Since 1999, Learning and the Brain has hosted conferences that unite neuroscientists and educators as they analyze the implications of cutting-edge brain research on educational theory and practice. This past weekend, the conference came to Boston, where educators focused on “Educating Diverse Minds” as their theme. The topic was particularly relevant, as independent schools increasingly seek to diversify their communities. The conference began with some important questions, including “are we building on our diversity, or are we homogenizing?” And “how can we promote creativity so diversity can flourish?”
As exhibitors at the event, we were fortunately able to attend several keynote addresses. Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D. and Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. opened the conference by encouraging educators to modify current curricula and practices to complement the ways in which children’s brains develop. Each presentation raised questions for teachers: how can you tap into this research to help students learn in the most natural, effective ways for them?
The first address, Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Homework, Testing, & Grades, was delivered by Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ursinus College. In her presentation, Principe viewed education through an evolutionary lens. She explained that, relative to the history of human presence on Earth, formal education has been a recent phenomenon. For centuries, human children learned in experiential ways: they learned by doing, in context, and they easily understood the ramifications of their actions. As humans established more static communities, though, out-of-context education became the norm.
The problem, Principe argued, is that children’s brains haven’t yet adapted to modern educational practices. Rather than remain inside for hours, focusing on worksheets and computer screens, children’s brains crave hands-on, context-laden experiences.
Children, Principe says, have an innate desire to learn. But certain hallmark traits of modern education can squash this desire. Memorization, standardized tests, grades, and homework can hamper an interest in learning. Rather than focus on rote memorization, “teaching to the test,” and excessive homework assignment, schools would do well to recreate experimental styles of learning and apply these experiments to the classroom, Principe argues. She emphasizes that each child’s brain is different—and standardized testing does not acknowledge these differences.
In the subsequent address, Different Learners: Brains, Genes, Lifestyles and the 21st Century Student, Jean M. Healy, Ph.D. focused on the neurological inconsistencies that often leave learning-different children on the outskirts. In an address that was as much motivational speech as it was enlightening lecture, Healy urged teachers to recognize and respect individual learning styles and temperaments. She said that, in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes educational landscape, students are inundated “too much too soon” with the “wrong stuff.” Learning problems, she argued, do not exist in isolation—they are part of a larger system. Though all children are unique, they all also share basic needs. They need to be physically healthy, to experience appropriate sensory stimulation, and to have enough time to develop. When we as a society demand too much too soon, learning disabilities can result.
Both experts stressed that understanding the brain—the way it develops, the way it learns, and the care it needs as it does—is essential to understanding effective education. A delicate balance must be struck: how can schools challenge their students in a modern world while remaining sensitive to the nuances and complexities of each individual brain?
We found the talks fascinating, and we’re curious to know: are you planning to draw insights from brain research in crafting your curriculum? How do you educate diverse minds in your classroom? Weigh in below!
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