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Brain Scans in the Classroom? Project Trains Teachers to Do Hands-On Research

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Neuroscience has given educators a new way of thinking about how students change and grow as they learn. Now one research partnership is teaching them how to see it happen in real time. 

The Haskins Global Literacy Hub, a research lab associated with Yale University, partnered with two independent schools to study students as they learn to read over several years. But rather than just receiving feedback from the researchers, teachers at the Windward School in New York and AIM Academy in Philadelphia—each of which serves students with language-related disabilities like dyslexia—are learning to monitor and understand their own students' brain activity, to identify neurological markers of progress or problems.

A majority of neuroscience on reading has used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures changes in blood flow related to neural activity. This can give a good view of changes throughout the brain, but it is notoriously difficult for children to keep still and calm for readings in the machines, and they are impossible to use outside a lab. Haskins researchers instead train and guide teachers to use electroencephalography, or EEG, which uses a net of electrodes to measure electrical impulses in the brain. This cannot measure activity as deep within students' brains as an fMRI can, but EEGs have been shown to be valid for studying reading and they are much easier to use in school settings. 

With equipment just down the hall, teachers monitor incoming students in grades 1-6 twice a year (with students' and parents' consent). The teacher explains to the student how they place the EEG cap, and shows on the computer how the sensors catch brain activity when the student blinks or moves her head. Then the teacher walks the student through about an hour of tasks on speech and text perception, word reading, and even understanding movie clips. Students get time after each session to ask questions.

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"We can actually see that the brain is plastic, that the reading circuit does change as students learn the effective ways to read," said Danielle Scorrano, an 8th grade teacher at the Windward School who trained with the partnership. "So, it's really empowering for me as a teacher to know that by using these research-based methods, that I'm essentially changing my students' brains to read better. You know, I see it behaviorally in the classroom, but then being part of the research study, I can see how to track that change in the brain. That's really neat." 

Both the researchers and the schools hope in the long run, studies like this one will help predict which students will respond better or worse to different kinds of reading interventions.

"I guess that's the 'golden fleece' of educational neuroscience right now," said John Russell, the executive director of the Windward Institute, a division of the Windward School, referring to the mythical prize. "So we feel like we're on a potentially a breakthrough research study. ...That's a bit far off, but that's the goal."

The partnership involves a huge amount of professional development on both sides, said Nicole Landi, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut and the Yale Child Study Center, and the EEG research director for Haskins. Teachers get a crash course in cognitive neuroscience as well as how to use and understand the readings from their equipment. The teachers, in turn, help the researchers understand how reading interventions play out in the classroom.

"School is kind of its own ecosystem, and this is not about just going in and collecting data, but in transforming knowledge. So it's really important that knowledge doesn't go in one direction. We have a lot of discussion around what we need to know and how to ask," Landi said. "A lot of teachers are extroverts, and they're teaching us." 

Scorrano agreed.

"You know, we are directly collaborating with scientists, we're learning their methods, and then we're able to share that information that we're learning with our students. So there is such an excitement and buzz from the teachers," Scorrano said. "There's just continuous learning from and collaboration between scientists, teachers, students, and their families."

Landi said the project will release its first year of pilot data later this spring, and will continue at least another three to five years, depending on funding. But she hopes the partnership could continue "in perpetuity. This could be a really powerful model for all kinds of research."

Photos: Top: Windward School teachers Ruby Silverstein, seated left, and Anna Sewell, standing right, practice applying an EEG cap during a summer training session. Above: Haskins Laboratories researcher Dan Kleinman shows a 5th grader his brain waves during an EEG testing session. Source: Windward Institute


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