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Educational Neuroscience is Not Pop Science, says Cogmed’s Mimma Mason

Posted by Colin Klupiec on April 10, 2016 at 8:25 PM

Mimm_Mason_Pic.jpgMimma Mason is the Cogmed Manager for Pearson Australia, and has previously explained working memory on the Learning Capacity podcast.

But she also spends much of her time helping people understand the emerging field of educational neuroscience. Is it another band wagon, or pop science?

We’ve asked this question before, and it seems like the consistent message is that educational neuroscience is now increasingly informing educational practice and research.

So if it’s for real, how do we implement it? And what does this mean for future teacher education and professional development?

Mimma helps us understand what to make of it all in a discussion on the Learning Capacity podcast. 

Listen to the podcast episode:

Topics covered

  1. Educational neuroscience
  2. Working memory
  3. Social & emotional learning
  4. Attention
  5. Behaviour

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Mimma Mason
  2. Pearson Australia & New Zealand
  3. Mind Brain Education Conference
  4. Professor Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa
  5. Barbara Fredrickson
  6. Ron Ritchhart
  7. The Science of Learning Research Centre
  8. Broadmeadows Primary School

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Cogmed Working Memory
  2. Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 48 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Educational Neuroscience is Not Pop Science: Cogmed's Mimma Mason Explains

Colin Klupiec: Educational neuroscience. Is it a fad or is it for real? Hello, I'm Colin Klupiec and you're listening to Learning Capacity. This podcast is brought to you by LearnFast, improving student learning outcomes by using science-based programs since 1999.

If you'd like to know more about individualised language and reading programs for your child, visit LearnFastHome.com.au. And you can comment on this podcast. Send your emails to Feedback@LearnFastGroup.com.au.

Mimma Mason is the Cogmed Manager for Pearson Australia. She's previously been on the show to discuss working memory, but she also spends much of her time helping people understand the emerging field of educational neuroscience. Is it just another bandwagon or pop science?

We've asked this question before on the show, and it seems like the consistent message is that educational neuroscience is now increasingly informing educational practice and research. If it is for real, then how do we implement it? And what does this mean for future teacher education and professional development?

In this episode, Mimma helps us understand what to make of it all. Mimma, thanks for joining us again.

Mimma Mason: Good to be here, Colin.

Colin: It's great to have you back on the program. Today's topic is educational neuroscience and I say it like that because I can just imagine many people listening to this might be thinking, "Okay, here we go again. Here's the latest thing that I have to think about for the next couple of years before it fades away."

Now I've asked some previous guests on the program about this. Is it for real? Is it a fad? Is it pop science? Or even worse, is it something that educators and educational administrators like to talk about at the beginning of the year to set a new intellectual tone?

Mimma: Look, I think this is a very important question. Very timely. We have just had a Pearson conference, the Mind, Brain, Education Conference, where were we actually set out to examine this idea. And my belief is that it was faddish.

We did go through a period of pop science. We were very excited after the decade of the brain. We were very excited about the potential of these insights for education, but I think we went too early. There were a lot of myths that were generated about what neuroscience can actually provide to education.

So in our conference, we very specifically invited speakers that could show us they had an evidence base for what they said, and could bring together what we did know. I think teachers are actually almost at the other end of hearing too much that, you know, neuroscience has nothing solid to give to education yet.

We don't do neuroscience in the classroom. People aren't sitting in an MRI machine. There is a lot of skepticism about that and I think it's right for us to have had that reaction.

But I challenged the speakers at this conference to show us, well, what do we know? What can we use? What is reliable knowledge about the way that we think and attend to information and process information and remember information?

At work in the classroom, what is it about emotions and social skills and so on that are present in the classroom, that neuroscience can help us to understand better? Because if we can understand that, we can actually be better teachers and better learners, too.

Colin: I guess on one level, it's disappointing that it didn't catch on earlier because we could've catapulted teachers right to the top of the intelligentsia by saying, "Congratulations, you're now all practitioners in applied brain science." And the old saying, "Come on, mate, it's not brain science," well, actually it is.

Mimma: It is, exactly. Learning is about making physical connections in the brain and our learning architects, our teachers, are having a biological effect in the classroom. They're actually working at that level.

Colin: Okay, so it's not pop science. 

Mimma: No. There has been...people extrapolate though in their enthusiasm for this information. So the challenge is to apply what we know about attention for instance in the classroom. And test it out in classrooms and make sure that it works.

Because it's only when it's tested in the classroom that we can say that this has an evidence base. So knowing that students are distracted by movement and noise, that's what attracts their attention...if that's the case, let's test that in the classroom and see, if we deliberately do that versus not doing it, what is the effect that that has?

Can we measure the impact that it has and can we change our behaviour to follow those rules afterwards?

So it's insights like that that groups like the Science of Learning Research Centre, for instance, they're testing. They're taking ideas from the neuroscience and they're applying it in the classroom. It's when we can do that that we can actually gain a lot of confidence. And a lot has been done. There's a lot that we do know now to make this legitimate science.

Colin: Now that's fascinating. You've indicated something there that's just sort of sparked an idea for me, where you've said that we know that certain things will distract students. Now distraction is...well, it's got to be one of the top three things that we talk about in school or even on report cards. There's the classic, "Must try harder," or the, "Easily distracted."

Now we talk a lot about learning spaces and what I thought of just as you were saying that was, well, are we suggesting that if I just put a student at a chair and a table in a completely white room with no other stimuli, that they're gonna be better attenders?

Or do we go all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where we talk about really diverse, beautiful, stimulating learning experiences with colorful things on the wall and things hanging from the ceiling and sensory areas and that sort of thing? Where do we strike the balance there?

Mimma: Again, great question. There is research to show that students actually might do better in an environment where there are less distractions. Or conversely use that information to your advantage. One of the schools that I work with in Victoria, at Broadmeadows Primary School, they've actually rebuilt their school and they have no walls. So all of the classes are actually happening in this one large space.

Lots of curves and bookcases and so on, but still no walls. They are forced then to...they're going to listen to what the teacher is saying. They're going to follow instructions. They actually have to be very attentive. They have to change their behaviour in order to listen.

So they've used the constraints there to their advantage. Teachers use novelty and surprise to get students' attention. We know that that distracts kids. Well, we're gonna distract them in a positive way. The neuroscience gains for education aren't going to happen in the lab. We learn stuff in the lab, we measure things in the lab, but in the end, it's the way that teachers apply what we've learned in the classroom.

That's where the magic is and that's where the creativity is. The more we can bring these two sciences together, the pedagogy and the neuroscience, then that's when things start to get really interesting.

Colin: Let me just pick up on that point. The term educational neuroscience suggests very blatantly that teaching with this in mind is a scientific approach. Where it's been described to me by another guest that we've had on the program who's also a neuroscientist that pedagogy is more like philosophy of education. And my question is, are we likely to see one replace the other or become dominant? Or are we looking at a 50-50 coexistence? How do you see that playing out?

Mimma: I see it as integrative and in fact, I think it's more than just neuroscience and educational pedagogy. I think it's an understanding of behaviour through psychology as well, cognitive psychology and philosophy and sociology. Now there's cultures that happen in a classroom that are studiable and are going to impact on these same findings.

I recently spoke to Professor Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. She was out here for the conference and she has written a textbook around this very idea, that we need to integrate these ideas and from there, we're going to get the best practice. The science part comes from maintaining that discipline of testing this in the environment of the classroom.

These ideas are often individually tested out in the lab, but what is the effect in the classroom and does it ring true? You don't want to extrapolate what you find in the lab to something that happens in the classroom. You need to test it.

Colin: We've talked in a previous discussion about social, emotional, and cognitive development of students. And I was going to ask you, what are we talking about here, science or philosophy? But from what I'm gathering here, it's both. It's science, philosophy, and something else that you mentioned, which is sociology.

Mimma: Yeah. And psychology. Students who feel that they don't belong, they don't feel safe, that inhibits learning. We know at the neuroscience level at least that information that comes into our brains first goes through the emotion filter, and if we feel at all threatened, fearful, or out of place, then it's very hard for you to go through them. That information doesn't even get to the cognitive layer, our thinking part of our brain. We shut down.

And we've had that experience. I'm sure...I know I've forgotten my own best friend's name when I've introduced her in company that was pretty daunting. We forget things. We don't think well when we're stressed. So just understanding that makes a big difference at that level.

There is science there. We see that. We can test that. We know that when for instance students are feeling joyful and happy and engaged, that is the best primer for learning that you can find. If you arouse a child's curiosity about a subject before you launch into new information about a subject, they actually remember more new information than if you don't do that curiosity-raising exercise to start with.

So there's lots of things we know about the brain that comes from looking at it in an MRI and testing things out that we can actually practice in the classroom and measure it's efficacy.

Colin: Let's go down the sociological path a little bit deeper here. Let me ask you a question about behaviour. Now when we talk about cognitive development and behaviour, can we see correlation there? Are we drawing long bows here or is it just wishful thinking to think if my students get smarter, they'll behave better?

Mimma: Look, there is certainly a connection. I'm thinking of a research paper I've looked at recently by Rowan and Hedwin in the United States. And it made the connection between working memory capacity and outcomes at school and the way that kids feel about themselves, their affect. And a lot of kids who were doing poorly at school have negative affect.

They think of themselves as bad learners. They don't make that day-to-day progress that the other kids making. They start to think of themselves as dummies or failures and it gets harder and harder as the kids get older to turn that around. They develop negative habits of thinking. And it turns out that if you can improve their academic outcomes by improving their working memory, you can also improve their affect, the way that they feel about themselves.

These things are very closely intertwined, partly because of that amygdala happening and part of the effect of stress and anxiety on how you feel effecting your performance. Yeah, all of these things are very closely related.

Colin: More from our discussion with Mimma in a moment. If you'd like to go back to the discussion on working memory, then check out the Learning Capacity archives, episode 44. You can find it at SoundCloud.com/LearnFast and listen to it straight from the web or search for Learning Capacity on your favorite smartphone podcast app. Once again, that's episode 44.

Neuroplasticity implies that the brain is adapting, that it's plastic, it's changing itself based on the stimulus that it gets or the work that it has to do. And we always talk about that presumably for the better, so we talk about student improvement. Can the opposite occur?

That is, we know about "use it or lose it," but is there actually something a little but more serious going on? Now we talked in a previous discussion about the brain pruning connections. Can the brain un-plasticise itself or can the opposite occur?

Mimma: There are two different mechanisms here. So the pruning is one. If something isn't practiced, then the brain doesn't think that, there's this...it's not considered useful and therefore it fades away, that pathways less-used don't become strong connections. And an adult brain is a lot more efficient and has a lot fewer connections than say, a young person's brain when they're early starting life. So pruning is happening to things that we don't practice.

But on the other hand, plasticity works in both positive and negative ways. So we know that if we do lots and lots of cognitive training around attention, we can improve attention as a result of doing that intensive and specific and positive practice.

But we also know that if I'm in a negative environment, I'm hearing negative comments and thinking bad thoughts about myself continuously on a daily basis and that's being reinforced by the environment around me, what other people are saying to me, that way of thinking, that also becomes a habit.

And we see spirals up. I think Barbara Fredrickson calls it the Broaden and Build Theory. You can spiral towards positivity, but you can also spiral in a negative way as we're building that strength, that habitual sort of thinking with lots and lots of practice. So one of the great things that we learned from both neuroscience and psychology and study of the culture of the classroom is that we need to outweigh negative thinking by a factor of three to one if we going to make an impact on this sort of stuff.

Colin: Well, that reminds me of times when people go through a stressful situation and I think every single one of us, our listeners included, would be able to relate to this where you get into a stressful situation and you immediately think, "Oh, think positive thoughts. Think positive thoughts." And you try to imagine yourself only thinking positive things to do anything that you possibly can to overwhelm the negative that's coming our way or the impending danger.

Mimma: That's right. Because actually numbers matter. The quantity matters. Our brain is actually wired to minimize danger and maximize reward. For survival, we have something like five times more networks in the brain devoted to saying no, to resisting change, than we do to responding to positivity.

Colin: Is that right?

Mimma: Yeah. And it's for our survival. We learn to automatically fight, flight, or freeze. You run away from danger before you've even thought about it. Our whole system's designed to do that, so there are lots and lots of...imagine there's this giant machine and there's lots of wiring and lots of systems in place to make sure that you're on the alert. The negativity trumps every time.

So you have to very explicitly outnumber that. You have to do positive things very deliberately. And some of the things that good teachers do in class is actually to respond only with positive feedback. It doesn't mean that you speak inauthentically or build up people with empty compliments, but it's about noticing the good things and commenting on them. Building up that number of positive expectations and positive feelings, compared to the negative ones.

And it's when you outnumber them by a rate of about three to one that you start to see change, and that's been measured. Again this is science. We've done these studies. Barbara Fredrickson is the name you want to look out for in that area.

Colin: So the neural connections to say no outnumber the neural connections to say yes. I guess teachers could use that immediately as part of their toolkit when let's say you get into a situation where someone's being difficult or resistant or you've asked someone to do something and they just look at you and say no. Suddenly you think, "Hm, I've got a pretty good idea as to why you've said no because well, I guess on one level, you're naturally wired to do that."

Mimma: That's right.

Colin: If you're not a generally compliant person, that's generally how you're going to react. So it's not unusual.

Mimma: It's not so much saying no. It's about sticking to what we know. So habits...our brain is a habit-forming machine. We tend to resist change, is probably the better way of thinking about it. What we're doing in a classroom where we're learning or where we're trying to teach new communication skills and new relationship skills and social skills, better ways of strategising how we feel about ourself, all of that is behavioural change and that's tough.

We are wired to resist change and so you have to work pretty hard at it. And that's why when we talk about neuroplasticity, we say it's not easy to change things. You can change your behaviour, but it needs to be lots of repetition, lots of practice, lots of reward. It has to be meaningful. It has to be specific. All of these things are involved in getting neuroplastic change.

Colin: I see an interesting paradox coming out of this discussion and I wanted to just finish with this one. The classic three R's, reading, writing, and arithmetic, we say generally speaking now, well, that's what we used to do in the old days. Yet if you did your arithmetic repeatedly and intensively, you got pretty good at things like your times tables and you learned how to write pretty well and all that sort of stuff. And I think that those things are very valuable.

Yet today we talk more about these harder to measure and even harder to describe skills like creativity. Where do you start to describe or measure that? Now what we're suggesting here is that the educational neuroscience model says that if we do things with intensity and with repetition, we will get better at them. So are we actually losing something by saying, "Well, we don't talk so much about the three R's anymore."

Mimma: Look no, I think...this is one of my strongest messages, I think. We're not throwing away the content. We're not throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Reading and writing is absolutely important and these are skills that we do want to practice and gets lot of repetition and lots of skills in. It's the same mechanism that applies.

The only thing I would say is that we don't want it to focus solely on content, at the expense of explicitly training some of those other skills. Emotions are also trainable, social skills are also trainable, thinking skills are trainable.

Ron Ritchhart, who I know has been a guest on your show, he talks about setting up thinking routines. If you ask the same questions in the same way over and over again, they become routine, they become a habit, and they teach us a way of analyzing and approaching a problem.

You've still got to do the work, but if you can apply those thinking skills to what you're reading and how you're reading, that's when you get success. You need to attend to both and it's the same mechanism of practice and challenge that underlies success in both of those areas.

Colin: I was going to ask you, once we have it...in terms of the use it or lose it idea...once we have it, how do we keep it? As in, once I've accumulated all this stuff, all this ability to learn, ability to think, a long-term knowledge base, how do I continue to remember all of these accumulated things?

I've got a lifetime ahead of me. Are some things just not going to make it into long-term memory? How does that work?

Mimma: Remember the brain's job is very simple for all of its complexity that people like to talk about. It's simply to minimize danger and maximize reward. We will remember what's important to us. We will learn what's important for us. And it's a part of what we practice and what we're motivated to attend to.

So you won't remember everything that you learned in second grade, but because you need your language skills and you need your writing and basic math skills on a day-to-day level, you're going to remember those because you're practicing them all the time.

And more importantly you remember how to find information, how to ask questions, how to get around a particular problem, how to deal with how you're feeling at the moment which is interfering with your thinking. They're the skills that are increasingly valuable in this world.

The other thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is, if we get better at what we practice, how does technology have an effect on us today? I'm increasingly asked by parents and teachers, are we spoiling kids' brains with the use of mobile phones and games that give a reward every two seconds?

And it's possibly true. The evidence is still out on this, but it's possibly true that we're training ourselves to not be able to remember much. How many of us can remember telephone numbers anymore?

Colin: Yeah. Wow, that's...

Mimma: We just look it up. How many of us even have to... see my 20-year-old daughter when she plans a night out. They don't have to actually have those executive function skills of planning to the nth degree all the details and all the steps that are involved because they just ring each other every two minutes and adjust their plans as they go.

So we're not getting that practice, if you like. And strong message to educators, to parents out there, give kids challenges. Give kids problems to solve. Give them the practice that they need because that's what they'll use in the long-term. It's what they practice, is what they'll get better at.

Colin: So it won't be too long before teachers really are brain scientists or applied brain scientists.

Mimma: Oh, I think we are. I think that that's the role that we can proudly wear. The one thing perhaps that we're not doing that I challenge teachers to do is collect the data. Notice what effect these strategies have in the classroom. Measure it and adjust your tactics, depending on what you find.

Teachers are scientists is the idea that we're trying to promote at Pearson. Know the neuroscience, know the psychology, know the sociology and philosophy, but you've got to practice it and test it in the environment and that's what makes you a scientist.

Colin: I think we should immediately allow teachers to put another three letters behind their name. ABS, applied brain scientist.

Mimma: Love it.

Colin: Some great insights there, Mimma. Thanks for your time.

Mimma: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

Colin: You've been listening to Learning Capacity, brought to you by LearnFast. If you'd like to know more about the Cogmed Working Memory program or the Fast ForWord programs, then visit LearnFastHome.com.au. And you can comment on this podcast. Send your emails to Feedback@LearnFastGroup.com.au. I'm Colin Klupiec. Until next time, bye for now.

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Topics: Attention, Brain Science, Memory, School, Learning Capacity, Podcasts, Educational Neuroscience

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