Understanding the brain in education

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Recently, a group of Nobel Prize winners were asked to identify "the last frontier." Their response: "understanding the human brain." The latest, most fascinating facts about the human brain appear regularly in such journals as National Geographic, Scientific American and Neurology. Reading them as an educator, I ask: "How can this wealth of incredible insight into the brain be used to transform and improve education?"

While teachers have the responsibility to develop the cognitive ability of students every day, most of our teacher preparation programs include little, if anything, about the neuroscience of learning and the understanding of the various levels of brain development. There are specific characteristics of the adolescent brain that differ from early childhood brain development. Without this knowledge in the classroom, educators can have very unrealistic expectations of their students. They may even perceive students as not progressing, when in fact a student's perceived lack of achievement is a product of an incongruous delivery of information for their level of development. This disconnect can frustrate teachers and students alike.


We also know that stress (termed "toxic") and trauma weaken the developing brain in a way that inhibits successful learning. Parental absence, neglect, substance abuse and other causes of maltreatment, in the absence of a secure, loving relationship, can cause toxic stress. Toxic stress is more widespread in students living in poverty but can occur in any student. Unless we implement ways to alleviate toxic stress on the brain, a rigorous curriculum and more classroom time will not help affected students become successful learners.

Through my work at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI), a place where brain research is a primary mission, I have learned a great deal about the neurosciences and how much they have to offer education. KKI is best known for its work with children with disabilities, but most people do not realize that the success of their work hinges on a deep understanding of how the healthy brain functions. KKI researchers have much to teach educators about how all children learn, the affective dimensions of brain development on behavior, and how to improve their students' learning by applying this knowledge in the classroom.


Historically, we have not created pathways for research institutions to share critical information with current teachers or teachers in preparation. To begin to address this issue in Maryland, a new fellows program has been developed at KKI for aspiring leaders in special education. Our children with disabilities do not auger well in most academic situations and, as we disaggregate student achievement data each year, it is discouraging. This program provides the opportunity for experienced teachers to study for a year at KKI. These teachers gain a deep understanding of brain research, practice behavioral strategies, and develop ways to apply this knowledge in the classroom. At the end of the year, when these teachers return to schools or systems, they are fully qualified for leadership positions.

Brain imaging and widespread interest among researchers in brain development is transforming medical practices in the 21st century. It is time to use this knowledge to transform educational practice as well. Further collaboration between education and the neurosciences can begin to make a difference, not only for students with disabilities, but for all students. Our teachers are ready. In January 2013, I hosted a Signature Forum at Towson University on the topic of "Education and the Neurosciences." At the conclusion of this forum, teachers flooded the stage to continue the dialogue with the speakers, hungry for more information on how their students learn best. Teachers are eager to translate these findings into effective classroom instructional models. Future teachers are excited about the possibility of incorporating courses on the neuroscience of learning as part of their curriculum and to incorporate these new instructional models as part of their student teaching.

Although we may be late to the game in applying the abundance of neuroscience research to our classrooms, Maryland has tremendous resources in place, like KKI, to propel us forward. Let our New Year's resolution be for every Maryland teacher to receive the information they need about how their students' brains develop and function, and the ability to incorporate this knowledge into everyday instruction.

Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is