Education, Meet Brain

Over the last few decades, a new term has become increasingly prominent: brain-based education, or “brain education.” As if any other kind of education was possible! But better late than never.

Taking these individual differences into account in tailoring educational approaches will greatly enhance their effectiveness. This is becoming increasingly the case in the design of educational programs, at least in more sophisticated environments.

Educational programs, understandably, have traditionally revolved around content subjects like reading, writing, basic math — and, at higher levels, literature, science, calculus, etc. But more recently there has been a growing interest in teaching “metacognitive” skills directly, so that students can “learn how to learn.”

Learning is a complex process whose success or failure is predicated on numerous factors. When the learning process is impeded, it is important to recognize and accurately identify the underlying difficulties and to correctly diagnose them both in terms of their scope (which aspects of cognition are affected), and in terms of the underlying causes:

  • Such underlying causes may be environmental, reflecting cultural and socioeconomic disadvantages. A child growing up in an impoverished, chaotic, or disruptive environment and deprived of parental attention and cultural stimulation will be at a disadvantage at subsequent stages of learning.
  • Learning difficulties may also be biological but peripheral in nature. It is known that severe chronic ear infections in early childhood may interfere with language acquisition during formative stages. While essentially a peripheral hearing impairment, the consequences of such deficit frequently snowball to affect even higher-order language skills.
  • The learning process can also be impeded by cognitive difficulties caused by certain forms of brain dysfunction. These types of dysfunction are commonly referred to as learning disabilities. It is common to distinguish between language-based and nonverbal learning disabilities.

Language-based learning disabilities are often referred to as dyslexias, which in turn are divided into phonological, dyseidetic, and others, depending on which aspect of language processing is particularly affected. Even though the term “dyslexia” implies the impairment of reading (and, by extension, writing), the majority of cases of language-based learning disabilities affect both written and spoken language.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is usually regarded separately, but in reality it is also a form of learning disability, and it also may take several distinct forms. Memory may also be impaired as a result of the above-mentioned causes, which will obviously impact learning in adverse ways. But because no explicit category of memory-based learning disability exists in the currently available diagnostic manuals, memory impairment as the source of neurodevelopmental learning difficulties is often overlooked or misdiagnosed as something else (e.g., dyslexia or ADHD).

Brain dysfunction leading to learning disabilities or ADHD is rarely catastrophic or life-threatening, but it may be quite consequential in its disruptive effect on learning and school performance. The causes behind such brain dysfunction are diverse. They may be hereditary, which is why learning difficulties sometimes run in families. Such hereditary causes may affect morphogenesis, the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape, and neurogenesis, the process by which neurons are generated, which in turn leads to errors in the alignment and clustering of cortical neurons (nerve cells) at early stages of brain development. Or the causes can be biochemical, affecting certain neurotransmitter systems in the brain.

The causes behind learning difficulties can also be acquired. The acquired causes of neurodevelopmental disorders include mechanical trauma to the brain which occurred in utero or perinatally; hypoxia, caused by oxygen deprivation of the brain; in utero or perinatal viral exposure; and even perinatal stroke.

The exact nature of the adverse effects exerted by any such cause on cognition depends in particular on which parts of the brain are impacted. Because most of the above-described causes are likely to impact multiple brain structures rather than isolated focal ones, it is quite common for the resulting learning difficulties to be composite in nature and not to fit neatly into any single diagnostic category.

How are Learning Difficulties Recognized and Diagnosed?

The diagnostic process involves several components, cognitive tests being one of them. Cognitive tests are different from educational tests in that they are designed to assess various cognitive domains which form the prerequisite of learning rather than the outcome of learning itself. Such cognitive tests assess various forms of attention, language, memory, perceptual processes, decision-making, and motor processes.

While the diagnosis of learning difficulties should not rely on such tests alone, they serve as an important component of the diagnostic process. Cognitive tests are also essential to guide the remedial programs designed to correct or minimize the cognitive impairment, and to monitor and assess their efficacy.

A number of cognitive tests have been designed and are used by educators and clinicians. But it is difficult to design such tests in a way that would make them culture- or language-independent. Furthermore, in order to be useful, the cognitive tests must have normative databases appropriate to the population for which they are used. Since the overwhelming majority of cognitive tests have been designed in North America and Western Europe, their utility is limited to the Western world and effectively excludes numerous developing countries.

But learning disabilities are present in every country, in every linguistic and cultural environment. Therefore, the design of cognitive tests which would be maximally culture- and language-independent and the acquisition of multicultural normative databases is an important challenge directed at the improvement of the identification and treatment of learning difficulties worldwide.

In the past, the dialogue between educators and cognitive scientists was limited and sporadic. But this has changed — and as a result, cognitive science increasingly informs the design of educational programs and approaches. And this in turn benefits the ways in which our children learn and develop.

Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D., is the author of  “The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older” and “The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World.”

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2011 issue.

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