Bridging Neuroscience and Education Through Museum-School Partnerships
The Franklin Institute provides programs that help educators of all disciplines understand the key ideas and recommendations for enhanced teaching practices based on new research from the field of neuroscience.
The connections among neuroscience, educational research, and teaching practice have historically been tenuous (Cameron and Chudler 2003; Devonshire and Dommett 2010). This is particularly true in public schools, where so many issues are competing for attention—state testing, school politics, financial constraints, lack of time, and demands from parents and the surrounding community. Teachers and administrators often struggle to make use of advances in educational research to impact teaching and learning (Hardiman and Denckla 2009; Devonshire and Dommett 2010). At the Franklin Institute, we have developed a model that integrates expertise in understanding and communicating research with teaching practice, supported by relevant science content and museum exhibits, to provide rich professional development (PD) opportunities for K–12 educators across disciplines. These programs help educators of all disciplines understand the key ideas and recommendations for enhanced teaching practices based on new research from the field of neuroscience. Evaluation results show that educators find high value in evidence-based information, strategies, and informal hands-on experiences that can be broadly applied to teaching across multiple subject areas and ages.
What We Know About the Brain
This workshop has caused me to think more strongly about the relevancy of the things I teach and how I can keep my students engaged.” —K–6 music teacher
Although the past few decades have seen major advances in the neuroscience of learning, this emerging field continues to be underused in teacher preparation and continuing education (Pickering and Howard-Jones 2007; Devonshire and Dommett 2010). Although a sophisticated and updated understanding of how the brain works and changes over time is critical for educators as experts in teaching and learning, some common myths about the brain are unsettlingly pervasive. For example, the misconceptions that we use only a small percentage of our brain, or that one hemisphere of the brain is exclusively responsible for certain strengths such as creativity or problem solving (i.e., right-brained or left-brained), are widely believed to be true, even among educators (Howard-Jones 2014).
Established cognitive science research shows that active learning and building upon prior knowledge and experiences are essential for constructing advanced understanding (NRC 2000). Accessing prior knowledge also motivates youth to feel that their experiences are relevant. From a neuroscience perspective, making connections to long-term memory in the hippocampus enhances neural networks, which allows for better recall of old information and retention of new information (Eichenbaum 2000). In addition, emotional cues that trigger brain activity in the amygdala strengthen associated long-term memory storage in connected brain regions (Phelps 2006).
One of the most important advances in neuroscience with relevance to education is our greater understanding of brain development throughout the lifespan (Giedd et al. 1999; Huttenlocher and Dabholkar 1997). In childhood and adolescence, the brain progresses through critical periods of rapid growth of neurons and neuronal connections (synapses). This is followed by experience-dependent elimination of unnecessary synapses, known as synaptic pruning. In addition, we now know that the brain is always changing via synaptic plasticity, as synapses are continually modified throughout our lifetime (Wilson and Conyers 2013; May 2011). Connections that are used and revisited become stronger and faster, whereas those that remain unused weaken, leading to forgetting.
Program Design and Structure
Based on these critical concepts that bridge neuroscience and education, we created a set of museum- and school-based workshops (see sidebar) to support school districts that are interested in thinking about how brain-based learning can inform educational practice. The introductory workshop has been offered to K–12 teachers across all disciplines, including those from nonscience specialties (e.g., language arts, physical education, art, music, special education), administrators, and out-of-school and community-based educators in informal settings. It is sometimes a stand-alone workshop, but in many cases, it has been a first step to a continued districtwide relationship, as this model is designed to be flexible and can be customized according to the needs, strengths, and opportunities of each district.
Understanding the Brain, Part 1: Becoming a Learning Scientist
In this introductory workshop, we first debunk some of the commonly held misconceptions about the brain and focus on improving teachers’ understanding of the basics of brain function and development. This foundational science helps educators grasp that children’s brains are malleable and especially susceptible to long-lasting change during the toddler and teen years, when synaptic pruning is at its highest (Jensen and Nutt 2015).
I learned that we use 100% of our brain. The brain is very malleable, and we learn based off of our experiences. Intelligence is not a set number.” —Eighth-grade teacher
Next, educators experience a unique element available at the Franklin Institute—the opportunity to explore Your Brain, an interactive exhibit that engages visitors in experiencing the many ways in which the brain functions (www.fi.edu/exhibit/your-brain). Visitors can see an actual preserved human brain, climb through simulated neural pathways, view scientific visualizations of human and animal brains, and experience how their brains process everyday life. This informal learning experience allows educators to explore their questions about the brain, ties in to the themes of the research-to-practice discussion, and inspires new ideas and questions to explore as a professional or with students.
I absolutely loved being able to explore the exhibit. Seeing how my brain reacted to different scenarios (as an adult) gave me perspective on how my students might react.” —Sixth-grade teacher
Next, we apply these key ideas to three practical strategies for teaching and learning in the classroom. Tapping into existing experiences to build more sophisticated neural networks, providing active learning experiences that allow youth to use multiple regions of the brain, and creating opportunities to revisit and reinforce what students have learned are all effective methods of maximizing learning based on what we know about the brain.
My understanding of the brain improved, helping me to create more meaningful learning opportunities.” —Fourth-grade teacher
[Learning about the brain] will allow me more freedom to incorporate more student centered learning. I can ‘bring back the fun’ to the classroom.” —Fourth-grade teacher
Finally, we encourage educators to consider ways to shift to a culture of brain-based learning, influenced by the concept of growth mindset (Dweck 2007). In contrast to a fixed mindset—the idea that intelligence is genetically predetermined, stable from birth, and does not change over time—a growth mindset considers that intelligence can change based on life experiences and hard work. This concept complements the scientific evidence for synaptic plasticity. The growth-mindset approach is also particularly compelling for teachers because of its potential to promote persistence in helping students develop skills, both cognitive and noncognitive (such as grit and resilience) that are important for academic success. This is empowering for students as well, allowing them to focus on improving through rigorous practice and creative exploration rather than believing intelligence and the capacity to learn are inherent and unchangeable.
[The workshop] has taught me how important it is to have a growth mindset as well as teaching my students to do/have the same.” —Fourth-grade special education teacher
Some of my strugglers started off the year shutting down, putting heads down and saying ‘I can’t do this…’ [In a recent conference] I was able to tell one parent how he had completely changed his mindset. He doesn’t say ‘I can’t do this’ anymore. He says, ‘This is kind of tricky, but I know I am going to work really hard on it.’” —Third-grade teacher
Parts 2 and 3: Applying and Extending Brain-Based Learning in the Classroom
Many administrators who were introduced to Understanding the Brain, Part 1: Becoming a Learning Scientist have elected to offer the workshop to their teachers, and some have made a districtwide commitment, choosing to delve deeper into brain-based learning by integrating it into their yearlong professional development plan for teachers’ grade bands.
Evolving with each new partnership, Part 2: Applying Neuroscience to My Classroom and Part 3: Extending Brain-Based Learning in My Practice are extensions of the first workshop offered at the Franklin Institute, developed under a model of collaboration between teachers and museum educators. Following teacher participation in Understanding the Brain, Part 1, the Franklin Institute’s staff, key administrators (e.g., superintendent, principal, curriculum director, science specialist), and selected teachers representing the targeted grade bands meet together for half a day to plan Parts 2 and 3. As part of this brainstorming, these teachers take a leadership role in shaping and leading parts of the upcoming workshops, and connecting neuroscience to real-world classroom contexts with their peer educators. Critical to sustained application of brain-based, research-to-practice training is a connection to each school’s curriculum and district priorities. This is accomplished by collaborating with the representative teachers from each grade level to identify additional topics of interest that resonate with them and their district peers. Sample topics have included the effect of curiosity on the brain, multisensory learning, the impact of taking breaks on learning, social and emotional dynamics, and metacognition.
Enabling select teachers to take a leadership role in guiding their peers cultivates teacher capacity and empowers them to sustain these efforts, with the ultimate goal of engendering significant changes in teacher culture and practices across a district. Specifically, teacher leaders identified some of the ways in which the research-based strategies presented in the first workshop have begun to be implemented in classrooms. They reported that:
Incorporation of brain-based activities has impacted my students heavily in the way of engagement and meaningful learning.” —Sixth-grade teacher
I’ve paid much more attention to how students need to be moving every so often to accomplish the best learning.” —Sixth-grade teacher
I’ve learned how to phrase comments/feedback so that they are growth mindset–based.” —Third-grade teacher
As the teachers lead breakout groups with their grade-level partners across the district, they discuss teaching practices, strategies, and activities that embody the themes learned earlier. For example, teachers have shared technology-based, free resources such as www.gonoodle.com, which provides brief active breaks from learning that can help shift children’s attention and allow them to expend some physical energy.
Sustaining Brain-Based Learning in Practice
The Franklin Institute is committed to helping educators further explore and sustain practical application of brain-based strategies and has developed a number of resources that support the Your Brain exhibit. These include the Your Brain Exhibit Educator Guide and Your Brain Exhibit Research Sheet (available at www.fi.edu/exhibit/your-brain). A one-page framework was also developed for educators to use during and after the workshop. It highlights the key ideas and recommendations from neuroscience research, which teachers can use as a lesson-planning supplement to make sure they continue to acknowledge best practices. For example, because cognitive science research shows that accessing prior knowledge and experience is a key strategy that allows students to make connections to new information, the framework asks teachers to consider, when developing a specific lesson, “How will students share their related knowledge and experience?” This encourages teachers to address important brain-based strategies as they plan learning experiences for students. The Franklin Institute has also worked with districts to establish a Wikispaces Classroom site (see Figure 1) where the Franklin Institute’s staff and district teachers can share brain-based resources and articles within a private community. Helping teacher-leaders share concrete examples of classroom activities and demonstrations with their peers provides opportunities for collaborative, integrated curriculum development and allows teachers to demonstrate ownership over how they apply brain-based strategies.
Evaluation of School Impact
A postworkshop survey was administered to all participants (approximately 1,000 to date). Participants were asked to rate on a five-point scale the content and quality of each component of the workshop and their level of agreement with several statements about learning outcomes and future plans (e.g., “After participating in today’s program, I understand more about learning and memory in the brain” and “I plan to apply what I learned today to my practice”). These were followed by several open-ended questions to probe deeper (e.g., “What skills and/or knowledge did you learn in this program that you will take into your work?” and “What steps will you take to apply what you learned today to positively impact learning for students, teachers, and/or administrators?”).
In addition, a subset of participants (N = 63) in the Part 1 workshop was evaluated externally via a survey by the Goodman Research Group. Closed-ended questions asked participants to
- rate their level of agreement with statements about the quality and value of the workshop (e.g., “The PD was clear and understandable” and “The PD was well matched to my PD needs”);
- compare their knowledge, retrospectively, about neuroscience and the brain both before and after the workshop; and
- rate the extent to which the workshop prepared them to incorporate brain-based teaching strategies and help their students get the most out of a potential field trip to the exhibit.
Among the open-ended questions, participants were asked to report what they learned that was new to them, recall the three main brain-based teaching strategies presented, and identify the most useful part of the workshop.
Holding districtwide PD workshops at a museum has been a novel experience for both museum and school district partners. When surveying teachers and administrators who attended the brain-based PD (N = 400), 94% responded that they understood more about how learning and memory work in the brain and that they planned to apply what they learned in the PD to their practice as a teacher or administrator. At the museum, teachers are able to step out of their day-to-day routine and mindset; in the Part 1 external evaluation, 37% answered that the exhibit experience was the most useful part of the workshop. Many teachers visited the museum during their own childhood, so after returning as adults, they recalled long-term memories associated with positive emotions and active learning, immediately producing heightened enthusiasm and curiosity—which, in fact, reinforces several core concepts about brain-based learning. Administrators report that teachers tend to be more open to ideas presented in this off-site, informal format, are less distracted, and are more engaged.
Unique to this PD program is its applicability and appeal to a broad range of educational contexts. Teachers, out-of-school facilitators, and youth group leaders have all expressed in evaluations that they benefited from this rich and diverse opportunity to integrate a designed museum experience, science content, and pedagogical strategies in ways that allow application in both formal and informal settings. For example, participants mentioned that the exhibit showed them how “intense” concepts could be made fun and understandable for students. Others cited that learning how memory works and how it can be improved will make it easier to find techniques that will help students.
The value of this neuroscience, research-to-practice PD approach appears to be in providing teachers with evidence-based information, strategies, and informal hands-on experiences that can be applied in numerous ways to teaching multiple subjects and ages. Teachers have the opportunity to advance their knowledge in an area that is crucial to educating children; 18% of participants reported that before the workshop they knew “quite a bit” or “a great deal” about neuroscience and the brain, while 69% rated their knowledge at this same level afterward. Teachers feel encouraged and have expressed feeling validated by the discovery that strategies they believed to be successful in their classroom are supported by neuroscience research, providing a new lens through which to focus on their work.
For Parts 2 and 3 of the workshops, evaluation data show that the combination of some learning guided by the Franklin Institute and some by peer teachers created varied learning settings allowing for different, but equally relevant, types of discussion. The Franklin Institute provided education on the areas in which we were uniquely positioned to do so, and the teachers likewise facilitated professional learning in the areas in which they were experts. This model is now being replicated as we scale up to long-term partnerships with multiple school districts.
This model is an outgrowth of the Franklin Institute’s National Institutes of Health–funded educational outreach programs to support the Your Brain exhibit, including professional development efforts to support teachers in using the exhibits with their classes. The interest of a local superintendent in building a comprehensive, districtwide commitment to brain-based learning and embracing growth mindset helped to further the Franklin Institute’s development of this more extensive, multiyear professional development effort. The result is a list of offerings, now shared with administrators from multiple districts, that include a variety of workshop packages, each with a related fee structure. School districts partner with the Franklin Institute in planning single or sequential professional development days, as allowed by their annual professional development budgets.
Science centers have the unique role of being able to translate complex science to the public using hands-on exhibits and programs that engage an audience through experiential learning. Schools have the formidable challenge of teaching and supporting children’s learning in comprehensive, multidisciplinary ways that are distinct from what informal institutions provide. However, the science of brain development, learning, emotion, and memory is an important area of overlap between these complementary domains.
Together, museums and school districts have a unique opportunity to partner with one another to provide professional development experiences that translate relevant research to practice that draws upon the resources and culture of schools in meaningful, relevant ways. In the current school climate, where teachers are constrained in so many ways, attending professional learning that integrates advances in education and neuroscience research can greatly impact teaching and learning. Allowing teachers to visit museums as part of their professional growth can reinvigorate their appreciation of museums as centers of learning and develop community partnerships that support advancement in their practice.
This work was funded in part by the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research under grant 1R25DA033023-01. We also thank Dr. David Baugh and the Bensalem Township School District for their partnership in piloting these programs and Alexis Kiesel for her review of the document.