Understanding how the student brain works

“When we hear “brain-based research,” we tend to think primarily in terms of brain injuries or diseases such as stroke and alzheimer’s, but what is the connection between neuroscience and inclusive education?

As University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education’s Dr. Nancy Grigg explains, “The solid body of research that exists to support the use of various educational strategies is now being enhanced by neuroscience research, contributing unique and important knowledge of how best to enhance student learning."

Dan Vanden Dungen, a longtime educator in the Horizon School Division, is learning how neurological theory can make a huge difference in today's classrooms.

Dan Vanden Dungen (BA ’90, BEd ’92) will be among the first cohort of the Inclusive Education and Neuroscience MEd program to graduate in 2014. Initially, he struggled with how neurological theory would translate to the classroom. In retrospect, he says that knowing how the brain works matters because it allows educators to better identify changes that can be made.

“A key understanding from neuroscience is the building of neural pathways to enhance learning for all students in an inclusive environment,” says program instructor Sue Bengry. “In essence, it’s about understanding how the student’s brain works and tailoring the instruction to relate to that functionality.”

“It’s a less subjective way of working,” explains Vanden Dungen, “I believe it’s made me more empathetic, tolerant and resourceful.”

Working in the Horizon School Division for almost twenty years now, Vanden Dungen has worked with a broad spectrum of children, many from local and migratory Mennonite religious communities. More recently, his work as a classroom support teacher has also included students whose primary language is Low German, at the Horizon Mennonite Alternative Program.

“Inclusion is challenging,” he says. “It’s not the way most of us were taught to teach.”

With its cohort model, the structure of the MEd program has provided him with some unexpected connections.

“My cohorts have been an amazing support,” he says. “Being with the same group for three years has been essential to my success in the program. It’s also meant that I have a network of ‘inclusion professionals’ outside of my school and division.”

As we enter a new era of advancement in brain research, neuroscience is helping to inform learning specialists.

It’s becoming easier for researchers to access and interpret information originating in the brain.

“The basis for variations in learning, behaviour regulation and thinking are now being understood and described as ‘variations in brain processes,’” says Dr. Rob Sutherland of the U of L Department of Neuroscience in the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience. Accordingly, he predicts that “future innovations in education will depend upon understanding and applying what neuroscience has discovered about the developing brain.”

A classroom support teacher can take this specialized knowledge and incorporate it into a customized plan of action that consciously shapes a student’s learning.

“It’s important to provide a solid rationale for your recommendations,” says Vanden Dungen. “To do this, we need to become critical consumers of scientific data and the neuroscience courses help lay that foundation.”