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Bridging Theory and Practice

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Bridging Theory and Practice


The recent result of an international test shocked the world. The test asked 15-year-olds to take subject tests such as math, science and reading. Surprisingly, China placed first in three key subjects: math, science and reading, ahead of United States and other participating countries. United States fell under the bottom half of the spectrum. In math, Unites States placed second to last, only above Ireland1. This news stirs another weave of questioning: what is wrong with our secondary education system?

The totality of education problem seems so vast and entangled that no solution can be the panacea, not even a lot of money. Despite complaints about schools being under-funded, the Unites States has some of the most well-funded schools in the world2. If money cannot be the sole solution, another obvious area to consider is training. Is the problem then that teachers are under-trained? This is not to say anything about the teachers’ intention or character. Some people do think that even the best of resources and genuine intentions are nullified by an ill-informed system that produces teachers, designs curriculum and write policies3.

This misinformation is significantly the result of a disconnection between educational theory and practice. Nearly 80% of the classroom teachers receive their undergraduate degree in education but as Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University puts it, “Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.”4 It does not help that most of the education professors never set foot inside an elementary or secondary school, even those who teach methodology. It leaves one wonder how those professors are getting the knowledge they claim to have5.

Another concern is that we do not understand enough about how the brain works, or worse: we misunderstand how the brain works. Kurt Fischer and his colleagues call those misunderstandings “neuromyth”.6 Our popular conception of the brain is full of those neuromyths such as the conduit model that treats brain as “a library that stores information and a model of teaching and learning as direct transmission of information from expert to novice.” The conduit model ignores many important environmental factors in the development and the functioning of the brain. This model is too static to capture the dynamic nature of the brain.

The brain is not a computer with fixed hardware. The activities we do, the thoughts we entertain, and the mental schema we acquire affect the structure of our brain.

When animals and people do things in their worlds, they shape their behavior. Based on brain research, we

know that likewise they literally shape the anatomy and physiology of their brains (and bodies). When we

actively control our experience, that experience sculpts the way that our brains work, changing neurons,

synapses, and brain activity.” 7

In this dynamic model of the brain, knowledge is not simply something we think about but rather something we do. We have much agency in shaping our brain. But the challenge is to know exactly how the brain changes and how we can use it to better educate our students.

One worry of applying neuroscience directly to education is that the gap between the two disciplines would be too wide. It seems nearly impossible to make any practical recommendation based on findings at the neural level. It is true that there is a lot we do not know about the brain, but what we do know can be very useful and essential for informing our education practices. The plasticity of the brain is quite well-known. But new discoveries are constantly widening our expectation of the degree of malleability and the adaptability of the brain.

Nico and Brooke are two such cases. Nico had his right brain hemisphere removed when he was three to stop seizure. One would expect Nico to have poor spatial-visual and language intonation skills. But contrary to the expectation, through the unmoving support of his family, he learned to snowboard, cycle and even became an artist. Some people might not be surprised because the 3-year-old brain is still very malleable. But Brooke was eleven when his left hemisphere was removed for the same reason. He was told that he would not be able to speak after the brain removal. Indeed, that was what happened. But few days later, he started saying word and gradually, he regained his ability to speak. He even attended community college.

Looking at their interpretation of language intonation, although both Nico and Brooke can interpret the meaning of the tone fine with half of a brain, the path they take to compensate for the loss is quite different. Nico displayed excellent skill in matching intonation to meaning but he has trouble matching intonation to emotions. He took a distinctly “grammatical path” in interpreting tones8. Brooke on the other hand displayed excellent skills in matching intonation with emotions. This is not surprising given that right brain is associated more with emotional meaning. Those two radical yet clear cases where students took different learning paths and were both successful in their educational outcome -- the adaptability of the brain cannot be under-estimated. Fortunately, their family and teachers did not give up on them despite strong evidence that they will not be able to function normally. Nico and Brooke show us the importance of understanding how the brain works in order to tap into the full potential of our students. If two half-brained kids have shown so much potential, imagine what the whole-brain students can achieve.

Another example of how understanding the brain can inform our education practices is the finding that “learning disabilities involve no defect in either genetics or brain characteristics but instead fit the normal distribution of abilities.”9 People with dyslexia have largely normal brain function but some skills critical to reading are at the end of the normal distribution. With this knowledge, we should see dyslexia not as a disease but as a condition that requires a different kind of learning. Fink described the struggle of a science genius Roy Daniels who has difficulty connecting letters to sounds and distinguishing similar letters such as b and p. Despite his continual struggle, he learned to read by adopting some strategies. He would distinguish similar words such as “horse” and “house” by pronouncing them twice. He would also look for familiar words in the text to help him double check the connection between letters and sounds. Most strikingly, while he read at a fairly low level in subjects like English and history, he read at the highest possible level in science. Fink explains that Daniels developed a rich schema of familiar scientific vocabulary and concepts to help him contextualize new science reading10.

What have we learned from Nico, Brooke, Roy and the cases of resourceful schools failing is that we have continued to under-estimate the malleability and the adaptability of our brain. To the detriment of students and our society, we have been misinformed about many areas of our brain. This misinformation is partly due to the inadequate understanding of the brain. It it were not for Roy’s persistence, his schools would have blocked him from opportunities for higher learning. After all, he is “below average” in his reading-based IQ test. A close neuroscientific study would have helped the teachers understand his learning needs. The misinformation is partly due to the disconnection between the research in neuroscience and the practical application in education. It is tragic that so much resource go to waste because they are not used in the most effective manner.

The International Mind, Brain and Education Society attempts to bridge the looming gap between theory and practice and to use rigorous research in neuroscience to better inform education practices with the hope that “as research contributes to usable knowledge for education, practice can help to define promising research directions and contribute to the refinement of testable hypotheses.”11 Along the line of this approach, The Task Force on the Future of Neuroscience suggest that “‘education needs assessments in actual learning situations that are shaped by researchers, teachers, and students working together to examine learning and teaching where learning takes place—whatDanielandPoole (2009) call ‘pedagogical ecology.’“12 Students like Roy, Brooke, Nico and teachers who work with those students will have a stake and a say in how the research should be conducted. This stakeholdership is important because the research is not just academic thought exercises but rather the knowledge produced should be actionable and beneficial to the people in question. It is crucial that stakeholders from all sectors of education participate in constructing useful understandings of the brain and educate ourselves about the most effective ways to learn. In order to prevent the waste of human intelligence, the reform that we most urgently need is a shift in our current ineffective schema of conceptualizing the brain.

3Doug Lemov, the author of the book Teach like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College recounts the puzzling situation of a N.Y school where teachers seem to care very much for the students and they have excellent resources and individual monitoring system, and yet student performances are failing and the school is on the edging of being closed down by the government.

5An personal anecdote: I was at a Haverford college’s alumni panel in education. I was impressed by all the accomplished alumni and the contribution they are making. However, one parent raised the harsh objection that the failure of the current education system is due to the fact that many people who work in education are not or have not been a teacher themselves.

8In Chinese tones are grammatical markers used to indicate different meanings. The same pinying “ma” would have at least four distinct meanings depending on which of the four tones one applies to it. (so, is it your mother ma1 or your horse ma2 ?)

10Fink, R. P. (2006). Why Jane and Johnny couldn’t read—and how they learned. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. 79. Fink also suggests there should be multifaceted conception of fluency in reading just as there is multiple intelligence.