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March 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 6

On Using Knowledge About Our Brain: A Conversation with Bob Sylwester

    As biologists, medical researchers, and cognitive scientists learn more about how the human brain works, it is up to educators to keep informed, to study, and to apply what they have learned to the classroom.

      We're hearing a lot about the brain lately. There are books like your A Celebration of Neurons (1995), feature articles in popular magazines, conferences, and so on. What accounts for this sudden interest?
      People are intrigued by dramatic developments in research technology, the ability to "get inside" our brain and observe how it functions. Today, researchers can learn about blood flow, electromagnetic fields, and chemical composition of the brain without interfering with normal brain functioning. What's called functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) allows them to have subjects do something—like sing a song or do a math problem—and watch what parts of the brain "light up" on a computer screen. Until MRI became available, most brain research was done only with animal brains or on people who had brain damage.
      And along with imaging there are other technologies, like high-powered electron microscopes.
      Right. With them, you can work at the cellular level—see neurons and synapses and the connections among them. And computers help, too, because rather than study a person's actual brain you can study a computerized version of it. You can single out the serotonin system and see what the serotonin level is related to (for example, a new study says it's related to autism). You can compare male brains and female brains, or an aggressive person with a nonaggressive person, or a Republican with a Democrat (just joking). But all such group differences are now accessible.
      For most of human history, the human brain was impenetrable; the skull got in the way. And even when you looked at a brain, you didn't know what you were seeing—100 billion neurons, plus 10 times as many glial cells (support cells). How many is 100 billion? Well, there are about 100,000 hairs on the average head, so that would be all the hairs on the heads of a million people—that's how many neurons you have in your brain. You can put 30,000 neurons into a space the size of a pinhead. Without modern technology, it was impossible to study the brain.
      This whole field is very new, then.
      Yes. Modern brain research began about 30 years ago with brain hemisphere studies. Roger Sperry worked with about two dozen people with epilepsy whose doctors had completely severed their corpus callosums. Today, if a person suffers from epilepsy, a surgeon can locate the problem in a particular part of the brain—maybe less than a cubic millimeter—and, using advanced technology, possibly excise just those few neurons that need to be removed.
      There's another reason for interest in our brain. If you have brain scans and nothing else, all you have is pretty pictures. But with this new information, we've had a parallel boom in theory development. For example, William Calvin (1996) has identified what he thinks is the location and coding system of intelligent behavior—a horizontal wiring pattern in the top three layers of the cortex. If he's right, it could do for brain science what the discovery of DNA did for genetics.
      With all this activity, do you expect a steady stream of new information about the brain in the years ahead?
      Oh, yes. In science, when there's a big technological breakthrough, researchers start working on questions that until now were unanswerable. And as pieces of knowledge start coming in, they begin to see how things fit together. So eventually, we'll have the universal brain theory. We'll be able to deal with consciousness: how we know what we know and how we know we know it.
      Naturally, educators are interested in all of this. They are looking for ways they can apply the new knowledge from brain research in their schools. What do you say?
      Well, I think we've done it all along, but we didn't call it brain research. If you're a teacher, you're dealing every day with about 100 pounds of brain tissue floating several feet above the classroom floor. Over a 20- or 30-year career, watching how those brains react, what they like to do, what they do easily and what with great difficulty, you're going to try to adapt your procedures to what works with brains. So, at that level, teachers have always been brain researchers.
      We've known, for example, how long a lesson should be to hold student interest. We've known that more boys have trouble with reading and writing than do girls, and that young children can pick up a foreign language more easily than adults can. But we didn't have a biological substrate for that. Now, we're beginning to add this biological dimension that helps us understand why these things are true.
      You know, people were successfully breeding dogs and horses long before DNA was discovered 40 years ago. It's taken 40 years to move from animal breeding to genetic engineering. So it took a while to find practical applications of this monumental discovery.
      So what about practical applications of neuroscience?
      We must take the time and effort to learn all we can about our brain—then figure out what to do about it. We teachers never really knew what was going on in those kids' brains. Now we have a chance to get beyond compassion and frustration. But first we have to really understand.
      What is brain-compatible teaching?
      I'm hesitant to use that term because it seems too pat. It seems to negate everything positive that teachers have been trying to do in the past. When the neurosciences come up with a discovery, it usually isn't a big surprise to most educators. For example, teachers have long encouraged students to find patterns and connections in what they've learned, but new knowledge about our brain may help us discover new ways to help students expand their knowledge. And the best teachers know that kids learn more readily when they are emotionally involved in the lesson because emotion drives attention, which drives learning and memory. It's biologically impossible to learn anything that you're not paying attention to; the attentional mechanism drives the whole learning and memory process. Teachers know that emotion is important; they just don't always know what to do about it.
      The point is that teachers need to study many things—biology, anthropology, psychology, and other subjects—and make their own discoveries about improving instruction.
      Let's take attention research, for example. For very good reasons, our brain evolved to be good at sizing things up quickly and acting on the basis of limited information. This has big survival value, because it keeps you from being eaten by predators. You don't need to know how old they are and whether they're male or female; you just get out of there as quickly as you can. But because of this tendency of our brains to make quick judgments, we go through life jumping to conclusions, making a mess of things, and then having to apologize.
      So we're very good at rapidly sizing things up and acting on limited information, but we're not so good at the reverse—anything that requires sustained attention and precision, like worksheets. That doesn't mean worksheets are bad; it depends on how you're using them. But some are clearly not used appropriately.
      I've heard you say that our profession needs to move from dependence on social science to greater emphasis on biology. What do you have in mind?
      Throughout history, educators have worked with brains—with limited information on how brains work. In this century, we have turned to the social scientists, who don't know about one brain but do know about bunches of them. So our professional education has focused on negotiating behavior with a group of kids, on allocating energy and resources.
      Now, the social scientists could be compassionate about something like dyslexia; they could tell what percentage of the population would have the problem, but they couldn't solve it. Biologists look at underlying causes; they can help us understand what dyslexia is. The problem is that biologists deal with neurons and synapses and blood and tissue, which most educators didn't study in their professional preparation.
      But in the years ahead, they will?
      They'll have to. Teacher education programs will have to change. I can't imagine a person preparing to become a teacher these days without having access to cognitive science.
      What would you emphasize if you were teaching future teachers?
      The first thing would be that we are basically a social species. We are born with an immature brain and have a long childhood, so we have to depend on other people to take care of us in childhood. The marvelous thing about our maturation process is that our individual brains develop very differently—just like the files individuals may later create in their computers. Our brains develop in their own way, which lends credence to the idea of multiple intelligences and specialization. When we think about implications of our social brain, we see that everybody in a community must know how to do some things, such as communicate, but not everyone has to be able to repair automobiles.
      Another obvious implication is the need to consider whether a particular learning task is individually oriented or socially oriented. It's foolish and wasteful to teach something to individuals if it's really a socially oriented behavior. I mentioned worksheets earlier. I saw a worksheet recently on which elementary students were supposed to list the five best qualities of a president—and hand it in with no discussion or feedback. Now, that's the kind of task we humans do more easily and naturally through discussion. It's not like a worksheet of multiplication problems, which is an individual task.
      Another thing a biological approach can do for educators is change the way they think about education. For example, we talk about "higher order" and "lower order" as though one is much more important than the other. But it's really quite remarkable that we have the ability to remember a simple fact like where we're supposed to be at 12:30. If you can't remember the name of the restaurant where you're supposed to meet somebody, it may be lower thinking, but it's critical.
      Another misconception is that the really important things are the hardest: Tasks that require a lot of energy and effort, like calculus, are the most significant. Biologically, that's just wrong. The way your brain looks at it, if it's important, it has to be a fail-safe operation—like digital competence, the ability to pick things up. If it's really important, you don't have to go to school to learn it; you can do it quickly and easily.
      Why is it that the same kids who learned to speak their native language with no formal schooling—and who could have learned any language in the world the same way—have so much trouble learning to read and write? The answer scientists give is that reading and writing aren't nearly as critical to survival as is oral competency. That doesn't mean we should ignore the unnatural things, but it does mean that we sometimes get our priorities wrong when we talk about standards and rigor and so on. We need to remember that from a biological standpoint, importance and difficulty are not at all the same.
      You've said that in the future, teachers will know more about the brain. In the meantime, what advice can you give today's educators?
      First, as I said before, take the time to begin learning about this. Read books by educators and by the brain scientists themselves. Exciting new books are being published almost every week.
      Second, think about how what you're learning applies to education—but broadly, not narrowly. We don't need catchy program titles. We do need to study and contemplate, discuss and explore. If something sounds like a good idea, try it. And don't worry too much about making exploratory mistakes. We have this marvelous student feedback system; when we try out inappropriate ideas on our students, they let us know.
      Last, don't promise too much. You aren't going to be able to boost SAT scores with this knowledge; it's just too early for that. And many important brain properties, such as metaphor, compassion, and love, aren't measurable. By all means read and study. By all means try new ideas. But don't overpromise.

      Calvin, W. (1996). How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence Then and Now. New York: Basic Books.

      Sylwester, R. (1995). A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

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