sylwesterMasters and doctoral programs in Education typically culminate in a research project that’s basically an apprenticeship in how to carry out and interpret educational research. Most graduate students worry through the process of identifying and executing their project. What’s strange (and foolish) is that after all that effort, many never again engage in the kind of research investigations they went to so much trouble to master.

A variety of significant developments in science and technology are now emerging that could spark an extended career-long research agenda for imaginative educators who realize that their profession is at the edge of a major research-driven transformation.

The School Administrator is the journal of the American Association of School Administrators. Its December 2006 issue focused on educationally significant developments in the cognitive neurosciences that pose research possibilities.

I wrote an article for the issue that identified and discussed seven developing brain systems and processes that I thought would impact educational policy and practice within the next 10 years — mirror neurons, neuroplasticity, emotion and attention, hemispheric specialization, the arts and humanities, intelligence, and consciousness.

All of these pose challenging research possibilities for graduate students in education, but the discovery of mirror neurons seems most intriguing to me (especially since they are functionally related to the other six areas I identified). Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that prime a specific motor behavior, but they also activate when we observe someone else carry out the same action. Our tendencies to yawn when we observe someone else yawn, and to reciprocate a smile are examples. Mirror neurons thus create a template in our brain of the behavior we observe, and so provide a vehicle for children to automatically master many important childhood behaviors that are difficult for adults to explain, such as how to smile, grasp, or talk.

The renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran has suggested that mirror neurons may provide the same powerful unifying framework for our understanding of teaching and learning that the 1953 discovery of DNA did for our understanding of genetics. Credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning will thus incorporate mirror neurons.

Neuroscience researchers currently use imaging technologies to identify the brain areas and systems that regulate a cognitive function. Their post-discovery challenge is to determine how to enhance that function, or to intervene if the function is not robust. My January 2007 Brain Connection column focused on recent significant discoveries related to our attention system, and Fast ForWord software is an example of how the discovery of basic knowledge about a system can be transformed into a successful intervention.

Educational researchers typically haven’t used neuroimaging technology because of the high cost and other deterrents, but I expect that simpler less expensive imaging technologies will eventually develop that educational researchers will use to solve teaching/learning mysteries.

Getting Started

In the meantime, prepare yourself for the kinds of research possibilities that will emerge. Begin by identifying a cognitive system or brain function that intrigues you, and then carefully study its functional elements. Master the inherent research problems at that level, and you’ll then be ready to tackle their more complex neurobiological elements whenever you gain access to the more effective emerging research technologies.

I indicated above that mirror neurons will probably become central to 21st century theories of teaching and learning, so if they intrigue you, read as much as you can about them to begin your studies. The list of Resources below will get you started with non-technical materials, and then you should also get into the related primary research reports.

Although earlier researchers such as Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner had no awareness of our brain’s mirror neuron system, they explored them functionally, and so you might begin by reading what they did and learned.

Jean Piaget carefully observed the behavior of his and other children while they carried out specific tasks, and he then asked them questions about why they did what they did. He thus tried to infer children’s thought processes through their introspective comments.

B. F. Skinner carefully observed the externally rewarded behavior of animal and human research subjects. He thus tried to shape the behavior of his subjects, and so determine how behavior develops.

You can do what Piaget, Skinner, and others did, replicating their studies within the context of our emerging understanding of the underlying neurobiology of the development and mastery of skilled movements. Read their own reports about investigations they did that relate to your interests. Also read the commentaries of their interpreters. This will give you a sense of how they carried out productive research in an era in which neuroimaging technology wasn’t even on the horizon (just as it isn’t yet available to you).

Observe children while they are learning a simple new task that is not typically learned through verbal directions, but rather mostly through observing and mimicking the behavior of someone else. Examples include learning how to tie shoes, ride a bike, or handle food utensils. Today’s relatively inexpensive computerized cameras provide exceptional opportunities to informally record and compare the behaviors of easily accessible subjects (such as your own children). This experience will help you to develop the skills you will need to master to carry out graduate level research.

The reality is that effective research techniques are functionally similar, whether the observation of a subject’s behavior is simple and direct, or complex and high-tech. The key research tasks are to ask the correct questions, to accurately observe the resultant behavior, and to draw credible inferences from the observation.

If you teach yourself how to do that with simple replicated Piagetian and/or Skinnerian behavioral studies, you’ll be ready to make the next step when neuroimaging becomes a possibility in your research — allowing you to observe the internal neuronal activity that sparks the external behaviors you initially studied.

Piaget, Skinner, and other early researchers didn’t solve all the questions that underlie our mastery of culturally important behaviors. Identify an unanswered question, and solve it for your graduate research project. Or replicate an earlier study within the context of what we now know about the mastery and regulation of behavior.

This is the most exciting time in the history of educational research. Prepare yourself now to be part of a future that transforms your profession.