When Donna Coch, Ed.D.’99, submitted a proposal for her qualifying paper to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Committee on Degrees, the committee’s initial reaction was bewilderment, recalls her advisor, Kurt Fischer, Charles Bigelow Professor of Education. A cognitive science major at Vassar, Coch came to HGSE in 1994 to pursue her intellectual dream of combining cognitive science with biology, child development, and education. Her research, which involved working with 10- and 11-year-old children to compare their electrical brain activity when looking at words as opposed to looking at nonsensical strings of letters, has potential implications for how reading is taught in the classroom.
“I had been trained to think in an interdisciplinary way from the beginning,” Coch says, recalling that her undergraduate degree incorporated biology, neuroscience, computer science, psychology, development, and linguistics. “I added the education piece because it seemed like an obvious connection to my interest in children and development. I also didn’t want to do research for the sake of research. It’s great to publish in journals and talk to the same group of 130 researchers in your field, but that’s not the point. The point is to give something back and make a difference in the real world.”
Fischer, whose work focuses on cognitive and emotional development in learning, drew Coch to the Ed School. “He was extremely excited to have somebody come do brain stuff,” she says, laughing. “When I got to HGSE, I realized that there was no program—there were Kurt’s amazing ideas, but nothing had quite been put in place yet.”
The lack of a structured program did nothing to deter Coch, who adds that Fischer and other faculty members at the Ed School were “incredibly supportive” as she shaped a course of study and pursued her research. By the time she finished her doctorate in 1999, an early version of what would become the Mind, Brain, and Education program (MBE) had begun to take shape. Now in its third year, the MBE program formalizes a longstanding commitment at HGSE to the integration of cognitive science, biology, and education in research and practice.
“Jeanne Chall always believed that we needed to connect brain science and education science,” says Fischer, citing the longtime HGSE professor who died in 1999. Chall, a leading expert in reading research and instruction for over 50 years, founded the Harvard Reading Laboratory in 1966 (now known as the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab) and wrote Learning to Read:The Great Debate, a definitive study of the phonics and whole language approaches to reading. “Howard [Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education] and I agreed with Jeanne—we both joined the faculty in 1986 and incorporated brain science in the curricula in our own small ways. But a lot of the education establishment was still very suspicious of anything in biology. They said it was a medical model that stigmatized students, which just wasn’t true.”
Fischer, who now directs the MBE program, says that in the mid-1990s he and other faculty (including Antonio Battro, who later became a visiting professor) began trying to figure out how to restructure some of the Ed School’s programs in order to attract and train doctoral students more effectively. “We had a number of great cognitive scientists doing cutting-edge work, but no one seemed to know about it,” he recalls.
It also seemed possible that a new program could reverse some of the miscommunication and misunderstanding that had plagued the field in the past. “The problem was that educators have wanted to connect an understanding of the brain with learning, but they haven’t known how to—and scientists have tried to tell educators what to do without understanding what goes on in the classroom,” says Fischer. “We realized that we already had graduates who were working in this area; in fact, it was clear that we’d already trained some of the leaders in the field, even though we didn’t have a program.”
For the first couple of years, the Ed School offered a special area of focus in cognitive development in the Human Development and Psychology area.With the encouraging response, MBE became a separate degree program in 2002, and now draws approximately 35 master’s students and anywhere from three to five doctoral students each year. (Around the same time, Dartmouth College and Cambridge University also developed MBE programs, and programs or institutes have been launched in China, Japan, South Korea, Argentina, and Germany.)
“We’re trying to create a relationship in which—as in medicine, as in traffic safety—there’s a close relationship between research and practice,” says Fischer.“Our mission is to build a movement in which cognitive science and neuroscience are integrated with education so that we train people to make that integration both in research and in practice.”
Both alumni and current students of the Ed School have made significant contributions to education research and practice in the area of Mind, Brain, and Education.While this is a relatively new discipline of study, their work is resounding evidence of a field with deep roots and far-reaching influence.
Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D.’79, laughs when she looks back on how much has changed in her field over the past 25 years—and how much has remained the same. “Since the mid-1970s, I’ve been studying what it takes for the brain to process a single word.That sounds like a rather amazing quest to have and still not completely know the answer.”
As director of the Center for Reading and Language Research and professor of child development at Tufts University,Wolf presides over a nondescript building on the edge of campus that does little to reveal the beehive of activity within its warren of rooms. Inside, however, one is immediately enveloped by the energy of teachers and graduate students who devote themselves to studying reading development and impairment and crafting intervention tactics for students with reading disorders. The hallways are papered with graphs of the center’s research, newspaper clippings about its community programs, and letters from appreciative students.
“The community, with its needs, changes us,” explains Wolf, describing local efforts to reach at-risk readers that range from the Tufts Literacy Corps—a tutoring program in neighborhood schools—to an intensive summer and afterschool reading program in nearby Malden, Massashusetts.
“The MBE movement is new, but our work is over two decades in existence,” she continues.“What is new about the center’s work is its application in intervention across a broad span of languages and culture. We’re trying to help as many kids as we can.” Wolf says that her research was almost purely theoretical through the early 1990s.Then, something changed.
“From about 1994 on, I simply couldn’t look the parents and educators in the eye any longer. At all the talks I gave, they would say,‘Yes, but what do you do about it?’ Then a colleague at Georgia State University, Robin Morris, flew up from Atlanta, came to my kitchen, and said,‘It’s time to put your money where your mouth is—you need to show how to apply this knowledge.’
“I did not know then that my first child would be dyslexic,” she adds. “I became one of those parents who saw the paucity of materials available.” While the work at the center was developed too late to help her son,Wolf did find a positive element in an otherwise ironic situation. “He demonstrated in my own home what was missing,” she says. “Some of my best insights have come because I knew the theoretical world and I saw the reality of my own child.”
The power of the MBE program and the movement at large is its ability to train researchers to ask new questions that will increase understanding of how the brain learns, says Wolf.“Pasteur said that inspiration happens to a prepared mind. The current generation of MBE students are preparing their minds for the next generation of insights.”
David Rose, Ed.D.’76, began his teaching career right out of college,moving from high school, to middle school, to first grade, to preschool. “I was trying to find the fulcrum where you might be able to do something for kids who were likely to fail later,” he remembers. “I kept chasing it at a younger and younger age, in a sort of quixotic way, and finally got to the nervous system, the brain.” As a student at HGSE, Rose put together a program of study that included neuroanatomy courses at MIT and Harvard Medical School. “I made it up on my own. I had a highly supportive thesis committee and a very indulgent wife,” he laughs. “I took longer to finish my degree than most sane people would expect.”
Wandering the lively halls of the Harriet A. Baldwin Early Learning Center in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, it can be difficult to tell who is having more fun: the teachers or the students. In one classroom, three- and four-year-olds stomp in place and dance to a cheery song about days of the week, along with three adults.Yet it’s not all fun and games. The Boston Public Schools’ citywide learning standards are affixed to one classroom wall, and teachers such as Meg Hicks unearth a lesson in every activity. After running with her young charges, for example, Hicks says,“Feel your heart. Feel how fast it’s beating.Where’s your heart?” Little hands rise to little chests.
Now a lecturer at the Ed School, Rose in 1984 helped found the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), the nonprofit education research and development organization where he also serves as executive codirector. CAST, he explains, uses technology to make education more accessible to all students, particularly those with disabilities.
At first CAST was more like a clinic, diagnosing children’s learning problems and prescribing individualized solutions.Over time, however, the organization’s approach shifted 180 degrees, eventually settling around the strategy of Universal Design for Learning, which creates learning models and software that are adaptable to the varied situations of the students themselves.
“Our work used to be about,‘What’s wrong with the kids and howcome they can’t learn?’” Rose says from his office in Wakefield, Massachusetts.“Now we see that the curriculum has teaching problems.
“All children are quite varied, neurologically,” he continues. “But whether they’re disabled or not depends on how you teach them. The traditional curriculum is for a narrow band of kids. CAST is about creating new media that are more responsive to students’ individual differences.”
One recent example is “Thinking Reader,” a software program for older, struggling readers that uses the unabridged text of young adult novels to give students instruction and practice in proven reading strategies. Instead of using the exclusionary strategy of assigning a different book or a “dumbed down” version of the same book,“Thinking Reader” uses the original text and supports it with technological additions such as pop-up definitions, models of good reading strategies, and immediate, on-screen feedback.
“We know from studying the brain and the way it learns that you just can’t tell people what to do,” says Rose. “It’s like learning a behind-the-back dribble in basketball.You need to watch someone do it. A teacher can ask a student to predict, summarize,or ask questions. But some students need support and feedback as they’re shown how to do these things.They need to be apprenticed.”
They also need to be engaged. “A good game will have 180 levels so that everyone is challenged,” Rose explains. “We’re trying to do that with the books to make sure that kids are motivated, that they know when they’re getting better.”
Laura-Ann Petitto, Ed.D.’84, is driven by a fundamental obsession: to crack the code of the biological foundations of language. A professor in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, chairman of the college’s Department of Education, and director of its Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language and Child Development, Petitto began her quest nearly 30 years ago, as an undergraduate at Columbia University. There she became involved in a cross-species research project that investigated the extent to which chimpanzees—receiving the same nurturing support and stimulation as human children— could master aspects of human language.
“That work allowed me to definitively conclude that not all aspects of human language are learnable— something about language is unique to humans,” Petitto said in an interview on the opening evening of the Ed School’s MBE conference (see page 34). She then moved on to a series of research projects involving sign language. With the link between a child’s speech development and the maturation of hearing already established, Petitto wondered what would happen when language was developed through the hands, in the absence of sound.
“Sign languages were my microscope, a way I could use nature to peer into the human brain,” she says. “It turned out that the course of language acquisition for children who were exposed to spoken languages and those exposed to sign language occurred on an identical timetable.” The sign language babies babbled—they just used their hands to do so.
In pursuing a fuller understanding of the neural tissue that is responsible for language, Petitto expanded her research to encompass a number of questions: What occurs in neural tissue used for language when it develops normally? What about in a child diagnosed with dyslexia? How does bilingual language exposure affect the brain’s neural circuitry, in children and in adults? What is the optimal age to learn a second language?
At the same time that researchers were discovering more about the neural basis for learning, there was an increasing frustration within education.“Teachers were asking,‘Why am I using this technique? What is the basis of it? Is there anything else I can do?’” Petitto says. “There was a growing realization that curriculum guidelines were outdated—they were based on principles of Piaget that followed very strict stage acquisition, when what we were discovering about how the brain learns is that knowledge is made up of different components, and that each of these components develops on a different timetable.
“Those two developments in education and neuroscience are the foundation for the creation of the MBE movement,” she continues. “We’re at this exciting moment where it’s come together with a click; we’re committed to the common goal of understanding the developing child through the multidisciplinary union of basic research and its principled application to education.”
Research conducted on infants at Petitto’s lab shows that the brain tissue where language is localized begins to develop as early as three months of age. “People thought that language took years to lateralize in the left hemisphere of the brain,” says Petitto, who hopes that the findings will be duplicated elsewhere. If so, the data could lead to new tools for remediation and intervention in disorders such as dyslexia: “Once we have a strong database that shows the typical pattern of development of this tissue, we’ll be able to set up phonetic processing guidelines much like your pediatrician’s growth chart,” she explains. “It’s possible that we’ll be able to identify children at risk for language problems before they’re even uttering their first words.”
The varied backgrounds of current MBE doctoral students reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the program itself.A former software engineer with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT, Michael Connell shifted away from the study of artificial intelligence when he realized that AI focused more on learning in machines than in humans.
“I have a long-term cognitive neuroscience research agenda, but I don’t want to work in a vacuum,” says Connell, whose research is focused on establishing methods for testing the accuracy of neural network models when compared to the human brain. “Education is the natural application in this field.The more we know about how the brain learns, the easier it will be to reverse-engineer better curricula and assessment tools.”
Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann’s research focuses on how early adverse experience, such as abuse or neglect, affects the development of children’s stress physiology. Such children are more likely to have difficulty in school, she explains, partly because of their difficulty in making social relationships, but also because some of the chemicals in a deregulated stress system can act as neurotoxins that affect learning and memory. A recent recipient of a three-year, predoctoral grant from the National Institute of Health, Rappolt- Schlichtmann plans to study the effect of a therapeutic day care environment on the stress systems of children who have been subject to adverse experience. She credits the MBE program for creating a tight-knit community that fosters plenty of cross-pollination between students.
“We have so many people coming from different backgrounds,” says Rappolt-Schlichtmann.“I may run into a master’s student with 20 years of teaching experience who wants to know more about neuroscience—and I want to know more about what happens in the classroom. Having that connection in an everyday conversation really helps bridge the gap.”
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a former seventh-grade science teacher who played a role in the MBE program’s early development. In addition to mentoring prospective students, she helped design the first syllabus for Cognitive Development, Education, and the Brain, the yearlong course that forms the core of the MBE master’s program, while also serving as a teaching fellow and senior course coordinator for the class. Her research focuses on affective prosody, or the way that people use intonation and stress to express emotions in their language.
“I’m studying two boys who’ve each had an entire hemisphere of their brain removed—one the right hemisphere, one the left— to control epilepsy. In language, intonation is handled by the right hemisphere, while the left side handles words, grammar, and meaning. Each boy is missing a different piece of the puzzle, but both have functionally normal language. I’m trying to understand how they’re compensating and hope to deduce basic principles of brain structure and organization by looking at these very atypical cases to get a better view of brain function in all kids.
“The boys’ brains aren’t changing,” she adds. “What it seems they’re doing instead is adapting to the nature of the problem so that they can bring the strengths they have to solve it.That’s a general principle that has implications for the ways that teachers design curricula and understand students.”
As exciting as it is to envision how MBE could influence the learning process, many caution against the hype that has surrounded the field in recent years.
“Teachers should recognize that the findings that come out of MBE are a tool, and that it’s only going to be as good as the questions that we ask of it,” says Juliana Pare-Blagoev, who will soon begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute, an independent research and education center for multidisciplinary collaboration in the sciences. “If teachers become educated consumers, they can contribute to the development of education-relevant questions.One of the disconnects in the field is that neuroscientists often don’t have a clue about what’s important in the classroom.”
"People's expectations for MBE right now are very high," says Kurt Fischer. “And the payoff that’s available in the classroom at the moment is near zero. The biology is just not ready. It’s still a young field.
“If you take physics and leave out the engineers, you can’t build bridges,” he continues. “In the same way, you can’t go from biology to education without the education researchers.That’s the mission of MBE—to train the students who will build that bridge between the lab and the classroom."
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