Sep 17 2009

Evidence-Based Education

In my field of medicine, for the past century or so, there has been a concerted effort to connect scientific research (both basic and applied) to actual practice. What’s the point of having a lot of scientific knowledge collecting dust in journals and books if it doesn’t affect what people do? In the last couple of decades, in fact, the medical profession has re-dedicated itself to evidence-based medicine and even formalized this process. Some of my colleagues and I even want to go a bit beyond EBM to science-based medicine, to make the connection between science and practice more effective (and to oppose the counter-movement to disconnect practice from science).

But strangely in many other fields the connection between published science and practice is not strong. Richard Wiseman, for example, just published a book called 59 seconds (out in the UK, and will be released in the US in January) in which he points out that there is a rich psychology literature full of practical advice that is simply not getting to the public. Instead we have a self-help industry peddling advice which is largely made-up and not evidence-based. (You can hear us discuss this issue on a recent SGU episode.)

It is also generally true that the common knowledge that most people absorb from the culture is largely false, or at least off in some significant way. Think about any topic that you happen to either be an expert in or at least highly interested and experienced in and compare your knowledge to what most people believe about that topic.

One area where we could use more of a connection between science and practice is education. This is especially true as our knowledge of how the brain works and learns rapidly increases. What knowledge we do have is not systematically applied to education. It further seems to me that we need more translational research – studies focusing on long-term outcomes of specific interventions.

As reported by New Scientist, a recent symposium on the Decade of the Mind focused on just these issues. The conference discussed recent research in neuroscience and what it tells us about education. This is a topic I have been following for a while, although this is not my area of expertise, I have tried to distill the current big picture from what is being published.

One of the themes of the conference is that one key to learning is executive function – the ability to focus attention and for self-control and planning. Improve executive function, and you improve overall learning. (This relates directly to the ADHD posts I recently wrote as ADHD is primarily a disorder of executive function.)

The question then becomes – how do we improve executive function in students. We can break this question down to two broad categories – how to optimize executive function in the short term during lessons, and how to improve (if it’s even possible) baseline executive function long term. The former involves transient effects, and the latter permanent changes to the brain through plasticity and learning.

Short term there are lots of things that can be done in the classroom to optimize attention. The evidence shows that on average people can pay attention to a lecture or lesson for about 15-20 minutes – that’s it. However, there are lots of ways to re-aquire attention. The key is that students cannot be expected to be passive and attentive for longer than about 20 minutes at a time – so activities need to be broken up. Various strategies can be employed, such as asking questions to engage the students, telling jokes, using exciting imagery (but not too much or it becomes distracting), and pretty much any physical activity.

There is evidence that chewing gum helps attention, as does doodling. That doesn’t mean teachers should allow these specific activities in class (although that may not be a bad idea) but rather that some physical activity or novel task should be interspersed throughout more demanding lessons to help engage and revitalize attention.

I have two young daughters in school, and so I know that many grade-school teachers already know this just from observation (probably because young children are more obvious about their inattentiveness while adults hide it better). They let the kids run around or do physical tasks throughout the day to break it up. But in later grades students are expected to sit through long classes without breaks.

Aerobic activity prior to demanding lessons also helps – so perhaps gym needs to take place at the beginning of the school day. Playing music also engages the mind and recharges attention. However, there does not appear to be anything special about certain types of music – the “Mozart effect” is bogus.

These all seem like simple methods to maximize learning during the school day. But also as we apply these methods to achieve this, we need to do follow up long-term studies to see which interventions work best and what their real long-term effects are.

Achieving improved long-term executive function is a trickier question, and researchers are still parsing this out. There definitely is plasticity in the brain – function does change with activity and learning. But at the same time there also seems to be fairly genetically determined potential that does not bend easily if at all to intervention.

Specifically, overall intelligence seems to be dominantly genetic and we all (barring extreme conditions) will achieve our genetic potential eventually. The biggest variable seems to be how long it takes to get there, and that may be a function of effective parenting and education. But what can be modified is how we use our intelligence – making the most of what we have. The same seems to be true of specific cognitive tasks, like reading and mathematics – these are largely genetically determined talents.

Having said that, there is evidence that certain factors can permanently improve some aspects of cognitive functi0n (but not others). Learning to play a musical instrument or learning a second language both improve performance in non-verbal spacial tasks, for example. This suggests that these activities should be encouraged at a young age or perhaps become part of the standard curriculum. But to be clear, they don’t improve overall intelligence.

It seems, therefore, that we already have a significant evidence-base of what works and what doesn’t in terms of optimizing education from a neuroscience point of view, mostly focused around improving attention and effective executive function. While this knowledge needs to be translated into the classroom, we also need further research to more deeply understand not only how the brain works but how it learns, and how to think about and measure the various components of cognitive function.

In short, we need more science-based education.

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