What Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Enriching Young Brains

Eric Jensen, an ex-teacher in middle school, and former adjunct professor at many universities including the University of California San Diego, is interviewed today. He has important lessons to share with parents and educators. Jensen is the co-founder of the Learning Brain Expo, an educational conference. He has also written 21 books about the brain and learning. For educators and parents, his most recent book Enriching The Brain: How To Maximize Each Learner’s Potential (Jossey-Bass (2006)) is highly recommended.

Alvaro Fernandez AF (AF): Eric. Thank you for taking time. Please explain the role of your organization and you.

Eric Jensen, (EJ): Our role is to act as translators between education and neuroscience fields. We help build a Brain Based Education movement. In 1998, the first conference attempting to bridge these worlds was launched. Learning Expo was created to allow scientists to talk to teachers and scientists to talk to educators.

Critics argue that neuroscience research cannot add value to education practices. While there is still much to clarify, we believe educators should be aware that there are clear implications of brain research. Given their obsessive focus upon academic performance, educators often neglect to consider nutrition, exercise and stress management.

AF: What has happened since 1998? Comment would you describe the progress made so far?

EJ. The good news is that educators today are more knowledgeable than ever about the brain’s workings. There are a growing number academic programs, including Harvard’s Master of Mind, Brain, and Education program, and peer-reviewed journals like Mind, Brain and Education Journal.

However, there are clearly areas to improve. Too many staff developers don’t know enough science. There are too many books that claim “brain” but are not based in brain research. It is a good idea to always check the References section when looking for books. This ensures that the book references credible journals and specific studies starting in 2000.

AF: These initiatives are mainly awareness-related. What implications does this have for teaching and learning at school?

EJ. You’re right. This field is still in its infancy. Many independent charter schools and private schools have begun to implement specific initiatives that focus on brain-based teaching strategies and nutrition. Public schools have limited resources and flexibility, so these initiatives are harder for them. to implement. As a result, we are seeing a growing number educated parents applying the principles that we teach at home.

AF. Have you noticed any changes at the policy-level? What are your thoughts on the current debate regarding the merits or detriments of No Child Left Behind, specifically?

EJ. I agree with the shift towards accountability. Now the question is: Whose accountability? to create narrow, precise test scores? or to foster better human beings. I have not seen much policy activity in the US. There are some Asian countries, such as Singapore and China who are looking at how to improve the curriculum of 5-10-year-olds. There was a huge push in the US for music enrichment programs. This was unfortunately misguided in the late 90s. While enrichment is clearly beneficial, it’s difficult to determine what kind of enrichment. Much of the benefit is cumulative over time. It is important to temper the stock-market mentality that only measures student growth for a few weeks, or even months. Long-term measures are also needed.

It is clear, for example, that there are essential skills that can easily be taught that can make you a better, more successful person. The type of assessment used to assess schools’ performance today doesn’t consider these. Broader assessments would be needed to enable educators to put their efforts into long-term learning, not just the immediate pressures.

The system’s stress levels and lack of resources and knowledge that can be controlled them are two of the most important factors driving it from good to worse.

AF. You also mention processing skills. In your latest column, you highlighted Scientific Learning’s computer software that can train auditory processing. What is your opinion about computer-based software?

EJ. It is encouraging that programs are based upon extensive research such as Scientific Learning. I recognize the importance of programs that can tailor individual interventions to specific children. These programs offer a great opportunity.