Information Age Education Blog

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7 minutes reading time (1379 words)

Brain Science Research

My recent book, Brain Science for Educators and Parents, has already proven to be one of the most popular of all of my books (Moursund, 2015). I try to write books that will have lasting value. This is much easier to do in some subject areas than others. For example, my first book, published in 1967, was about uses of computers to solve the types of math problems that majors in engineering encountered as undergraduates (Moursund & Duris, 1967). The book is still in print!

Since completing Brain Science for Educators and Parents this past year, I have been collecting recent references that are applicable to the book’s content. Already, some pieces of the book are beginning to look dated. Clearly, the book will not have the long-lasting value as my first math book.

A very large amount of brain science research is currently being conducted and published. Here are two recent article that have caught my attention.

Human Brain Memory Capacity

Memory Capacity of Brain is 10 Times More than Previously Thought is a recent report from the Salk Institute (Salk Institute, 1/20/2016). Quoting from the article:

Salk researchers and collaborators have achieved critical insight into the size of neural connections, putting the memory capacity of the brain far higher than common estimates. The new work also answers a longstanding question as to how the brain is so energy efficient and could help engineers build computers that are incredibly powerful but also conserve energy.

"This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience," says Terry Sejnowski, Salk professor and co-senior author of the paper, which was published in eLife. "We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power. Our new measurements of the brain's memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web."

Wow! I guess I don’t need to worry that some day I will wake up and find that my brain is full. But perhaps equally interesting, think about the educational implications of the following sentence quoted from the Salk Institute article:

…researchers used advanced microscopy and computational algorithms they had developed to image rat brains and reconstruct the connectivity, shapes, volumes and surface area of the brain tissue down to a nanomolecular level. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Ask yourself: What are typical (average) students in our K-16 educational system learning about the terms and ideas: advanced microscopy, computational algorithms, and nanomolecular level through their study of biology and other disciplines?

Here is one final quote from the same article:

The findings also offer a valuable explanation for the brain's surprising efficiency. The waking adult brain generates only about 20 watts of continuous power–as much as a very dim light bulb. The Salk discovery could help computer scientists build ultraprecise, but energy-efficient, computers, particularly ones that employ "deep learning" and artificial neural nets--techniques capable of sophisticated learning and analysis, such as speech, object recognition and translation.

This quote suggests that our brain is much more capable than previous research had suggested, and that our growing understanding of the human brain may well contribute to building computers that are far better than current computers.

Research Base for Improved Classroom Learning: Brain or Behavior?

Which is more important in contributing to effective education: brain science research or behavioral science research? The title of this section is the title of a recent article by John Bruer (12/17/2015). Bruer is President Emeritus of the James S. McDonnell Foundation. The Foundation was established to "improve the quality of life," and does so by contributing to the generation of new knowledge through its support of research and scholarship.

Bruer’s article is a meta study based on relevant articles from 231 educational research journals. Quoting Bruer: “I use the 500 top-cited articles in this subject field, published between 1997 and 2015, as the set of publications to generate what I will call the education research literature.”

Notice the role computers played in this work. Bruer did not page through the years 1997-2015 articles in 231 educational research journals. Rather, he drew on computer-generated data that came from analyzing the citations (references) in research journals.

Quoting from the introduction to his article:

In recent Evidence Speaks postings, authors have discussed the implications of NAEP scores (Dynarksi, Kane, Whitehurst), the apparent inability of a pre-K curriculum to deliver lasting academic improvement (Farran & Lipsky), and the small percentage of educational interventions that produce positive classroom effects (Jacobs).[i] These data point to concerns among educators and policy makers about the need to improve classroom instruction. The learning sciences are vast, including areas of neuroscience and psychology, as well as education research itself.[ii] Where might we best look for research that might provide bases for developing evidence-based classroom interventions? Here I offer a small first step toward answering that question by comparing educational neuroscience with more traditional education research. If the goal is to improve instruction in the near to intermediate future, education research remains the most likely source.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, educational neuroscience has evolved into an active research front. Educational neuroscientists believe that elucidating the brain mechanisms underlying cognition and behavior can improve classroom teaching and learning. Over a much longer history, education research has also attempted to apply its behavioral findings to improve educational outcomes.

Bruer’s analysis suggested that at the current time the research on behavior is used far more as an aid to improving teaching and learning than is the research on brain science. Quoting Bruer:

It would seem that if one is interested in improving classroom learning—addressing the problems implicit in the Evidence Speaks postings referred to above—education research [as contrasted with brain science] provides the most likely source for insights into designing evidence-based interventions.

This is particularly true if our goal is improvement in the near to intermediate future. Educational neuroscience is still at an early stage of development. At a January 2015 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Workshop, Bridging Neuroscience and Learning, participants were asked to list successful neuroscience-based interventions that addressed real-world educational problems. No examples were forthcoming. It would appear that educational neuroscience remains a promissory note for improving instruction, whereas results from the behavioral and cognitive sciences might be more immediately useful. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Final Remarks

Educational research has certainly contributed to improving curriculum content, instructional process, and assessment. Education is fraught with myths that tend to prevail for a very long time. Thus, well-done research often produces results that many people don’t want to hear and that is slow to be integrated into our educational systems.

Research in brain science, along with the growing capabilities of computers and other technology, holds many potentially game-changing possibilities. Bruer’s meta study indicates that at the current time educational brain science research in not yet the dominant force for improving our educational systems. However, it seems to me that the best is yet to come.

What You Can Do

Good research stands the test of time. Thus, as you work to improve our educational system, don’t get hung up on just the “latest and greatest” research. Be aware, however, that cognitive neuroscience is now a well-developed field and is producing many interesting (indeed, we might say earth shaking) results. Changing such theory into effective educational practice is a challenge to all teachers.

References and Resources

Bruer, J.T. (12/17/2015). Research base for improved classroom learning: Brain or behavior? Brookings. Retrieved 1/21/2016 from http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2015/12/17-research-base-improved-learning-bruer.

Moursund, D. (January, 2016). Learning problem-solving by using games: A guide for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 1/21/2016 from http://iae-pedia.org/Learning_Problem-solving_Strategies_by_Using_Games:_A_Guide_for_Educators_and_Parents.

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Web: http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science. PDF: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/271-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents-1.html. Microsoft Word: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/270-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents.html.

Moursund, D.G., and Duris, C. (1967). Elementary theory and application of numerical analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill. Reprinted by Dover Publications in 1988. A version of the book prepared by James E. Miller has the FORTRAN programs replaced by C++ programs and was published in 2012. The book can be purchased at http://store.doverpublications.com/0486479064.html.

Salk Institute (1/20/2016). Memory capacity of brain is 10 times more than previously thought. Retrieved 1/21/2016 from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-01/si-mco012016.php. Access the original research paper at http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e10778.

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