Learning About Learning

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On her back in a dark tube, Blair Smith held still as a scanner combed her brain with magnetic waves. Words flashed by her eyes: tack, vase, hope, glow, vague, cade. The 11-year-old had been told to press the button in her right hand if the word was real, the button in her left if it was nonsense. The answer itself was less important than the map the scanner would make of which areas of Blair's brain lighted up when she struggled with a word.

The aim of the study, said Laurie E. Cutting, director of the Education and Brain Research Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, is to understand the neurological differences among students who are skilled readers, those who have difficulties and those with diagnosed learning disabilities. If neuroscientists can pinpoint which parts of the brain are activated when a reader puzzles over an unknown word, they may eventually help teachers tailor reading instruction for individuals.

That is only the beginning. Many educators hunger for scientific data to help them structure their lessons, and neuroscience is beginning to offer them broad guidance about what works best. One of the most startling recent revelations in neuroscience has been that the brain's structure is much more flexible (a concept called neuroplasticity) than was previously thought; this understanding may help teachers find ways to train the brain to better solve math problems or understand a book.

"There's an awful lot that neuroscience can begin to tell us in broad strokes that's relevant for education and that ultimately 10 or 20 years downstream can provide us with prescriptive information," said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

"I think we're looking at a period of five years of very rich territory for investigation here."

Brain research already is opening the way to help teachers detect and address complex conditions -- such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and its mathematical cousin, dyscalculia -- that defy blood tests and other simple medical diagnostics.

Cognitive scientists are developing a theory of "micro-development" that could turn some lesson plans upside down. Studies have found that, on a minute-to-minute basis, children and adults learn in fits and starts, often going backward. That could indicate that students should be allowed to grope their way to understanding -- for instance, by being asked to power up a light bulb using a battery and a strand of wire before having the theory of electricity explained to them.

How the brain functions remains deeply mysterious, with studies seeming to unfold at a glacial pace. One expert noted that it took decades for researchers, examining data from brain and behavioral studies and other sources, to confirm the belief of many educators that focusing on phonics helps youngsters who struggle with reading.

Nevertheless, the movement to link neuroscience and educational methods is gaining steam. At Mantua Elementary School in Fairfax County, Principal Jan-Marie Fernandez has taken five staff members to brain science conferences in Boston in the past two years.

"I think the most amazing thing that has come out of the research is the fact that our brains have neuroplasticity," Fernandez said. "So you can take a brain that's wired a certain way, say with a disability, and you can, over time, rewire it." Talk of rewiring the brain is hot in the world of neuroscience: It offers the promise of teaching someone who has had a brain injury to walk or talk again.

From what she learned at the conferences, Fernandez has launched a program that focuses on phonemic awareness, the ability to link letters to sounds, for students who have difficulty with reading. "So far it appears to be really useful," she said.

In a newer initiative inspired by a study she'd read about, children do aerobic exercises before math lessons. The point is to warm up their neurons to tackle arithmetic.

Top educational institutions have recently shown new interest in the link between brain activity and education. Harvard University founded its mind, brain and education degree program in 2002. Johns Hopkins University this year briefed the Maryland State Board of Education on a neuro-education initiative that aims to "explore how current findings have application to educational practice."

A study published in the journal Nature last month reported a link between a primitive, intuitive sense of the size of numbers and performance in math classes, a finding that could lead to ways to identify young students who may have trouble with math and develop better ways of teaching them. Advocates of expanding pre-kindergarten classes point to studies that show the importance of early education in molding young minds.

Pianta, of the Curry School, said neuroscience has also influenced the education of autistic students.

"Twenty years ago, you might have seen an intervention that was far more oriented toward trying to get those kids to be affectionate, let's say. Or the therapist in that case would be promoting physical contact with kids who didn't like physical contact," Pianta said. "Now we would look at that [response] as sort of saying this kid's behavior is a result of their brain's ability to process social, emotional information. You would structure your interactions with an autistic child so as not to overwhelm their capacity to process that information."

Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard's mind, brain and education master's degree program, warned that many educational theories claim to be based on science but are not.

"One of the major problems we face is that there are a whole lot of things that claim to be 'brain-based education' that are nonsense," he said. "One of them is the belief that boys and girls have totally different brains and learn totally differently. That's not what the evidence shows. Not at all. The other is kind of a rigid idea of sensitive periods: that after a certain age you can't learn a foreign language. You've also heard that there are left-brained and right-brained people. Total nonsense, unless they've had their left or right hemisphere removed. All of us use all our brains."

Another example Fischer cited is the widely held but dubious notion that listening to Bach in the bassinet will make babies smarter. Still, Fischer said, the popularity of such ideas shows that educators and the public crave scientific backing for classroom innovations.

At Kennedy Krieger, Cutting gave Blair, her young research subject, a nifty copy of her brain scan. With data in hand, the research team prepared Blair's identical twin sister to go inside the tube for a new round of scans. They were both perfectly good readers, but the data from their studies might help others.

Blair, an aspiring veterinarian, was in good cheer as she sat with her mother, Stephanie Smith. So what was it like getting her brain scanned?

"Creepy, but cool at the same time," she said. "It's good because you help other kids."

Comments: hernandezn@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company