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NEUROSCIENCE AND EDUCATION: How can academic accomplishments be improved

Learning, memory and retention are highly sophisticated brain functions. Researchers into educational processes, as well as neuroscientists, have been working separately for a long time, setting hypotheses about learning, which were later used in practice. Modern times set postulates of interdisciplinarity with new emerging opportunities for an interweaving of neuroscience with other professions, aiming at discovering the best ways of teaching children. The benefits of such processes are global. That is how the new discipline, neuroeducation, came to existence.

What is neuroeducation?

Neuroeducation is a relatively new discipline, established at the Conference on Education held at the University of California in 2009.

The intention of the initiative was based on the need for integration of neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and their application in the educational systems, with the aim of creating a framework for more efficient methods of learning and teaching, as well as organising educational policies, of building connections among educators, parents and science.

Each of the above mentioned will contribute to establishing the terminology, new teaching techniques, favourable learning outcomes, which will lead to stronger community as a whole.

Neuroeducation puts innovation and creativity at the top of priorities, not for the sake of marks and results, but in order to learn how to think, contemplate and critically approach solving tasks and problems. Developments of technology which have revealed so much about the brain functioning during the past two decades and reflections on learning processes, enables the approach necessary for children’s success in the 21 Century.

The aim which takes into account the specifics of neurodevelopment opens countless new possibilities. At the same time, there are many challenges, which is the reason why developed countries are putting education into the focus of their state interests. Cooperation among international associations initiates several global initiatives, and since 1999, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has the Neuroscience and Education Programme introduced, which resulted in productive international co-operation.

Cambridge University, as one of five best ranked universities of the world, initiated the Department of educational neuroscience under the leadership of Hirokaza Tanaka. A programme of research into the relationship between neuroscience and education was initiated in Japan under the name Mind. European Organisation for Learning and Research held their first meeting devoted to learning and neuroscience, in Zürich, 2010.

There is a question how neuroscience can help to improve the quality of education.

The truth is that research employs well defined models, which are not always applicable in specific situations. Still, neuroscience has realised big improvements in recognising many processes reflecting on the society, offering large basis of knowledge about them. It enables knowledge generating, and analysing their postulates in everyday practice. Thus preconditions for the application of knowledge and its transfer to other areas and interdisciplinary professions are fulfilled.

Why is education important?

Imagine there was one place where it was possible to implement all new findings about upbringing and education at all levels, globally. A difficult, but not impossible task. Having in mind increasing opportunities and the effects of stimulating environmental factors on child development, the development on his/her brain and multisensory processes, the initiative needs encouraging.

Let us imagine that we can design a classroom for children which would contain all known possibilities for more efficient learning. Acquired knowledge enables us to stop or prevent effects of brain damage resulting from abuse and neglect of children in their primary biological unit, their family. Besides, knowledge about the effects of undernutrition, stress and sleep disorders on the developing brain is at an incomparably higher level that ten or more years ago. Neuroscience research answered an enormous number of questions.

New achievements in neuroscience and their innovative application in practice give us relevant information about brain and mind functioning, from memorising and learning to executive functioning, emotions, skills, speech, and disorders like autism.

Based on collected studies, many scientific disciplines, including neuroscience, genetics and psychology, created new paradigms for diagnosing and therapy of deviations.

For example, neuroscientists found significant connections between the focus of attention, stress, memorising, physical activities, sleep and music, which are not difficult to implement in the classroom. Some teachers have capitalised on the application of these findings in their classrooms, achieving measurable results. One example is Johns Hopkins University, where neuroscientific discipline has been established, which acknowledges the importance of professional development, research, communication and expanding the boundaries of knowledge.

There is a tendency of interrelating the knowledge of interdisciplinary professions, overcoming the gaps between science and practical applications, encouraging educators to transfer knowledge from laboratories into their everyday work. Feedback helps neuroscientists in planning their further activities. The co-operation between biomedical and social sciences and humanities is of special importance.

That has put an end to some “neuro-myths” which were present before, like those related to left-handed children. We know that, not so long ago, left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand.

Neuroscience contributes to the possibility that those working in the education system obtain good quality information which may help them in their everyday work. It will also enable a critical approach to challenges so that they can make their decisions based on scientifically proven solutions. This especially applies to neuroscientific research into cognitive functions.

For example, a very interesting study in the laboratory of Henry Roediger showed that testing students’ achievements in written or oral form, not only maintained the level of achieved knowledge, but also enhanced it (Karpicke and Roediger, 2010). In that context, testing students is not a passive process, but it also has critical characteristics which stimulate students’ memory.

The above mentioned is significant in considering changes in the education system. Memorising the learned material and systematising it is the fundamental educational aim. Neuroscience offers knowledge confirmed by an abundance of research about these issues and it has shed light on how data is stored in the brain and how it is retrieved.

Music education also contributes to the ability of limiting the negative effects of background noise (Kraus et al., 2007). Gottfried Schlaug et al. discovered that people who regularly practised playing a musical instrument in their youth were better at recognising sounds which they ascribed to more successful memorising and attention focus in comparison with those who did not have music education (Forgeard et al., 2008). Music education improves verbal and non-verbal abilities of students (Hyde et al., 2009).

Neuroeducation holistically covers all the segments affecting learning achievements including the role of sleep. The role of sleep and its impact on memorising has been an extensively researched theme in neuroscience. Good sleep affects changes in the brain during the circadian rhythm of sleep-wake, which impact on learning achievements.

Experimental studies conducted on animal samples proved that sleep deprivation significantly reduced learning results, and that the brain consolidated information during sleep, which significantly effected on the improvement of memory and memorising of the learned material (Gilestro et al., 2009).

Studies conducted on humans confirmed that sleep was important both for cognitive elements and for emotional segments of social interactions. A lack of sleep can result in significant attention disorders, emotional fluctuations and impairments resulting in lower academic achievements.

What neuroscience tells us about the relationship between physical exercise and memory

Studies prove that physical effort influences mental health positively (Kramer et al., 2006). Physical exercise has protective effects on the developing brain, but it also has a reparative function in some cases of neuro-risk (Zigmond et al., 2009). That is the reason why the education system needs to find resources to improve school curricula and include opportunities for more intense physical activity.

In today’s fast-paced tempo of life, stress which affects school children is perceived as a significant parameter in evaluating their achievements. Stress, and especially chronic stress, significantly reduces academic achievements. It significantly reduces the ability of achieving success. Many environmental factors can be related to stress, and especially those in the primary unit, the family. Children exposed to stress in the family due to alcoholism and other forms of addiction, conflicts, and children who experienced abuse or neglect have significantly lower achievements, which is not the result of their cognitive, but environmental factors reducing the development of their cognitive potentials.

Students growing up in a stimulating environment achieve significantly better results, as confirmed by a group of authors (Dias-Ferreira et al., 2009). A study conducted by ConorListon, Bruce McEwen and B.J Casey(Liston et al., 2009) compared achievements of medical students divided in two groups: those who were exposed to high levels of stress and those who were not. The study proved that students from the first group showed significantly lower results on standardised tests requiring resourcefulness in finding the right answers quickly and tests on visual perception.

It was concluded that high levels of stress interfere with conducting impulses in the brain, suppressing the ability of fast attention transfer between topics, which is of special significance in interpreting lower achievements of students with normal cognitive potentials.

New generations of students who will have modern technologies at their disposal, need to be guided in using them. At the same time, we need to foster competitiveness and creativity of every individual so that they can fulfill the requirements of a technologically advanced society.

Neuroeducation can significantly help by promoting scientifically based knowledge and implementing it into the school system, in order to make it more productive, and also to motivate students to apply that knowledge. It will benefit all the participants in the education system in its wider context: teachers, educators, parents, students, psychologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists. In accordance with that, neuroeducation will create a basis for better academic achievements which will then reflect on the society as a whole.

Written by: Sc.D. Vanja Slijepčević Saftić, MD, paediatrician