Last month’s column suggested that some educational practices that purport to be brain-based or brain-compatible may not have direct research validation from within the brain sciences. Such practices may have been validated by other types of research (such as psychological or educational research), or simply by their long successful use. I believe that it’s unnecessary and inappropriate to imply validation from the brain sciences in order to gain the level of authenticity that the term brain research implies in our culture.

Despite such periodic misuse, I also believe that our profession has admirably educated itself about brain systems and processes during the past three decades (given the difficulty of such bootstrapping), and that fewer inappropriate claims are now made because of this increased professional knowledge.

This month’s column will thus discuss (1) how initial discoveries about our brain entered into the schools and affected policy and practice, and (2) areas and issues in which current and future brain research might affect the school environment and instruction.

It’s expensive and difficult to study our very complex brain. Initial scientific research thus tended to focus on our brain’s micro/macro organization and development, and on medical rather than educational problems.

The split-brain studies of the early 1960’s (that identified hemispheric processing differences), the multiple intelligences theories of the 1980’s (that suggested a modular brain composed of many dedicated processing systems), and other early discoveries fascinated educators, who had long observed student behaviors that were consistent with what the brain sciences were discovering. Educators soon realized however that neuroscientists wouldn’t immediately focus on our problems. We would have to make our own connections between brain research and educational practice.

One early result was the emergence of the Learning Styles Movement in which educators speculated about the location and enhancement of various cognitive functions. Many things that educators proposed during this period seem very primitive today—but brain scientists also have some primitive beliefs in their closet. For example, neuronal regeneration was considered an impossibility before the very recent discovery of stem cells in our brain.

We educators did our best to connect emerging brain discoveries with school practices. That we got it wrong on occasion could be expected. I’m now amused by some of the articles I wrote several decades ago, but they represented my understanding of the research I had synthesized. The same is true of colleagues. We all learned on the run, along with the cognitive neuroscientists.

Although many credible interpreters (such as David Sousa, Robin Fogarty, Spencer Kagan, Martha Kaufeldt, and Thomas Armstrong) have contributed much over the years, I’ll briefly profile four respected role models who went beyond presentations and writing, and made other substantial professional contributions during their extended careers—training and curricular programs, encompassing statements of principles. All four continue to incorporate new research developments into their interpretive work, and invite cognitive neuroscientists to participate in the conferences and institutes they organize.

Their websites provide specific information on their activities, and on educational practices that they believe are supported by cognitive neuroscience research. We interpreters don’t always agree among ourselves–but then, neither do cognitive neuroscientists.

Pat Wolfe is widely known as an excellent interpreter of cognitive neuroscience research and its educational applications. She also conducts a prestigious annual institute that has prepared many educators to work credibly and effectively in this interpretive field. She has thus helped to insure competent professional continuity as the cognitive neurosciences increasingly inform educational policy and practice.

Eric Jensen. Most folks in this field focus on presentations for school districts and professional organizations, but Jensen and his associates also produce large-scale conferences and training institutes, and are prolific in the development of non-technical materials for educators. It was important that an educator would take on this daunting informative task, and he had the entrepreneurial drive and ability to do it successfully.

Renate and Geoffrey Caine proposed 12 brain/mind learning principles in their 1994 book, Making Connections: Teaching and The Human Brain. They and their associates at Caine Learning Institute have since expanded on these principles through several books and many presentations. Their principles have thus become very influential—widely used, and integrated into our profession’s beliefs of the underlying neurobiology of teaching and learning.

Susan Kovalik‘s Integrated Thematic Instruction is the most fully developed continually upgraded curricular program in this field. ITI explicitly integrates cognitive neuroscience research with instructional practice in thousands of schools. ITI is designed around four learning principles and nine bodybrain compatible elements. ITI teachers become ITI associates and train new teachers in the model—and this insures competence and continuity in the model.

The neurosciences focused initially on medical problems, but learning and behavioral disabilities are the educational equivalent of a medical problem. Cognitive neuroscience researchers entered education initially through language learning disabilities.

Language is a key human capability, but it’s very complicated and so is difficult to study. We must be able to process rapid sequences of phonemes and letters, and to connect meaning to such sequences. Mastering reception/production skills at an automatic level involves different brain processing systems than those that connect words and word sequences to meaningful life experiences. It’s very difficult for researchers to identify the individual elements and control the variables that affect language performance.

For example, consider all that’s involved in learning to read and interpret they-say-weigh (which rhyme but are spelled differently) and comb-bomb-tomb (which are spelled similarly but don’t rhyme).

Scientists thus began with relatively simple language development problems. Studying the inability of some children to rapidly process phonemic sounds was one such research area, and it eventually led to the development of the successful Fast ForWord program. This initial success led to subsequent successful computerized interventions in dyslexia and other more complex language disabilities. Such interventions can then also be adapted to enhance the development of normal students.

Powerful neuroimaging technologies now allow scientists to study cognitive functions (such as emotion, attention, and memory) that were very difficult to study a decade ago. Simpler non-invasive neuroimaging technologies will shortly emerge that will allow educational researchers to observe brain functions in classroom environments, and this will signal a huge leap forward in our exploration of the neurobiology of normal classroom interaction.

The discovery of mirror neurons and our increased understanding of neuroplasticity are probably the two most educationally significant recent advances in the cognitive neurosciences, since both have many potential educational applications.

Mirror neurons help to explain so many things, such as how learning something as complicated as speech can occur, how empathy can emerge, and what causes autism. Neuroplasticity (the ability of neurons to make new connections and to assume new functions) is similarly a central element in all learning and memory formation, and it’s thus critical to the success of interventions that seek to ameliorate a dysfunctional brain system.

Emotion and attention are our brain’s cognitive activation systems. Emotional arousal drives attentional focus, and this drives decision and response. That most mental disorders are emotional and/or attentional at some level attests to their importance. These integrated systems are thus the focus of intense current research that will have broad educational applications.

The underlying neurobiology of memory has long been an enigma. The development of new research technologies that allow scientists to better examine events at the synaptic level suggest that major breakthroughs in this educationally significant function will occur in the near future.

Educators were fascinated by the development of theories of multiple intelligence 25 years ago. New intriguing explorations of the nature of intelligence are occurring (see previous columns from 2005: February, March, April, and May), and I believe that these studies will similarly merge into a new general theory of intelligence that may well incorporate the key role that the arts play in all cultures.

This pair of columns began with a criticism of the professionally ubiquitous terms brain-based and brain-compatible education. It ends with the notion that we may be approaching a point at which the terms become irrelevant—that it won’t be possible to think of educational policy and practice outside the context of brain research. How wonderful that would be!