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What Does the Brain Have to Do With Learning?

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Submitted by Dr. Matthew H. Schneps

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about "brain-based" learning, and the role neuroscience plays in education. It makes sense to think this way because when we learn cells grow, connect, disconnect, or die. Learning is the process by which the brain rewires itself.

What then can neuroscience tell teachers and students about how to make learning most effective? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. The brain is extraordinarily complex, and neuroscience is only beginning to touch upon questions that relate to what happens in the brain during classroom learning. But the fact that we don't understand this hasn't stopped many from promoting all kinds of myths about how the brain works, often to justify and support methods for teaching that are not really backed by research.

One of the most common myths about the brain in education has to do with the capabilities of its right and left sides. People talk all the time about being "left brained," or "right brained," and use this to explain why they can do some things, and not others. But, if neuroscience can tell us anything at all about learning, it is that the brain is almost fluid in its adaptability (a process called plasticity). The brain can grow cells to direct the burden for learning to whatever regions are able to accommodate the task. In an extreme case, where people with severe epilepsy have had half their brains removed, they are able to recover functions thought resident in the side of the brain no longer there.

Profs. Kurt Fischer, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, and I developed a resource for teachers (funded by the Annenberg Foundation)that has videos about such ideas, including dyslexia. Visit “Neuroscience and the Brain,”www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience.

If you are interested in science and dyslexia, please visit www.LVL.SI.edu, where you can join our community, and voice your ideas.

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Dr. Matthew H. Schneps is the director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Tags:  brain based learning brain rewiring Laboratory for Visual Learning Matthew Schneps neuroscience

The Teaching Brain

Blog Type:  Teaching Date Posted:  Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Submitted by Vanessa Rodriguez

We’ve been hearing long, loud, and numerous complaints about the state of education and the need for radical reform of our educational system. We’ve heard about the limitations of high stakes standardized testing and the need for more accountability for our teachers.  The problem of education in this country today is vast, complicated and emotionally charged. Educators, scientists, psychologists, government officials, and bestselling authors are all part of the mix of voices that are creating the conversation and, in part, prolonging the controversies.

But it seems the biggest elephant in the proverbial room is how we think about teaching and our teachers. Both sides of the teaching debate have sought to define “good teaching.” However this effort is as misguided as one that would label a student “good learner”.  We need to keep the terms “good” and “teaching” forever more apart. Indeed, the concept of a perfect teacher for all students is a complete myth.  Instead we need to be asking new questions.

Our questions should begin with one in particular:  “What is teaching?”  Teaching is a human, evolutionary skill.  In fact, though we may not be in a classroom we are all teachers.

Four years ago, as a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I made a startling and it turns out profound connection between the cognitive psychology and neuroscience I had been studying and the practice of teaching:  I realized that for all we know about the nature and science of learning, especially the discoveries in brain research, we have grown very little in our insight into the teaching process. Why is this? Why has teaching, an interaction so integral to the foundation of education, been given such short shrift? Quite simply it is because no one has ever really bothered to understand how the teaching process, and its corollary, the teaching brain, are separate and distinct from the learning process, or the learning brain.

As a former Science, History, and English teacher, I have spent over a decade teaching in the classroom and I’ve learned that learning and teaching, while inextricably related, are separate, distinct processes. And that in order for  us to understand the teacher in all of us, whether it be in the classroom or the boardroom, we need to demystify teaching based on a complete understanding of the cognitive, biological, and psychological processes of the brain. The series of studies that I have worked on are based on this quest to uncover these processes of the teaching brain.

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Vanessa Rodriguez is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the The Teaching Brain: The Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education.

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Order your copy of Ms. Rodriguez's book The Teaching Brain. Visit Ms. Rodriguez's web site.

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Tags:  cognitive psychology education reform Harvard Graduate School of Education neuroscience standardized testing The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriquez what is teaching?

Psychoeducational and Neuropsychological Evaluations Explained

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Wednesday, May 16, 2018 Byline:  By Anne Bellefeuille, Ph.D.


If a child is struggling at school and parents or teachers suspect that the student has a language-based learning disability (LBLD), parents should consider either psychoeducational testing or neuropsychological testing for the student.

The terms are often used interchangeably because of the overlap in assessment measures and the professionals performing them; however, the two types of evaluations differ in the scope, depth, and usage of the evaluations.

If a child is struggling at school and parents of teachers suspect that the student has a language-based learning disability (LBLD), parents should consider either psychoeducational testing or neuropsychological testing for the student.

The Psychoeducational Evaluation

A psychoeducational evaluation can be performed by a licensed psychologist,school psychologist, or a special education professional. At a minimum, a psychoeducational evaluation consists of formal assessment of cognitive/intellectual functioning (IQ) and academic achievement. This evaluation seeks to measure the discrepancies between cognitive and achievement levels. If academic skills do not meet the expected level given the cognitive/IQ profile, then a learning disability will be identified.

While the psychoeducational evaluation can be useful in identifying certain learning disabilities (such as LBLD), it is inadequate for assessing other aspects of functioning that can negatively affect learning. For example, the psychoeducational evaluation does not formally assess attention, executive functioning, and/or emotional factors that may be co-occurring with the learning disability. As such, psychoeducational evaluations will yield limited information to guide interventions.

I explain psychoeducational evaluations to parents as targeted evaluations that quantify the difficulties in reading, writing, and/or math. The psychoeducational evaluation is useful to qualify students for services and/or accommodations in school, such as extended time on tests. It falls short, however, in determining the specific services and/or interventions needed for the child to succeed.

The Neuropsychological Evaluation

The neuropsychological evaluation is performed by a licensed psychologist with a specialty in neuropsychological assessment (i.e., a neuropsychologist). It can sometimes be performed by a school psychologist who has received additional training in neuropsychological assessment. Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that seeks to understand brain-behavior relationships. As with a psychoeducational evaluation, the neuropsychological evaluation includes cognitive/intelligence (IQ) assessment. In school-age children, the neuropsychological evaluation also includes academic testing. Thus, a psychoeducational evaluation is usually incorporated in a neuropsychological evaluation in school-age children. The neuropsychological evaluation is broader, however, as it includes assessments of specific domains. These domains include: language, visual-perceptual abilities, information processing, attention/executive functioning, learning and memory, sensory functioning, and psycho-emotional functioning. With a neuropsychological evaluation, the results obtained on cognitive/intellectual testing and academic testing (i.e., psychoeducational evaluation) are analyzed within the greater framework of brain-behavior relationships. Thus, the neuropsychological evaluation yields broader and deeper information about functioning than the psychoeducational evaluation. It provides information about how the underlying neurocognitive processes affect learning. In other words, the neuropsychological evaluation provides information as to why a child is struggling in school. A learning disability may not be present, and/or it may be co-existing with another disorder. The neuropsychological evaluation can help with differential diagnoses, such as LBLD versus ADHD, anxiety, sensory impairment, autism spectrum disorders, or language disorders, which can all have an impact on learning. By understanding the child’s functioning in greater depth and knowing strengths and weaknesses, the neuropsychological evaluation will help develop more specific individualized interventions.

Which Evaluation Should I Choose for My Child?

The choice of evaluations depends on the referral question. When diagnostic information and guidance regarding interventions are needed, a neuropsychological evaluation is usually preferred. When a child has already been diagnosed with a learning disability and only needs documentation for accommodations in school (such as extended time on tests), then a psychoeducational evaluation can be sufficient.

About the Author

Anne Bellefeuille, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist who works with students with learning disabilities, attentional disorders, and other developmental disorders. In addition to neuropsychological and educational testing, Dr. Bellefeuille also provides working memory training using Cogmed. 

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Tags:  assessment cognitive testing intellectual testing language-based learning disability neuropsychological evaluation neuroscience psychoeducational evaluation testing accommodations
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