Can brains help policymakers improve their education systems? Scientists say they can.
”You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an adage past its prime, or at least that is what neuroscientists are beginning to argue in brain science. As recently as 1997, it was “ generally accepted that formative learning takes place only in the first three years of life. But new research helped by technological breakthroughs show this not to be the case. In fact, the evidence shows that the possible loss of neurons after age 40 can be offset by stimulating the brain regularly. In other words, as with muscles, targeted exercise can bring learning benefits at any time in a life. This brain plasticity, or the capacity for lifelong learning, is an exciting finding for cognitive scientists, and is now just starting to influence educational policymaking.
The gap between learning research and application was discussed at a meeting in June 2000 as part of OECD’s newly launched programme on Learning Science and Brain Research. The aim is to get neuroscientists and policymakers talking to each other, hitherto a daunting task in any field.“Scientists have the answers to questions that policymakers need to ask,” said organiser Bruno Della-Chiesa at the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovations (CERI). “And scientists need to know what research policymakers can use and the kinds of research they are willing to fund.”Spectacular progress has been made in the study of the brain over the last 10 years, thanks to technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which uses radio waves to measure active brain areas, and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), which tracks brain energy metabolism with the help of high-powered computing. Older research methods relied on autopsies and treatment of head injuries. Today the ability to track blood circulation through brain tissue and to record the firing of neurons and circuitry of synapses, using techniques such as fMRI and PET, has allowed researchers to isolate and measure brain processes, like spatial orientation, visual representation and language processing. Recent breakthroughs in genetics research and cloning policies are also expected to help. All that has been missing was to persuade policymakers of the relevance of these findings. That is why Mr Della-Chiesa is delighted that the OECD might step in. “It’s important for a governmental organisation like ours to get involved,” he said, “because there are ethical and economic questions that must be approached on an international level.” He questioned, for instance, what would happen if it comes to gene manipulation or to the use of a “learning pill”. If a chemical is discovered that accelerates learning, would the chemical be available to all? How would its distribution be controlled? Who would profit from the knowledge gained?Bruce McCandliss, at the Sacler Institute in New York, presented groundbreaking research in the field of dyslexia, a specific language-learning and reading disability affecting a possible one in ten people. His findings have not only pinpointed a tiny section of the brain that is responsible for the condition, but have indicated a way to correct it. The method he uses consists of a series of mental exercises that stimulate blood flow to the area, essentially “jogging” the brain, and reactivating neuron links. It’s still in the initial stages, but to judge from the New York meeting, both educators and policymakers are becoming interested.A second “brain meeting” will take place in Granada (Spain) in February 2001. And because the new discoveries do not just concern old dogs, the focus will be on youth learning. Topics planned for discussion include learning rhythms, violent behavior, hormonal changes and decision- making, plus the ongoing comparison of “EQ vs. IQ”, emotional intelligence versus intellectual intelligence.
ENDAlison Benney©OECD Observer No 223, October 2000