The human brain is the most complicated material object in the known universe
– Gerald Edelman, (M.D., PhD, Nobel Lauriat) from his book Wider than the sky.
Edelman was not hyperbolizing the physical nature of the brain with its approximately 180 billion neurons and supporting glial cells…not to mention the 100 trillion or so synapses facilitating the electrochemical signals to make you function. If modern neuroscience has only begun to shine a thin light into the vast depth of brain-knowledge, how can neuroscience begin to inform the world of education?
A lot of information is available about how the brain works, and while it may not be sufficient to fully explain persons, it should certainly encourage us to begin thinking about the problem
– Joseph LeDoux, PhD from his book The Synaptic Self.
The problem in this case, is how do we begin to construct the what I call the Brain Bridge – the interdisciplinary Velcro between neuroscience research, and educational brain-shaping?
Let’s begin with where neuroscience and education connect. Neuroscience research is done at a variety of levels of analysis, which can be organized from micro to macro structures. Education analysis begins where neuroscience ends – with the behavior of an individual organism…well, we call them students. The diagram below explains it.
A recent article in the journal Nature provides an excellent case study for tackling the question of building the Brain Bridge between neuroscience and education. Essentially, a two decade long study followed a sample of young girls from infancy to 18 years of age. The infants and toddlers exposed to a consistently stressful environment (parents arguing, maternal depression, poverty etc) showed elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) at age 4. At age 6 (first grade), the girls were more likely to exhibit aggression, impulsivity and other behavioral problems. Imagine how difficult school must be if you are only 6 years old, learning to play well with others, and some kid accidentally knocks over your block tower!? Will you react nicely, or model the aggressive practices you see at home? How will that affect your concentration during story time later?
By age 18, these same girls show weaker connectivity in the systems of networks that process and regulate emotions like anxiety. Other girls who scored higher on depression tests, showed a stronger than average connectivity between these two regions. The final analysis remains however; elevated cortisol levels in childhood can impact brain development in adolescents.
The Brain Bridge is not a panacea from the lab to the classroom, i.e. a teacher will never be able to scan a student’s brain to determine how to teach them long division. So let’s examine some of the levels of educational influence that can be informed by the research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Federal and State
Neuroscience informs us that stressful environments can contribute to negative behavioral outcomes in children and later in adolescents. Studies like this one from New Mexico can guide policy about which parenting education programs are most effective for reducing dysfunctional behaviors. This is a preventative measure, but as any teacher can tell you, fewer students with emotional problems in class adds up to more learning for all students.
Feeder Patterns and Communities
It is no mystery that high schools in low income communities with higher dropout rates and more instances of behavioral problems usually serve students from under-performing middle and elementary schools. Those kindergartners with stressful home lives will have more difficulty mastering foundational academic and cognitive skills, with the effects cascading through each grade level. Schools can be powerful agents of change within communities because they are institutions that serve families; equipping each school with its own social worker empowers communities to access resources that can impact home environments, and thus academic outcomes. Identifying students and families in need early on means fewer, and less serious problems down the line.
“My brother got arrested last night”. “My mom kicked me out of the house”. “My dad was really drunk and pissed off”. I’ve encountered all of these explanations for why a student came into class, put their head down and didn’t do any work. Can you blame them? Now imagine a more typical adolescent problem like “my boyfriend/girlfriend and I had a fight” going through the brain of a 9th grader who has lived a lot of their life in a high stress environment…how strong do you think their ability to regulate those emotions might be?
As a biology teacher, I really want my student to learn about the processes of transcription and translation, but their head probably isn’t in the game after an emotional crisis.
“I’m going to write you a pass to the counselor. After you’re done there, go to the library and watch this video on transcription and translation, then read chapter 6 and answer the end of chapter review questions.”
Teachers and school administrators cannot fix home problems, but they can make informed decisions about student discipline to provide a safe and supportive environment. A recent effort has also been made to create specific emotional management classes for high risk teens in high schools. All students will grow up to be adults, and somewhere along the way they must learn to manage their emotions appropriately – but if this is not happening at home, and schools do not build in systems of support – where do we expect the next generation of adults to learn how to play nice together?
That is a powerful lesson from neuroscience. Stressful home environments change the molecules that change the brain to influence behaviors that have consequences for learning. The Brain Bridge is a messy tangle of research and spheres of influence. The bridge between neuroscience and education does not often lead to black and white results, but it can empower educators to load the proverbial dice in their students’ favor.