November 21, 2014
Stanford researchers bridge education and neuroscience to strengthen the growing field of educational neuroscience
As methods of imaging the brain improve, neuroscientists and educators can now identify changes in children's brains as they learn, and start to develop ways of personalizing instruction for kids who are falling behind.
By Amy Adams
Education Professor Bruce McCandliss is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers involved in the growing field of educational neuroscience. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
A child's brain in early elementary school goes through a dramatic transformation, first developing the ability to identify letters or numbers, then learning how to interpret those symbols in written words or math. That transformation comes about due to new connections being made and strengthened in the brain.
"This reorganization is driven by activity that is happening in the classroom," said Bruce McCandliss, a professor of education. He recently joined Stanford to be the anchor in the Graduate School of Education for an interdisciplinary team of scientists who are all involved in the growing field of educational neuroscience.
"We want to understand how educational experiences are driving changes in the brain, and to personalize that experience for different learners," he said.
McCandliss was drawn to Stanford in part by the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, which seeks to bridge neuroscience and societal issues like education, and by the university's strength in the kinds of imaging techniques used to ask questions about how the brain changes in response to education.
"Stanford is looked to as a place of innovation in graduate education," McCandliss said. "We also have state-of-the-art neuroimaging facilities and a renowned school of education. What better place to train the next generation of leaders in educational neuroscience?"
Old idea, new tools
The idea of trying to incorporate neuroscience into teaching methods isn't new, according to James McClelland, professor of psychology, who has spent decades studying how people learn to read and to understand concepts. What's new is the imaging technologies that are making this idea a reality.
"We're on the cusp of being able to characterize the major patterns of connectivity inside the brains of individuals, using new imaging methods," said McClelland, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences. That wiring diagram of the brain is unique in each person and changes with experiences, he said. These new imaging techniques will ultimately let researchers see how those connections change as children learn. "This is going to be very well established in a few years," said McClelland, who is also the director of the Stanford Center for Mind, Brain and Computation.
"What having Bruce here represents is an opportunity to weave the research that goes on in an educational setting together with research at many other levels of analysis," McClelland said. "The combination is going to be important in helping us understand how people learn in a way that will allow us to do the best possible job we can in supporting their educational achievement."
Seeing inside the brain
In one set of experiments, McCandliss used a type of brain imaging that reveals connections or tracts of neurons to look at the brains of kids who were good readers and others who showed signs of dyslexia. He found that the kids who were better readers had stronger brain connections in that region.
"There is a profound relationship between the way a person's brain is organized and how well that person masters abstract intellectual skills, such as reading or mathematics," he said.
In a follow-up study, he and a team that included Allan Reiss, the Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and professor of radiology, found that kids with dyslexia who activate a particular brain region when trying to read went on to make much greater improvements in their reading ability. Kids who did not activate that region made very little reading gain after the age of 14.
"The hope is that by understanding the nature of these differences we might be able to tailor interventions for those individuals," McCandliss said. Although much of his work has been in reading, McCandliss is also investigating individual differences in how kids learn mathematical concepts.
Like McCandliss, psychologist Brian Wandell, the Isaac and Madeline Stein Family Professor at Stanford, has had an interest in understanding the brain changes that happen as kids learn. He has helped develop the technologies for looking at which regions of the brain have formed strong connections. By looking at these neuronal tracts in kids who are having difficulty reading, he hopes to be able to diagnose reading delays and one day recommend interventions for kids based on brain imaging.
This translation from neuroscience, identifying the changes in the neuronal tracts, to education, developing the therapies to help those kids, is where Wandell says McCandliss will help.
"His presence here will finish a piece of the puzzle for how Stanford can make a difference in moving ideas back and forth between education and neuroscience," said Wandell. "If we nurture and expand our dialogue with colleagues who educate children, looking for ways neuroscience methods can be helpful, then we've succeeded," he added.
Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education, says the relationship between education and neuroscience goes both ways. "Neuroscientists could come up with a better diagnosis for learning delays, but they could probably use some help coming up with the right kind of instruction," said Schwartz.
One of Schwartz's areas of research has involved how people understand negative numbers. "We chose negative numbers because you just don't run into negative objects, and it's a pretty recent cultural invention," he said.
He and his team found that the region of the brain that processes symmetry was active when people solved problems having to do with negative numbers. "We created a curriculum based on this and it turns out the kids learned better," said Schwartz, who is also the Nomellini & Olivier Professor in Educational Technology.
In other cases, teachers might bring issues they find in the classroom to neuroscientists to help direct the research. "Teachers can help the neuroscientists frame the research in a way that is useful," said McCandliss.
"One attractive thing about coming to Stanford was the feeling that there is a critical mass of researchers here who are interested in integrating insights across education and neuroscience, and who share the idea that such connections may enhance both types of research and potentially make a difference in the lives of young learners," McCandliss said.
For more Stanford experts on education, neuroscience and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.