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Brain Education Spurs Teachers' Research

As a field, Mind, Brain, and Education has yet to deliver a unified theory of learning, (as I report in more detail here ) but it is getting more teachers involved in studying how their students think and how they can better engage them in learning.

Learning more about the neurological facets of student learning has helped solve some long-held frustrations of Debbie Cockerham, a teacher at the Hill School in Fort Worth, Texas—a school for students with cognitive and attention challenges. "I've taught children with learning disabilities for years, and thought, how could students be so intelligent and yet not able to read? What's going on in their brains?" she told me.

Cockerham is part of the first class of the University of Texas-Arlington's MBE graduate program, and her graduate research has focused on ways to engage students on the autism spectrum. This fall she will use electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain activity in autistic students as they look at pictures of people whose facial and body language are mismatched; often these students have a difficult time recognizing when a person's body language doesn't reflect their facial emotions.

In addition, Cockerham and an MBE classmate are working with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History to create "Autistic Inclusion Days." At first, she told me, they had considered developing an exhibit geared to children with autism, but quickly realized that the whole museum experience could be challenging to the students: lots of people, music and other unfamiliar sounds, bright lights, and no place to take a breather if they became overstimulated.

Students with disabilities on the autistic spectrum, she said, "tend to have high or low sensory needs, and often they can't handle much. We want to provide a museum experience that meets their sensory needs."

Advocates in the autism community advised against changing the exhibits themselves, because sudden changes could be distressing, but Cockerham is instead working with the museum to hold private events for a day or two each quarter; students can come to an otherwise closed museum with their parents, to view exhibits with lowered lights, no music, and no cooking smells from the museum cafe. They are working on other aspects of the events, and plan to test them over the next year to determine if the changes improve students' engagement with the exhibit material and general enjoyment of the museum. If so, the museum may make the events a regular occurrence.

Eventually, Cockerham told me, "We'd like to open a research lab at the museum or at UTA to provide connections to the research and the public on" autism.

This sort of direct research is more intensive than the old "action research," and Dr. Janet N. Zadina, a former high school teacher turned adjunct assistant professor in neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans, told me she hopes it will become the norm in education colleges.

"Medical schools and education universities need to cross-train neuroscientists and teachers," she told me. "There are ways to do this; teachers bring a lot to the table."

The field may be gaining more momentum among teachers' colleges. Vanderbilt University just announced it is also launching a doctoral program in educational neuroscience.

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