepts physiologically in the brain, arguably taking the interventions they have applied further. However, while neuroscience research carries incredible potential in expanding educator understanding of cognitive development in students, such potential can be derailed by the still sizeable gap between researchers and educators.

An overview of “neuroeducation”

At the core of neuroscience research and education is the concept of “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity in the brain allows for it to reconstruct and rearrange itself in response to its environment constantly. This allows the brain to process information, find new places to store it and decide how to apply it. In education, this has multiple implications.

Neuroscientists can use their study of the brain to map out how at what point concepts are understood, retained, and able to be applied. In an article entitled “Neuroscience and Education,” the authors describe how neuroscience facilitates knowledge acquisition; “When the senses are stimulated, the brain turns that data into information. As the neurons (the basic cell of the brain) get activated, neuroplasticity allows for new neural pathways to be formed.” Through neuroscience, educators can observe the brain and see how students process information based on those pathways. By seeing where exactly it takes place and understanding that area’s function in the brain, educators can figure out ways to stimulate that area through interventions that could potentially solidify a concept in a student’s mind.

Neuroscience has also proven that it is not limited to cognitive development; it also addresses emotions and stress as they shape the brain. Learning is not limited to concepts within the classroom. Neuroscience argues that analyzing a student’s life as a whole, with the inclusion of socioeconomic elements (poverty, trauma, abuse) and physiology (nutrition, sleep) and recognizing how these affect the brain will assist educators. Learning is “a very social endeavor for humans” and is compromised by stress. The brain needs to be in top shape in order to absorb, process, internalize, and apply information.  

How educators can use neuroscience to inform interventions

In the case of the educator, neuroscience can provide scientific evidence and backing for teaching strategies that teachers know and already put into practice. Teachers can feel empowered knowing that their interventions have scientific support. By understanding neuroscience, educators can analyze how interventions can be improved by observing the brain and alternatively, determine what is not productive. Educators can test out various intervention techniques in order to see where they would be effective and who they can better serve, especially in special education. Neuroscience research could identify possible developmental risks in children as early as infancy and better identify it at an early age before a child enters school in order to set up productive and effective interventions.  

The conversation for educators, then, turns away from dismissing a student as simply unable to grasp a concept. Instead, they will be directed to the possibility that a student is not yet at that stage of development in the brain. Learning can occur at any age. Education expert Janet Dubinsky asserts that “Understanding that all their students have the capacity to change their own brains may alter teachers’ perceptions of student potential, enabling guidance, and may reinforce the student-centered views of teaching.” Because the brain is always changing at different stages of life, especially in children and adolescents, the implication is that learning can continuously take place and should be cultivated.

The bridge between these two disciplines, however, is full of gaps. Increased interest from the educational sphere has sprouted “neuromyths” and has become monetized by businesses selling apps, educational manuals, and other materials filled with neuroscientific terms and figures without the credibility. While the interest is welcome, it is still yet to be determined how much educators need to know about neuroscience. Professionals from both sides of the bridge are still developing a way to translate between researchers and educators.

A divide exists between considering neuroscience as a basic science that informs education and its interventions and finding ways to put it into action in the classroom. For those wishing to apply it to the classroom, a balance has to be struck between the facts in neuroscience and the collaborative nature and improvisation that occurs in the classroom. Additionally, ethical issues arise. The “test subjects” are children; conducting research would mean equipment such as MRIs will be used in order to gather information through brain scans. As a group, children cannot consent to participate. Finding a middle ground will continue to be an uphill battle.

Neuroscience is believed to be the next natural stepping stone in deepening educator understanding of how students learn and grow. The discipline adds another element to the way in which educators can perform and connect with their students more effectively. It has the potential to change how educators view learning and how they can shape their interventions accordingly. At this point, however, it becomes up to the educator to cultivate a knowledge of neuroscience in order to contribute to the ongoing conversation.

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