Parting Shot: Learning and the Brain SF 2014

I left the Learning and the Brain conference elated. I think this is the fifth installment of this conference that I’ve attended, and I’m so struck by how far it’s come in that short time. Overall, this is the kind of professional development I love best–the kind that brings the people in the trenches into direct and meaningful contact with people on the leading edge of research in critically related fields.

That’s what the point of this conference is supposed to be, after all: it’s supposed to be about what the best insights from neuroscience and cognitive science can bring to educational practice. Unfortunately, I’ve felt some talks haven’t lived up to that purpose: I’ve seen more talks than I’d care to mention that strayed to one extreme or the other. I saw some talks that went deeply into highly technical discussions of neuroscience and imaging technology and then concluded with a hurried, “Uh…and…that means a lot for education. Thank you.” I’ve seen other talks that careened through a series of truisms and inspirational-seeming language about the state of the art in education but which has little in the way of scientific content. As much as I enjoyed the talk that stated learning  was “obviously brain-based; it’s not foot-based!” I’m not sure that I learned anything new. Making me laugh or impressing me with neat graphics is all well and good, but it doesn’t leave me with any new information about the state of neuroscience insights into educational practice.

This year’s conference was clearly different. The opening keynote really embodied what this conference has become, in its most impressive and most aspirational sense. The first talk was by UCSD philosophy professor Dr. Patricia Churchland, who included the first chapter of her latest book as her entry for the conference resource book. She spoke with the same tone she used in her book–smart but approachable, knowledgable but inviting–and went directly to what philosophy has to do with issues of the mind and brain. Suddenly, her slides took me back to my yearlong sophomore philosophy course (see the section on Philosophy 610Q here, written by my professor for that course) as she delved into the mind-body problem and the work of Hume and Descartes. She went on to discuss some new imaging technology and what its insights might mean for learning. She discussed some basic neuroscience ideas, like myelination of axons in the brain and how electrical signals are relayed in the brain, and she discussed how variations in myelination can have major implications for emotional development and learning. Then she said something that blew my mind: some researchers are investigating whether there might be a relationship between synaptic pruning and some of the psychiatric disorders that emerge in adolescence like schizophrenia. She then wrapped up and took time for questions.

Breathless, I expected the first question to send her back to that line of thinking, which is really provocative and also fascinating to consider. There’s still so much unknown about the brain, and the pace of inquiry and discovery is extraordinary. I wanted to hear more about

Instead, here’s the first question that was posed: “Can you tell by looking at the brain whether someone has dyslexia? And what does that look like?” Then there was a long pause.

Dr. Churchland did a great job of saying that, yes, brain imaging technology can give some great insights about activation patterns in the brains of dyslexic readers. However, she said, this wasn’t really her area of study and it’s something that others at the conference could speak to more readily.

The next two questions were similar: they were broad questions about the relationship between learning and the brain that aligned well with the spirit of Dr. Churchland’s talk (specifically, a connection between brain science and insights about education) but not with her specific content. One guy got up and asked a really long-winded question about her research methods in the form of a yes-or-no question, and it seemed less designed to gain insight than to show a ballroom full of people that he knew a bunch of technical vocabulary about research methodology. She answered “Yes” and moved on. I’m not sure that that’s what he was going for; he might be better served studying more language for how to ask more open-ended questions.

While I found these questions unsatisfying, they were a great example of the best thing about this conference. This is a room full of educators, and they’re hungry–for insight, for new knowledge, and for new tools to bring to their students. The level of urgency was palpable: I was seated next to some teachers from a school in Nova Scotia who were there to seek answers for how to better help their special-needs students. I talked to a faculty member from a university in Montana who was eager to recruit someone with a background and interest in educational neuroscience. I saw elementary school and middle school teachers from all over the country eager to find out more about dyslexia, ADHD, and emotional development so that they could better serve their students and schools. The questions they asked weren’t always perfectly formed, but that didn’t matter. What mattered what that they were in exactly the right place to find the answers they sought–and to discover even better questions to pursue.

As usual, I’m totally biased about what I loved in this conference. I admittedly loved the things that I found familiar, which reminded me of things I studied and loved as an undergraduate. While that’s true, I also feel like this conference is moving into a real position of leadership in bridging the divide between insights on the brain and insights on education. (Here’s one of the most famous articles on whether this is “a bridge too far” or not. But that’s a discussion for another day.) At any rate, I’m more jazzed about the Learning and the Brain conference than ever. I’ll be back.

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