From the science of the learning brain to the classroom: A tale of a constructive dialogue between researchers and teachers

From the science of the learning brain to the classroom: A tale of a constructive dialogue between researchers and teachers
The science of the learning brain could shape the future of teaching and learning, but it would only do so if findings are effectively disseminated and there is genuine collaboration between the laboratory and the classroom.
Professor of Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience of Education, University of Paris; Director, Laboratory for the Psychology of Child Development and Education, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France

Our societies are changing at an unprecedented rate due to the emergence of new technologies, driven in part by the digital revolution and social media. The social, cognitive, and emotional competences needed to thrive in society or in the workplace will dramatically change, and education needs to be reinvented to help children face the future. Paradoxically, in some education systems, learners are still taught using approaches from past centuries; manipulating the entry of information (i.e., the curricula) and examining its output (i.e., national or international evaluation such as PISA), with limited consideration of learning processes. This approach ignores growing evidence of how the brain develops, how it is shaped by cultural learning (reading, counting, writing, and reasoning) and how learning can be improved by taking into account the way the brain works. Progress in developmental, social, cognitive psychology and neuroscience should help shape the future of education by supporting the design of pedagogies that are informed by the science of the learning brain.

One of the key challenges ahead is to foster a continuing and non-dogmatic dialogue between researchers and teachers, to disseminate knowledge regarding the learning brain to teachers, students, and their parents. It is important also to develop collaborative and participative research to promote innovative pedagogies and to evaluate their effect on a large scale. The Laboratory for the Psychology of Child Development and Education (LaPsyDÉ) at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), University Paris Descartes, has dedicated 15 years to the development of such innovative pedagogies, their evaluation, and the scaling up of their impact. Let me explain how we did it, and where we are now!

The process started with the creation of professional development groups in which researchers from our lab and teachers, who had been given time out of their classrooms by their school district, could meet and discuss some of the common learning problems students face in various academic areas.

Teachers were given the opportunity to understand the basics of the brain, including the process of maturation and how certain childhood and adolescent stages constitute sensitive periods for learning, due to the high plasticity of the brain at both the functional level (i.e., the networks of neurons activated during the resolution of a problem) and the structural level (i.e., the thickness of the external layer of the brain and the connections between the different brain areas). Teachers also gained a basic understanding of how the brain deals with the acquisition of cultural tools at school and in society (language, reading skills, mathematics, logical thinking, and critical thinking) and how new technologies and digital media, in particular, can be used to aid the acquisition of these tools by the brain during childhood and adolescence. Throughout, it was emphasized that the learning brain is both universal and very unique, which is consistent with what teachers experience in their classroom with students learning at different rates, using different strategies. For instance, evidence shows that individual differences in the shape of the small valleys (sulci) of the brain, which are determined early in life, can explain, years later, individual differences in the acquisition of cultural tools such as reading (Borst, Cachia, Tissier, Ahr, Simon, and Houdé, 2016).

Researchers are offered an insight into the common errors teachers, as key pedagogues and expert observers of student learning challenges in classroom settings, observe.

For instance, our research provides convergent evidence that some of the common difficulties students encounter in learning mathematics, literacy, or science could be rooted in the automatisms constructed in previous years of schooling (Borst, Cachia, Tissier, Ahr, Simon, and Houdé, 2016). Take, for example, the resolution of arithmetic word problems such as “Jeanne has 10 marbles. She has 5 more marbles than Billie. How many marbles does Billie have?”. This problem seems rather simple to solve. Except, when first introduced to it, students have a tendency to answer that Billie has 15 marbles because they are misled by the wording of the problem; it is unusual for the word “more” to be used in a way that is not associated with an addition.

Research demonstrates that overcoming these types of errors depends on the students’ ability to resist the automatism “add if more”, which has been reinforced in previous years of schooling (Lubin, Vidal, Lanoë, Houdé, and Borst, 2013). A similar type of error can be found when students first compare decimal numbers and conclude that 1.5 is smaller than 1.452, because they have a hard time resisting overgeneralizing the properties of whole numbers, such as “more digits, greater number”, to rational numbers (Roell, Viarouge, Houdé, and Borst, 2019).

These are important findings for teachers because they suggest that students’ errors, in contexts such as the ones presented above, reflect a specific difficulty in resisting automatisms constructed at school or in their daily environment and not a lack of knowledge. Helping students overcome such difficulties might then involve a different type of pedagogical intervention, rather than repeating the proper rule to use in such contexts. Research evidence shows that a meta-cognitive pedagogical intervention based on identifying the misleading automatisms that lead to errors in such contexts is actually more efficient (Houdé and Tzourio-Mazoyer, 2003).

So far, findings have been based on small-scale interventions, working with neighborhood schools. A key challenge, as always, is to scale up findings to a national or global scale, considering that such findings are potentially global public goods. This may require the extension of partnerships between researchers and teachers, to other actors with a wider footprint, e.g., private companies, ministries of education, or international institutions.

To scale up the intervention, we partnered with one of France’s major textbook publishers to access their platform, which hosts to a pedagogical and social network of more than 100,000 teachers. A virtual lab was designed on this platform to develop and promote collaborative and participative research with teachers in their classrooms.

In the first year of the project, a live online video-conference on the learning brain was organized for students. More than 4,000 students from preschool to middle school followed the conference and asked more than 800 questions, all of which were replied to within a few weeks. Teachers then identified common errors that could be related to a difficulty of resisting automatisms acquired in previous years of schooling, and evaluated their frequency. In the 150 classes from preschool to Grade 5 that participated, teachers reported more than 74 instances of this type of systematic error. Finally, teachers ran a randomized control trial, creating a control and an experimental group in their classroom, with objective evaluation pre- and post-training, to assess whether small daily activities in the classroom such as “Wesley says…” (an activity in which children execute an action but only when they hear “Wesley says…”) or “Stop and Go” (where children move towards the instructor when his/her back is turned, but must stop when they turn around) could improve the ability of their students to resist automatism.

The study was conducted in more than 115 classes with 2,800 students, without any intervention from researchers. They merely provided the material, the principle of the randomized controlled trial, and analysed the data collected by the teachers. Preliminary findings showed that the ability to resist automatisms did improve from pre- to post-training in the experimental group, as compared to the control groups who performed games that did not promote the specific ability. With this proof of concept, the second year of the project looks promising: more than 130 classes and 3,000 students are taking part in a follow-up study. This participative and collaborative project provides evidence that the experimental method can be successful in the classroom and can potentially be used by the teachers themselves to evaluate their pedagogical interventions.

Changing education in the twenty-first century will require continuous effort to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the classroom, between researchers and teachers, and between teachers and parents, to promote collaborative and participative projects that allow each of the key players to benefit from the expertise of the others, with the participation of national governments, international agencies, such as IBE-UNESCO, and private companies.