At The Learning Alliance, we are excited about the new findings in neuroresearch and how they can be applied to the teaching of reading. Bridging the gap between research and teaching and synthesizing the insights of related disciplines holds enormous promise for improving our educational system.
"I am neither a scientist nor researcher; rather, I am a mother of children who have suffered from various challenges in the educational system and an educator, with a background in literature and learning disabilities... Through the essays in this section, With the Brain in Mind, I hope to spark...interest and intellectual curiosity that will lead to a collective, informed, and detailed conversation on a complex and valuable topic: the education of the human brain, "Liz Woody, TLA Co-Director and Educational Consultant
A Moment of Insight: I have vivid memories as a child sitting at home in the archway between the kitchen and the front hall reading from a heavy volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while waiting and watching my mom cook dinner. Even now as I recall the scene, the smells of her cooking and her confident steps from stove to fridge to counter with her blue and white apron tied around her waist and a dish towel thrown over her shoulder to wipe her hands on, I am amazed at the details I can summons. The scene is complete in my mind with all the senses, even remembering the need to adjust my position because the metal strip on the door sill would get annoying after a while. I remember looking at Dickinson’s poem with my long sweaty hair from playing outside hanging down and needing to be brushed aside, for it was blocking some words. I remember feeling the need to read the lines out loud, for I knew that there was more there that I was not grasping and hearing the words seemed important. This was before televisions were in every room of the house, so the news was humming softly in the background from our little white radio. With my body fitting comfortably in the doorway and my legs propped up on the opposite wall, I recall knowing for the first time that words were magic. I felt and understood, though not completely, that there was a girl who lived at some point on the other side of these lines sharing her thoughts and feelings and using language to connect to me--little me sitting and waiting for dinner. How could these black and white lines and squiggles create pictures in my head? How did Emily have the power to change my mood and thinking? How could you capture so much, so many ideas, in such a small space? What systems are at work to capture that moment in time and bring it back to me in all its colorful and meaningful fragments? Am I to trust my memory of this experience?
It is perhaps no coincidence that three decades and a lifetime of experience later I am drawn back to this moment of insight. My surprise at the clarity of my memory reminds me of how we underestimate the way the brain processes and retains experience. Although I have been studying literature, language, and the brain for many years, I continue to be fascinated with the interrelationships of these fields of inquiry and their application in daily life.
THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
- Emily Dickinson
Essays by Liz
I have experienced the laboratory (and theater) of the classroom and the challenges this brings. My questions and search for a more comprehensive understanding of teaching and learning has led me to the field of literature, special education, linguistics, and neuro-science and neuro-biology. My writing on these topics is thus inherently incomplete and an oversimplification of a complex process and of the research that is informing it.
However, with that said, recent advancements in the study of the brain have provided insights that are important for educators to understand in order to be more effective teachers. What follows is my attempt to translate my knowledge and understanding of this complex subject with both accuracy and enthusiasm. I will attempt over time to discuss ideas from the domains of several fields: neuroscience, linguistics, literature, and special education. Hopefully, taken together, they will offer a way of understanding how children learn that will enable teachers, parents, and the community at large to be more successful in developing the potential of each child. I hope to spark further interest and intellectual curiosity that will lead to a collective, informed, and detailed conversation on a complex and valuable topic: the education of the human brain.
Essay: How We Know Our Brains
How We Know Our Brains:
Shakespeare so famously said, “all the world’s a stage.” Teaching, and perhaps parenting, is finally a staged performance, filled with all the richness and complexity of theater. My background in literature draws me to the story or plot in events. My quest for a more comprehensive understanding of my practice and my children’s experiences has led me to the theater of the mind. The mind, as it turns out, is filled with as much drama, complex dialogue, and action as would give Shakespeare, and perhaps Spielberg, a run for their money. Employing a little poetic license, I will attempt to pull back the curtain on the theatre of the mind and explore its dynamic elements.
The structure and function of our complex neurology is only beginning to be understood. Cells make up our neural anatomy, which in conjunction with cultural interactions, create and inform our learning and behavior. Researchers are now able to debunk the myth that our brains and potential for learning are fixed at birth. They can say with certainty that the brain’s defining feature is its neural plasticity. The brain is continually reshaping, pruning, and remodeling itself (cell to cell interactions) in an effort to improve its functions. Neural fates are directed by this complex cocktail party of neural communication in and amongst brain regions. Changes in the brain can and do change behaviors; likewise, changes in the environment and experiences change the brain on a complex neuro-synaptic level. The diversity in our individual and collective experiences corresponds to molecular changes in the brain. The brain is most malleable early in life, a time when so much new information and learning, especially language learning, is taking place. This plasticity is not without temporal, biological, and embodied constraints, such as limitations in learning due to critical or sensitive periods. We are as individuals a complex interweaving of genes, gender, culture, and experience. To the extent that science can understand this complex interaction, educators can influence outcomes in learning. Children, according to Eric Jenson, will spend 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s life in the presence of teachers. “Their brains will be altered by the experience they have in school.”
In the past we were only able to study the brain postmortem or the brains of injured patients. It was from understanding what was not working correctly and isolating the area in question that scientists where able to draw conclusions about what and where normal neuro-development occurred. There are several famous cases that are repeatedly cited in the literature.
One famous and often cited case is Phineas Gage. He was a foreman on a railroad construction crew in Vermont, and on September 13, 1848, he was setting an explosive charge using a tamping iron (a 3 foot rod about an inch in diameter). The explosives were being set in a hole in a rock. They accidentally blew, sending the rod straight into Gage’s head. The rod entered below his left eye just above his cheek bone and exited out the top front of his head. Miraculously, he did not die. He remained conscious and coherent and as a result became neuro-science’s most famous patient. His injury and subsequent change in behavior led to the discovery of a specialized area of the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex. Gage went from being popular, funny, hard working to ‘no longer the Gage family and friends knew.” He became impulsive and emotionally unpredictable, often using uncontrollable profanity. It was thus determined that destroying our prefrontal cortex destroys an area of our brain that makes us uniquely human. Its job, in more modern terms, is control of our executive functions, that is, our ability to problem solve, plan and maintain attention, shift thinking to enable completion of a task, and inhibit emotional impulses.
Another famous case study is of a man known as H.M. When he was 27 years old in 1953, doctors removed sections of his temporal lobe to end his severe epileptic seizures. They where successful medically in controlling his attacks; however, HM lost his ability to consciously form and mediate semantic, episodic, and declarative memories. Curiously, he was able to maintain his procedural memory (the ability to perform tasks such as driving a car or completing puzzles; these memories do not require processing in the hippocampus). The section of the brain that they removed that directly contributes to ones ability to store and retrieve memories is the hippocampus. The hippocampus has a very important job of holding on to immediate information in short term memory and then sending it to the frontal cortex for long-term storage or consolidation. John Medina refers to the hippocampus as “the crown jewel” of the limbic system. “It helps to shape the long term character of many types of memory.” Without this important player on the memory stage, HM was unable to remember events and people that he had just encountered. He could remember events that occurred before the surgery but in a very real sense his memories ceased to exist after 1953. This condition remained true until his death in 2008.
Accurate scientific methods are now available to isolate and look at both the brain structure and function, and these methods are rapidly improving. We are no longer dependent on the Gages and HM’s of the world to inform our neuro knowledge. Brain imaging studies have opened new doors to understanding how a brain functions during certain tasks, like reading. According to David Sousa, Ed.D, “It is not exaggerating to say that reading is very likely one area in the school curriculum where neuro-science has made its greatest impact” (p. 5). He cites some specific examples:
- Novice readers use different cerebral pathways while reading than do skilled readers.
- People with reading difficulties use different brain regions to decode written text than do typical readers.
- The brains of people with reading problems are working harder than skilled readers.
- With proper instructional intervention, the brains of young, struggling, and dyslexic readers can actually be rewired to use cerebral areas that more closely resemble those used by typical readers.
Brain Imaging Techniques
Some specific brain imaging techniques worth mentioning to serve as a backdrop for further discussions on the topic are:
1. Electroencephalography (EEG) and Magnetonencephalography (MEG).
Electroencephalography (EEG) and Magnetonencephalography (MEG) work by attaching multiple electrodes to the scalp (see picture) and recording the neural response to an event. When neurons communicate with each other, there is both electrical activity and discharge recorded in the case of the EEG, and magnetic activity in the MEG. This method has the ability to record very quickly (milliseconds) changes in brain activity. Milliseconds are a typical speed and time at which the brain processes language. This method has high temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, typically measuring just cortical surfaces. The neural response to an event is called “event related potentional” (ERP).
2. Positron Emission Technology (PET)
Positron Emission Technology (PET) was the first technology to observe brain functions by injecting the patients with a radio active solution that is detectable in regions of the brain with higher activity. A computer records and displays a colorful pictorial cross sectional representation of activation. The more active areas are in red and yellow, and the quieter regions are in blues and greens. The obvious and major drawback of this method is injecting a subject with radioactive material. Not many parents signed up to have their child’s normal brain development studied with the risk of radioactivity!
3. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has rapidly been replacing the aforementioned techniques and is often used in conjunction with EEG’s to study normal development. This method offers compelling images of brain activation in all regions. It is non invasive and does not use radiation. fMRI’s measure the levels of deoxygenated hemoglobin in brain cells. When a person is thinking, the part of the brain that is doing the work requires more oxygen and glucose, thus increased blood flow (Blood-oxygen-level dependence, BOLD). Oxygen is carried to the cells by hemoglobin and is measured by a large magnet that compares the difference between the amounts of oxygenated cells entering the brain to the deoxygenated cells leaving. A computer colors the regions that receive more oxygen (see example below). fMRI’s have a high spatial resolution (2-3 mm) but poor temporal resolution (site activation peaks 5 seconds after neural firing).
Berkeley's 4T fMRI scanner.
4. Functional Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (fMRS)
Functional Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (fMRS) measures the levels of specific chemicals present during specific brain activity. This involves the same equipment as used in an fMRI, but the computer can precisely pinpoint both the area of the brain and the specific chemicals (chemical shift) involved in an activity. This method has been used to study language functions by studying lactate, for example, a chemical involved in language tasks.
Pictures: FMRIB Centre, Oxford U
5. Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI)
Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) measures the diffusion of water molecules across white matter brain pathways. It is the newest development in neuro-imaging and provides detailed information of how brain regions are organized and communicate.
We are beginning to see brain activity, which enables us to better understand how our brain works. This knowledge is perhaps too new to be prescriptive, but it does have a place at the table to dramatically inform our pedagogical decisions and instructional practices. We need to know which ingredients will contribute to successful instructional interventions and how to deliver and space learning intervals to maximize neural plasticity. Scientists realize that separating emotion, motivation, and even sensory and pleasure networks from learning and memory is virtually impossible. We need to learn new ways to maximize attention and positive emotions to affect engagement, learning, and memory. The science of reading and learning is transforming our understanding and responsibilities as educators.
Again, it is my hope to be able to disseminate and share this information as I know and understand it and to collectively build a storehouse of local knowledge and conversations among educators, parents, professionals, and researchers that can be applied in real and practical ways.
Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2nd ed., Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.
Medina, John. Brain Rules. Pear Press, 2008.
Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns to Read. Corwin Press, 2005.