Brain Symposium Brings Neuroscience to the Classroom

June 20, 2011

Picture a typical American high-school classroom, and a colorful space filled with music, art and teenagers dancing, singing and playing video games may not immediately spring to mind. But add a quiet spot for napping and you’ve got the ideal environment for 21st-century learners, according to a renowned neuroscientist who riveted audiences at Punahou’s second annual Brain Symposium.

“The brain is built to absorb multisensory information. We create this kind of enriched environment for our youngest kids, but stop doing it as they age. We’re ignoring the way the brain naturally works,” said David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston

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David Eagleman and Summer School Director Casey Agena ’94 during Punahou’s second annual Brian Symposium.

Eagleman, a Guggenheim Fellow, also is a prolific author whose current best-seller, “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” illuminates the mysteries of the subconscious mind.

During “Educating with the Brain in Mind: From Research to Practice,” held June 13 – 14, 2011, at Punahou’s Case Middle School, Eagleman laid out in layman’s terms how combining the latest neuroscience with technology that is second-nature to today’s students could accelerate creative thinking, achievement and self-esteem.

His four keynote addresses were interspersed among breakout sessions led by educators from Punahou and partner institutions, on topics such as “Working Memory: The New IQ?,” “The Self-Reflective Learner,” “Digital Citizenship,” and “Activity and Academics.”

Some 230 people from 51 public schools, 16 independent schools and 12 other organizations attended, inspired to apply what they had learned.

Eagleman explained that humans possess a high degree of neural plasticity, meaning that their brain connections change based on environment and experience. Neural networks strengthen as multisensory experiences are repeated, memories are consolidated and learning occurs. Given this plasticity, basic brain function varies from generation to generation. For example, he said, today’s “screenagers” perceive text differently than their parents do, an example of adaptation in the “digital natives.”

“Technology has changed the way these kids think. … Our only solution is to catch up,” said Eagleman, describing himself as a “cyber optimist” who believes the pros of incorporating tools such as video games into classwork and homework outweigh the cons. The best video games can improve visual processing, decision-making and short- and long-term memory; engage players in complex tasks that increase in difficulty; and keep players at their point of struggle until they master the material and move on, he noted.

Eagleman also addressed the function of sleep in brain development, calling adequate shut-eye crucial for learning. “What you learn while awake is replayed in your sleep. Your brain is essentially rehearsing, consolidating the memory,” he said. “You can measure this in humans.”

Given this fact, it’s helpful to take a 20-minute nap after learning something new, while cramming all night for exams “is absolutely counterproductive,” he said.

Schools would do well by their adolescent students to start classes later in the morning, as Circadian rhythms change around puberty. “That’s a no-brainer,” Eagleman said, grinning sheepishly at the pun. “Teenagers need the sleep. Grades go up, disciplinary problems go down. Everything’s better.”

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