From neuroscience to the classroom

Can neuroscience add anything to our understanding of the classroom? And what should teachers make of it? Efrat Furst looks into how this lens might prove useful in the future. 

What I’m most curious about is human learning. How does it take place in the brain and how does it take place in the classroom? From my point of view, shaped by my background in both cognitive neuroscience and teaching, they are equally interesting and greatly interrelated. These questions guide my everyday work in communicating (neuro)science and education. Educators and researchers often have similar questions about learning, but different ways to approach them, with different goals, ranging from pure theory to pure practice. I find it fascinating and valuable to look at these goals through both lenses, striving to understand both the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’, shaping both teaching practices and research.

From neuroscience

My background is in cognitive neuroscientific research on human long-term memory. I did my research in the Dudai Lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The lab studies memory using two approaches: neurobiological research, and human behavioural research combined with functional neuroimaging. This combination allowed me to study memory from both the biological and the cognitive points of view. While working on my research I was also active in science teaching, teaching topics in science and neuroscience in various programmes for students (grades 4–12). This experience triggered my interest in making connections between research and practice.

Looking back, it was my multidirectional view on the retrieval process, the process by which we access our memories, which turned this plan into a reality. The neurobiological branch of the lab was working for years on the dynamics of memory processes: establishing that consolidation, the post-learning biological modifications of neurons and synapses, is necessary for long-term memory and future retrieval.

Intriguingly, in the early 2000s the lab was among a group of labs that demonstrated that the consolidation processes is not a one-time event: when well-consolidated memories are reactivated during retrieval, they become malleable and subject to reconsolidation. These findings have led to an updated view of memory consolidation:1 it is not just the initial learning experience that registers the information, but also every subsequent activation by retrieval of the memory bears an opportunity to modify the memory trace. The idea that when we try to retrieve memories we update and strengthen their trace emphasises the importance of retrieval – it’s not just the end result of learning and remembering, but actually a vital phase in the process of modifying and strengthening memories in the brain.

With this background, in 2008 I came across a fascinating article in Science journal by cognitive psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger.2 They studied the contribution of retrieval practice, as a method of learning, to long-term performance. They demonstrated that by trying to recall the meaning of words in a foreign language, participants dramatically improved their recall ability after a week (when compared to learning by rote memorisation). These important findings made a lot of sense: the neurobiological basis of retrieval seemed like a plausible explanation for the cognitive-behavioural findings. On top of that, I realised the immense practical potential of these findings. This was a turning point in my career, when neuroscience, cognitive science and education came together.

To the classroom

Upon graduation I decided to pursue the field of education. I studied for a teacher certificate in biology, and also started teaching in schools (curricular science and non-curricular neuroscience). This was obviously an intensive and challenging experience: learning pedagogy in theory and by practice, learning from my students and from experienced teachers. This new knowledge was built upon my established expertise and views on human learning and memory, igniting my motivation to connect them.

In a process of several years I was designing research-based, classroom-oriented curriculum for students and teachers. I was teaching students in secondary and post-secondary education, teachers and lecturers, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly. Thankfully, teachers and students have found these topics to be interesting, counterintuitive and applicable for their practice. I was frequently asked, ‘How come we have never learned this before?’ With growing certainty about my professional path, and motivated by the increasing demand, I kept working on filling this welcoming void.

I teach education professionals – across levels and fields – a unique programme that integrates three layers: the basic neuroscience of learning as basis, then cognitive research-based effective learning and practice strategies as core, and classroom application as goal. In a related avenue, I guide research projects performed by students and teachers to experiment with ideas from cognitive science to promote self-reflection and motivation to adapt practice.

After several exciting years of intensive work in Israel, our family adventures took us to Boston. This was an opportunity to evaluate my work so far, and to discover what is done in this field in the world. About one year ago I discovered the inspiring edu-Twitter and researchED communities. It was thrilling to discover a range of professionals with shared goals, and multiple avenues of insightful thought and impactful applications. Being part of the lively community of researchED called me to better define my professional identity as a communicator between (neuro)science and education, and to share some personal takeaways from this work so far.

Neuroscience in education

There is a current debate whether neuroscience can practically contribute to the field of education. A common claim is that neuroscience cannot contribute anything beyond cognitive and behavioural findings. While I agree that most of the current research is not immediately applicable to the classroom, I have found that some aspects have clear added value when combined with findings from cognitive sciences.

Core direction is to teach the essence of how a learning experience is potentially turned into memory – how new information is constructed in the brain on the basis of prior knowledge, and how effective practice should lead to creating well-established schema structures in the learner’s mind. Importantly, the use of visualisations supports clearer and more concrete understanding. A principal example of such a visualisation depicts a simplified model, on the basis of current theories, of how learned information is stored in long-term memory. In the model neurons (nodes) and synapses (connectors) create neuronal representations of learned information; they are formed after learning, stored, and potentially reactivated upon retrieval.

This model has several valuable properties: it creates a concrete way to explain the learning process and its outcomes. It also emphasises how the basic principles of learning and memory are common among all learners. Additionally, it allows us to separately discuss the initial learning phases (‘presentation’ and ‘explanation’ in the figure) and the ‘practice’ phase. Specifically, in the initial learning the focus is on forming long-term representations by creating meaningful associations, explaining a newly learned concept in already familiar terms or with familiar examples. Examples of relevant applications are using deliberate elaboration, concrete examples and preventing overloading the limited working memory resources. Then, in the practice phase, the focus shifts to establishing the representations and making sure they are usable and accessible by building and maintaining retrieval pathways. This is when effective practice approaches (like distributed retrieval practice) are discussed.

 

I use a similar framework to further explain the consolidation and reconsolidation processes and their possible contribution to the benefits of retrieval practice and distributed practice. Presumably, when trying to retrieve, we are activating and reconstructing interconnected networks and pathways in attempt to find the relevant piece of information, in comparison to mere rehearsal of already-presented information. The mechanistic point of view of the brain asserts that whatever was active and connected meaningfully during the practice session has chances to undergo reconsolidation.

Between research and classroom practice

Many teachers find these ideas relevant, important and applicable. Some immediately see the relations to practices that they regularly use, and the research-based point of view helps them identify the critical points, refine and develop them further. For others, this perspective is an effective trigger for update and transformation.

And yet the process of shifting form understanding to implementation raises challenges. I learned that dealing directly with these challenges and the ways to overcome them is essential and equally important to communicating the science. Teachers face their students’ challenges as well as their own.

For once, the effective learning strategies cannot be ‘taught’; they must be practised. When we are telling students how they should learn, we are probably only helping the minority of students who already use the strategies or are inclined to. However, most students, even when informed, would not voluntarily choose effective strategies. Because while these strategies are rationally better, emotionally they are neither intuitive nor compelling. Retrieval practice, for one example, requires significant effort, it does not provide immediate reward and the benefit is evident only in the long term. The opposite is true for restudying or cramming, which is easy, rewarding and effective in the short term. Since it is in our nature to act upon immediate rewards, it is unrealistic to expect that students would choose the seemingly unrewarding options. Therefore, it is not enough to tell students how to study, even if we explain why. As teachers, we should build routines in the classroom that closely support the students in applying effective strategies.

However, helping students to overcome their challenges is by itself challenging – and for similar reasons. Pedagogical transformation for the sake of long-term goals requires significant effort without immediate rewards. Moreover, teachers must face students, parents and the system they work in – all of which may demand immediate results. Many teachers, myself included, testify that even though they understand why they should change their practice, it is still not trivial: our reward system is working against us, and at times so are the ‘systems’ we work in. Like with students, these practices come naturally to some, but not to most, and a systematic acknowledgement and support in the process are crucial.

Working in the realm between research and education teaches me that there is much more to it than translating research findings into classroom practice. It has several phases, and each requires deliberate efforts as well as resources.

The ways the information is selected, planned and taught immensely influence the way it is accepted and the motivation it triggers. The attitude and personal relationships are crucial too – just like any other teaching practice! As mentioned above, the implementation takes great effort and requires systematic and continuous support to allow multi-level implementation processes that include discussions, experimentation, allowing time and resources for evaluation of the process, and publishing conclusions in a scientific (but mostly idiosyncratic) manner (e.g. blogs and opinions). On this basis, practice-originated and -oriented research questions could be raised to further feed the communication cycle.

Discovering researchED was a dramatic revelation: the realm I was visioning and working toward actually existed! I am excited to learn about the various realisations of these ideas through the work of organisations, schools, and – importantly – individual teachers and scientists. This experience has caused me to learn, reflect on and better define my work, and has motivated to me to aim even higher. My goal is to continue to actively develop and invest in all phases of the communication process, through learning, teaching, implementation, field research, and engaging in bi-directional communication. It is inspiring and empowering to do so as part of an international community that is devoted to learning and teaching.


References

1.
Nader, K. and Hardt, O. (2009) ‘A single standard for memory: the case for reconsolidation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10 (3) pp. 224–234.

2.
Karpicke, J. D. and Roediger, H. L. (2008) ‘The critical importance of retrieval for learning’, Science 319 (5865) pp. 966–968.

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