Aug. 29, 2018

First-of-its-kind certificate in neuroscience and education busts myths about brain and learning

Interdisciplinary effort between Cumming and Werklund schools brings better brain education to the classroom
Wilcox and MacMaster
Wilcox and MacMaster

“We only use 10 per cent of our brain.”

“Left-brained thinkers are more analytical, right-brained thinkers, more artistic.”

“Certain types of food can influence your brain function.”

These are common statements about the brain and how we learn, and they are also among the neuromyths that Dr. Gabrielle Wilcox, PsyD, an associate professor at the Werklund School of Education, is working to dispel, particularly among educators.

“Information on the brain is of serious interest right now, and for many people, it’s hard to figure out which things are legitimate or not,” says Wilcox. “Some information isn’t evidenced-based at all. So teachers aren’t sure where to turn.”

An increasing appetite for brain science

The increasing desire to understand how the brain is implicated in learning is drawing graduate students, teachers, and others working in education into a new four-course certificate in educational neuroscience, a program option within the Master of Education (MEd) program at the Werklund School. Designed by an interdisciplinary team from both the Werklund School and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), the first online course offered this summer was quickly oversubscribed and a second section was added.

The four-course certificate offers classes ranging from the fundamentals of neuroscience for educators, to brain behaviour relationships of memory, executive functions, language and literacy, and numeracy, to implications of neuroscience on teaching. The team hopes it will help prepare teachers to provide students with a stronger classroom experience, helping teachers address some of the complex challenges they face in collaboration with colleagues from other fields.

For Wilcox, who joined Werklund in 2013, developing a neuroscience and education certificate program was a key component in bridging the existing gap between brain research and its application for educators in the classroom.

Wilcox emphasizes the need for more evidenced-based instructional methods when discussing neuroscience and education. “If we don’t use these methods, then we’re at risk of kids falling through the cracks and not making academic progress. This is why it’s really important for teachers to have some basic understanding.”

Recognizing the appetite in education to better understand the neuroscience of learning, the researchers working with Wilcox want to investigate some of the intractable problems that have not been addressed by field-specific, fragmented approaches. Their research will address how to improve graduation rates, executive functioning, and academic skills, especially for kids who struggle even when receiving evidence-based instruction or interventions.

In creating a shared language between scientists and educators, the interdisciplinary team hopes to transform both teachers and researchers, preparing them to better address complex challenges in collaboration with colleagues across sectors.

“When I go into schools, I tell teachers that they are like brain mechanics,” says Dr. Frank MacMaster, PhD, an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics at the CSM, who with Wilcox and Dr. Erica Makarenko, PsyD, the director of Integrated Services in Education at the Werklund School, are the force behind this collaborative initiative. MacMaster and Wilcox are both members of CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), while Makarenko is an associate member of HBI.

MacMaster, who is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, underscores the importance of this kind of collaboration on both research and education, “By bridging this gap, all sides benefit. New approaches can be developed, novel questions can be answered, and most critically, we will be better able to serve the public.”

Teachers changing how they teach

As an educator, Erin Reilly has more than 15 years of teaching experience, but he enrolled in the course to better understand deficits to learning and some of the tools and strategies required to address them. “Understanding the neuropsychological processes can provide an educator with a better sense of what the student needs and why, as opposed to getting lost in the frustration of not achieving results,” Reilly explains. “It can provide educators with more patience and helps us understand why and how students learn differently.”

In addition to helping him grow more patient and empathetic with individual learners and their struggles, Reilly says the knowledge will change how he teaches, providing more opportunities for learning, and scaffolding the instruction by systemically building on their knowledge with additional supports.

“Neuroscience offers so much information, but doesn’t necessarily apply in schools,” Wilcox says. She and her colleagues hope that by working with teachers, principals, and school psychologists they can arrive at better questions, as they collaborate on the applied research that can better translate to schools. In turn, the research will further inform the coursework they are providing to educators in the certificate program.

“It will be useful information rather than ‘Oh, that’s really neat that we know how the brain works,’ but what does that mean for teachers and kids?”