“The last 20 years have repeatedly brought to our attention the narrowing of the gap between the brain-sciences and the field of education” (Tommerdahl 2008). By understanding how human beings learn on a neurological level, it is hoped that instructors will be able to use this knowledge to facilitate the learning process. However, the degree to which neuroscience can be helpful to educators is controversial. Some researchers believe that neurological knowledge can “have only a very limited role in the broader field of education and learning’ mainly “because learning-related intentional states are not internal to individuals in a way which can be examined by brain activity” (Tommerdahl 2008).
Others believe that brain research is valuable for educators. For example, neurological studies indicate that the idea that there are different types of learners (such as visual, kinesthetic, verbal, or aural learners) and that certain kinds of learners can only assimilate knowledge in a particular way is a myth, as is the idea of right and left-brained learners. Other examples of how neuroscience has clarified our current understanding of the brain can be found in an “fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) experiment which found differences between dyslexics and normal readers in the V5/MT area of the visual system in response to moving stimuli (Eden et al. 1996). Although no direct educational strategies can be drawn from this, it points research in the direction of further investigating precise aspects of visual processing” (Tommerdahl 2008). Brain imaging also indicates that engaging in stress relief activities such as meditating can change the nature of the subjects’ brains.
However, translating experimental knowledge from the research laboratory to the classroom can prove challenging. Additionally, the information provided by neuroscience is often relatively limited. Simply understanding how the synapses of the brain function when engaged in a particular activity does not necessarily mean that, for example, a teacher can design a lesson plan to correct the problems a dyslexic may have with visual processing.
At present, there is a disconnect between our current knowledge of the relationship of brain functioning to behavior and the ability to alter brain functioning, based upon changing learning approaches. “Brain-based research has also looked at areas as diverse as the cognitive mechanisms that underlie arithmetic abilities, social communication in autism, brain activation during facial processing in children with Williams Syndrome, MRI findings for children exposed to maternal alcohol intake before birth, and the list goes on” (Tommerdahl 2008).
As a whole, the available knowledge about neuroscience makes a persuasive case for differentiated learning. Students have real, physical brain differences that are just as significant as differences in students’ physical capabilities. Brain differences cannot be as easily observed, but they are real. But more extensive testing is required in the field of practice to ensure what we currently know about the brain’s functioning can be useful to teachers. Ideally, neuroscience researchers and educators should pool their resources, to make findings more valuable. “To move forward as effectively as possible, it is necessary for educational researchers to work alongside scholars at the cognitive and psychological levels to develop and test hypotheses about the functioning of mechanisms underlying learning. The road from the laboratory to the classroom may be a longer one than many realize, but given the possible benefits, it is certainly one worth travelling” (Tommerdahl 2008).
Tommerdahl, Jodi. (2008). Educational neuroscience: Where are we. Teaching Expertise.
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