Information Age Education
   Issue Number 52
October, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

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Mind, Brain, and Education

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it, one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” (Margaret Mead; American Cultural Anthropologist; 1901–1978.)

Behaviorists and Piagetians

Behaviorism was the dominant educational theory when I (Bob Sylwester) began my teaching career in 1949 as the teacher of a one-room eight-grade country school. (Such one-room schools are now virtually extinct in the United States.)  B. F. Skinner, the leading Behaviorist theorist and researcher (, viewed our brain as a black box, probably forever hidden from understanding. Behaviorists believed that we could carefully observe a subject’s behavioral responses to selected stimuli, infer the probable relationship between a stimulus and its response, and thus shape future behavior—but that was about as far as we could go. They viewed processes such as emotion, motivation, and love as being beyond scientific understanding.

I was more intrigued by the concurrent work of Jean Piaget (, a developmental theorist and researcher who carefully observed and interviewed children in search of an understanding of how they move in stages from an egocentric to sociocentric view of their environment. Piaget seemed more interested than Skinner in the underlying biology of development and learning, and in such affective areas as morality—and so was I. Most educators at the time were either Behaviorists or Piagetians.

Cognitive Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience emerged gradually during the last quarter of the 20th century, principally because of the development of technologies that allowed scientists to observe various relevant properties of animal and human brains. For example, Eric Kandel’s intricate studies of the simple neuronal structure of aplysia (a sea slug) led to major breakthroughs in our understanding of memory ( Neuroimaging technologies—and especially Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI (—shifted during this past decade from an initial focus on medical diagnosis to now include many research studies of cognitive processes of interest to educators.

Since brain organization and development pretty much define educational policy and practice, many educators studied these developments in search of educational applications. Conferences featured sessions that helped educators understand our brain and cognitive processes. Respected journals, such as Educational Leadership, regularly published articles that enhanced the professional understanding of these new developments. These forms of professional communication became an important form of in-service education for educators who typically were more focused on the social rather than the natural sciences.

Although educators who wrote, taught, and spoke about cognitive neuroscience discoveries during the early years sometimes provided incorrect information, the education profession’s understanding of our brain and cognitive processes has increased considerably in recent years. Doctoral programs are now emerging that combine studies in cognitive neuroscience and education, and the graduates of such programs will further enhance professional understanding.

An Excellent New Book

It’s therefore time for a book that will credibly discuss the past, present, and potential future of the melding of cognitive neuroscience and education—a field now called Educational Neuroscience.
Congratulations thus to Editor David Sousa, his 16 collaborators, and Solution Tree Press upon the publication of Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom (2010). It's an excellent, timely, informative book on the history and current status of the field. I strongly encourage you to get the book, and to subsequently encourage other educators to get it. (Information on the book is available at

David Sousa, one of the small group of pioneers in the field, wrote the book's first chapter, an engaging concise history of Educational Neuroscience. Kurt Fischer, a current central figure in the field, wrote the final chapter, an informative summary of the current state and future of Educational Neuroscience. The doctoral candidates and post-doctoral associates who collaborated on some of the chapters represent the exciting future face of Educational Neuroscience.
As one who also was there at the beginning, I couldn't think of a single important element omitted in Sousa's excellent synthesis of the three+ decade development we've observed—from the need we initially felt to simply explain what a neuron is in late 1970s presentations to the sophisticated level of understanding that many educators now have of brain systems and cognitive processes. The final chapter on the current state and future of the field was exhilaration!  All I could think of is that the cognitive neurosciences will underlie all credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning—something that seemed an impossible dream thirty+ years ago.
The ten chapters that constitute the heart of the book were written by a wonderful mix of outstanding researchers and educators—from Michael Posner, a renowned pioneer in the use of neuroimaging technology in psychology/education (and the recipient of the 2009 National Medal of Science) to Judy Willis, who left an MD career as a Neurologist to become an elementary/middle school teacher. Chapters focus on the underlying neurobiology of such curricular areas as language, mathematics, and the arts, and on such processes emotion, teaching, and learning.

Books with multiple authors tend to periodically shift the focus and to be repetitive, but I didn't find either of these to be distracting. At times, the repetitions were actually quite helpful, and the focus shifts represent the range of thought in the field. Readers should be able to follow the sections that explain somewhat technical research concepts and studies. I was so fascinated that I read the book straight through.

I wish that the book had included research related to teaching/learning in physical education and the social and natural sciences. However, this is a pioneering book, so other books will follow as the field of Educational Neuroscience continues to grow. I also hope that someone competent in the field of the history of science will develop the book-length definitive history that the field deserves if it develops as expected. David Sousa's excellent historical synthesis whetted my appetite for more. A wonderful informative book!

Some Resources for Teachers and Parents

Teachers and parents now face the challenge of understanding childhood/adolescent development and helping young people learn in a world that is rapidly increasing its understanding of its biological self and technological extensions. Useful information is on the way.

Today’s mail brought the author’s copies of my new book, A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (Corwin Press. It’s a companion book to my 2007 book, The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press). These are but two examples of the many books being published today that provide educators and parents with credible non-technical information on the amazing cognitive neuroscience developments that are helping us to better understand and enhance the formative years of the next generation. I went on just now and typed in child development books and teaching and learning books—and I found dozens of books that I know to be credible sources of useful information.

The Website Neuroscience for Kids
( is an excellent online source of information for teachers, parents, and children. The Dana Foundation ( is similarly a continuing source of current information about our brain and cognitive processes.

Final Remarks

The fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive neuroscience continue to make significant progress. One way to think about this situation is via the timeline sequence:
  1. Human brain with rudimentary communication capabilities.
  2. Human brain aided by a relatively comprehensive oral language.
  3. Human brain aided by written language—reading, writing, and arithmetic.
  4. Human brain aided by Information and Communication Technology.
Each level builds on and includes the previous levels. Level 2 allowed us to preserve and pass on information via oral tradition. Level 3 hugely expanded our capabilities to accumulate and widely share information. Level 4 allows us to build intelligence into tools—intelligence that can help to solve a wide variety of problems and accomplish a wide range of tasks.

The current dramatic developments in cognitive neuroscience are helping us to understand the capabilities and limitations of our brain. They are also helping us to understand how to develop better artificially intelligent and human education-mediated aids to our brain. Continued progress in these two disciplines will lead to major changes into our views of what constitutes a good education and how to help all people achieve a good education.
What an incredible expansion of knowledge I’ve witnessed during my 60 years as an educator!  I’m thrilled that today’s beginning teachers can start where I ended.


Sousa, D. (editor) (2010). Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for Education. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press.

Sylwester, R. (2010). A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Sylwester, R. (2007). The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

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