Interest in brain and education comes from 15 years of funding research in education and neuroscience -- looking/waiting for links between them Surprised in mid-90s to hear about the “new neuroscience Investigated and found not much to it Set it aside until I began getting questions from journalists Neuroscience and preschool story Will use some overheads today, but entire presentation (slides, notes, select bibliography, and authored papers available for the next 2 weeks on the Foundation website: www.jsmf.org
Recap argument Critique argument (first two claims true, third probably not true, fourth and fifth misinterpretations. Arguments supports claims across ideological spectrum If right input at right time, almost anything is possible Teach any subject to any child at any stage of development Head Start begins too late to rewire the brain Start math, logic, music by age 3 Neuroscience proves early years are optimal learning years.
Argument relies on three old, well-established findings from developmental neuroscience Review and explain Rather than recap developmental neuroscience in 15 minutes, will present a series of questions about each of these findings you might think about or ask educators and neuroscientists as you prepare stories about education and the brain. How firmly are these claims and related policy recommendations rooted in neuroscience? Are we appealing to neuroscience or some “folk theory” of brain development?
1. We begin to see the first appearance of basic sensory, motor, memory, and language skills -- all in rudimentary form. 2. These skills continue to improve as synaptic densities decrease; adult level competence comes with adult level synaptic densities -- same densities as found at birth. No simple relationship between number of synapses/densities and skill/intelligence. 3. In animals (visual system) neither increasing nor decreasing stimulation has an effect on the rate or extent of rapid synapse formation. No reason to think “the more stimulation the better.” 4. Knowledge of this process related to appearance of basic sensory, motor skills -- no clear connection with school subjects or with learning culturally transmitted skills
1. Normal development needs normal experience. Abnormal experience causes abnormal development. Normal development requires certain kinds of experience at specific times. Deprivation results in (typically) irreversible damage. 2. Identified by observing behavior (in nature, clinic), e.g imprinting, bird song, social development, vision (clinical observation), language -- anecdotal. Many we know about, probably many more that we don’t. 3. Not very well -- “ocular dominance” columns (Hubel & Wiesel work), less about others; with vision different critical periods for specific visual functions. 4. Probably not -- 3 phases: rapid maturation to almost adult level, lose mature ability if deprived, sensitivity to therapy but not to deprivation (kittens and monkeys not necessarily blind for life.) 5. Well, not for ocular dominance columns -- they develop at normal rate in dark reared and binocularly deprived animals; balanced activity, not amount. 6. Via evolution time brain uses use “expected” stimuli to fine-tune(rather than hard wire) highly sensitive systems -- sensory, motor. Expected stimuli occur in all “normal”, human environments. (But treat kids early.)
1. Enriched environments are better described as complex environments, attempts to mimic animals’ natural environment, unlike a lab cage. 2. Rats form more synapses and are better at learning new tasks (use information stored from experience in complex environments). 3. No -- see these effects on behavior and brain even in adult rats. 4. No -- critical periods seem to rely on eliminating excess synapses; rearing in CE seems to involve either making existing synapses more efficient or growing new synapses. 5. Animals have to remember and use information that is unique to them and to their particular situation. Have to be prepared for it at any time in the life-span. Experience-dependent brain change -- does begin to link individual learning with possible brain.
1. After period of rapid synapse formation ends in early childhood, synaptic density stays at plateau that is in excess of adult densities. At puberty, synapses are “pruned” to adult levels (same density as at birth). 2. We don’t know -- don’t know which kinds of synapses are eliminated; do know based on observing behavior that this pruning results in increased problem solving power and mature levels of mental functioning. 3. We don’t know. We haven’t examined individual human or primate brains in a way that would allow us to link prior experience with post-pubertal synaptic density. Unlikely that this pruning represents an end of the critical period that is optimal for learning. (the supposed 3 - 10 critical period) 4. There is no reason to think so. Neuroscientists are generally skeptical of such claims. 5. Not necessarily. We do not know how synapses relate to intelligence. We do know that brain development is regressive in certain respects and that massive synapse elimination is required for normal development. Excess synapses have been associated with mental retardation and schizophrenia.
Trying to understand behavior and how brain guides behavior. No more about behavior (e.g. psychology) than brain Use knowledge of behavior to guide research. Study the brain at many levels Current discussion focuses on synapses -- not know how changes in number of synapses or their shape relates to learning, everyday behavior. Brian imaging studies have spatial precision to around “map” level. Even here begin to make correlations between brain and behavior, must analyze behaviors into components Doing so can begin link behavior-education with brain systems, maps but not with synapses
Morals: Not only looking at the wrong level, but need better understanding of behavior and learning if we are ever to link education and brain. Ignoring the science we need to understand the brain and ignoring the science we need to improve instruction and learning right now.
For all the claims about the “new neuroscience” situation has not changed much over the past fifteen years. Chipman’s comments and critique as relevant today as in early 80s.
Education and the Brain
Education and the Brain
• James S. McDonnell Foundation
• Click on:
Education Writers Association
Address, March 31, 1998
• Contains slides, bibliography, papers
Education and the Brain
Infants’ brains undergo rapid synapse formation.
From 3 -10 years, children’s brains have more
synapses than at any other time in their lives.
Early experience causes synapses to form or protects them
from elimination at puberty.
The time of rapid growth and/or high connectivity is the critical
period in development, the optimal learning period.
Enriched environments are most important and beneficial
during the critical period.
Ideas from Neuroscience
• Synaptogenesis -- in infancy the brain forms
synapses in excess of adult levels.
• Critical periods -- normal development of
neural systems requires specific experiential
input at specific times.
• Pruning at Puberty -- at sexual maturity
synapses are pruned back to adult levels.
• Enriched environments increase synaptic
1. What behaviors emerge during this time of rapid
2. How do these behaviors change as synapse numbers
peak and then decrease?
3. Shouldn’t we try to increase this growth by providing
more stimulation to babies?
4. What is the relevance of this phenomenon to formal
1. What is a critical period?
2. How are they identified?
3. How extensively do we understand the neural basis
of critical periods?
4. Are critical periods “windows” that open/slam
5. Does the amount of stimulation matter?
6. What is the benefit of critical periods?
1. What is an enriched environment?
2. What happens to animals raised in complex
3. Are the effects of complex environments “critical
4. Do we think that same kind of neural processes
underlie both kinds of effects?
5. Why might there be such differences?
Pruning at Puberty
1. What happens to synapses at puberty?
2. What is the functional and behavioral significance of the
3. How does previous experience affect the extent of the
4. Should we engage in intensive “synapse conservation”
programs prior to pruning?
5. But, aren’t more synapses better than fewer?
Levels of Study
(S. Churchland & T. Sejnowski, The Computational Brain,
MIT Press, 1992, p. 11)
CNS (1 m)
Maps (1 cm)
Neurons (100 µm)
Synapses (1 µ)
Molecules (1 Å)
• Educators are looking at the wrong level.
• We cannot yet link gross behaviors with
brain structures (synapses or hemispheres).
• Cognitive analyses can link education
(behavior) to systems neuroscience.
• Cognitive analyses are already helpful for
improving educational practice.
The links between cognitive and educational research
are much tighter than the link between neuroscience and
The links between cognitive science and neuroscience
are already strong, growing … . It is obvious that those
interested in describing the functions of neural systems
have been heavily dependent upon psychology.
(Susan Chipman, Three Perspectives on Learning, in Mind, Brain, and Education,
1986, p. 215)
Bruer, J.T. (1997), A Bridge Too Far, Educational Researcher, 26(8): 1 - 13.
Bruer, J.T. (to appear May 1998), Put Brain Science on the Back Burner,
Bruer, J.T. (1993), The Minds Journey From Novice to Expert, American Educator,
Summer, 6 - 15.
Chipman, S.F. (1986), Integrating Three Perspectives on Learning, In Brain,
Cognition and Education, Friedman, S. L.; Klivington, K. A.; Peterson, R.
W., (Eds.), Academic Press, Orlando, FL., 203 - 232.
Jones, R. (1995), Smart Brains, American School Board Journal,
November 22 - 26.
Schiebel, A. (1997), Thinking about Thinking, American School Board
Journal, 184(2):20 - 23.
Nelson, C.A. & Bloom, F. (1997), Child Development and Neurscience, 68(5):970 -
Shatz, C.J. (1992), The Developing Brain, Scientific American, September 61-67.