Recent dramatic advances in cognitive neuroscience are explaining educational problems that have long mystified educators. Expect the process to escalate.
One serious emerging problem in this otherwise positive development is that teacher education programs and the K-12 curriculum focus much more on the social than on the biological sciences, and so educators typically have only a limited understanding of biological processes. As cognitive neuroscience research becomes increasingly important to educational policy and practice, educators will have to become much more informed about the biological substrate of teaching and learning. To ignore the problem makes our profession vulnerable to those who inappropriately apply biological research to further the fortunes of their programs, products, and beliefs.
Its a major staff-development problem without a simple solution. Don’t wait for someone to propose a universal solution. Your school district can imaginatively use its own resources to begin the search for a local solution. Its less expensive than focusing principally on outside consultants, and it creates local ownership of an important staff development challenge. Consider the following four resources that are available to practically every school district:
Most districts have an excellent core resource group in their best secondary school biology/chemistry/psychology teachers, and in the growing number of committed “brain junkies” that every district seems to have. They understand cellular and systems biology and are effective teachers. Unfortunately, they are rarely used as a staff development resource. Begin by identifying and using such a core group.
Central office staff and this group could survey the districts instructional staff about perceived gaps in their knowledge of biological systems and current cognitive neuroscience research. Focus initially on identifying a few basic concepts that members of the core group can comfortably explain to interested teachers. Basic brain anatomy and specific processing systems (such as emotion, attention, and memory) are good initial examples.
Schedule a series of hour-long voluntary after-school workshops on specific limited concepts for interested staff, such as “How Neurons Process Information”, or “Our Emotional System”. If an educationally significant research development becomes the cover story of the weekly newsmagazines, quickly schedule a session that explains the research in more detail.
The program may begin with limited interest, but the brain sciences are currently so active and volatile that attendance will increase. Realize that many teachers equate biology with a remembrance of fearful terminology, and so its probably good to begin with functional models and metaphors that gradually move participants to a more technical understanding.
An important additional strength of this approach is that it develops an easily contacted local staff support group when students ask questions teachers cant answer, or when the they need reassurance or help in planning instruction that includes elements of brain biology.
Use staff development funds to support the program. If district policy prohibits stipends for workshop leaders, provide them with needed books and materials, and pay conference and course fees that will increase their effectiveness in this program.
Some important areas of study require a more extended time commitment. Survey your staff for interest in evening/weekend/summer community college courses especially designed for local teachers (such as basic cell biology, genetics, and brain courses). Such courses are most successful when they include explanations, models, and metaphors that teachers can use with their students. Community colleges are tuned to community interests, and the biology department will create courses if they feel that the local K-12 teachers want to increase their students interest and knowledge of biology.
Librarians can be useful in an enterprise such as this, since theyre trained to identify and locate good materials. A good high school library will carry scientific magazines (such as Discover, Scientific American, and Science News) that provide useful non-technical explanations of new developments. Librarians can also check reviews of new brain books tuned to educators needs. A regular feature of the district newsletter could recommend recent journal articles and books that provide useful information for educators.
The Internet has recently become a very useful tool for those interested in the brain sciences, since we now have ready access to information formerly available only after a trip to a college library. That you are currently using BrainConnection indicates that you realize this. Other informative websites you might check include: www.newhorizons.org, (New Horizons for Learning), www.beemnet.com/dana (Dana Alliance Neuroscience Education Tools for Scientists, Teachers, and Parents).
At some point, youll probably go beyond local resources, and an increasing number of educators are offering schools consultant service related to cognitive neuroscience research, and they can add a different specialized dimension to the locally focused staff development programs suggested above. But how does a school district know that the consultants input will provide scientifically correct information?
Check their credentials. Ask potential consultants for a vita that provides information on their related course work and degree programs (realizing that the brain sciences are relatively new, and so much of the consultants knowledge may have come from a responsible program of self-study).
Check their publications. Articles published in respected journals and books published by major publishers are another good indication that someone has checked the veracity of the consultants writing.
Ask for examples of current handout material, and ask your districts resource group (identified above) to check its veracity. Check the list of resources in the handouts, since it indicates what the consultant is reading. The resources should be recent (most published during the past five years or so), and they should include materials written by the scientists who actually did the research the consultant will discuss.
Our profession is confronting a major staff development problem. The solution is complex and long-range, but it can fortunately begin everywhere and now — simply and locally. Begin, and next months column will move the enterprise forward.