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How Neuroscience Can Increase Quality in Education

A viable method of incorporating educational neuroscience into the Thai education system

By Oliver Crocco
With impending ASEAN integration, changing workforce needs, and the dramatic onset of globalization, education in Thailand is of growing importance. Thailand ranks persistently low in math, science, and reading skills on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and has a primary education rank of 78 out of 144 countries in the 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report. While access to education has increased nationwide over the years, the quality of education in Thailand remains low and stagnant.
Improving educational quality is a complex process but must begin on the frontlines – with teachers. One piece of the quality puzzle may lie in training teachers to think like educational neuroscientists.
In the last ten years significant strides have been made in cognitive neuroscience. New neuroimaging tools such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow cognitive scientists to safely map brain activity in amazing ways. This technology is now being used to analyze brain activity of children as young as infants, something we weren’t able to do in the past.
Applying cognitive neuroscience to education is a burgeoning field today and its findings are valuable for teachers. Kurt Fischer, Professor of Education and founder of the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education has been on the forefront of educational neuroscience and is very enthusiastic about its potential. “[Using MEG imaging], when we flash a word in front of a child, 80% of the brain lights up,” he says, “It’s like a symphony!”
Perhaps the most important contribution of cognitive neuroscience in education is that it shows how the brain is “remarkably flexible,” according to Fischer. For many decades, neuroscientists and educators believed that the brain stopped growing and changing after a certain age. However, neuroplasticity tells us that the environment is always shaping the neural pathways being formed in the brain, even in old age. (Sorry retired expats, there’s no excuse for not learning Thai.) The brain is, however, still the most flexible and receptive to new neural networks in youth.
There are many practical applications of neuroscience in education. David A. Sousa, international education consultant, scholar, and editor of the book Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom writes about lessons learned from neuroscience. This includes but is not limited to the ability of movement to improve learning and memory, the profound role of emotions in learning, and how the social and cultural climates of schools dramatically affect learning.
A more concrete application of neuroscience in education was found in the reticular activating system (RAS), which filters sensory data in the brain. If the RAS senses heightened anxiety or fear, it goes into survival mode and prevents the brain from short-term memory storage. In short, if children are overly anxious or fearful in class, their brains cannot learn. The implications of these neuroscience findings for classroom practice are momentous. From a neuroscientific standpoint, learning and discovery is one of the most pleasurable things the brain experiences. Going to school should be truly enjoyable for children.
Integrating neuroscience into education is a complex process. There are no secret “brain-based” teaching methods. Citing neuroscience in curriculum development has become trendy in Thailand, according to Vanessa Race, prolific Thai author and graduate of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard. But there are no miracle cures. And technically speaking there are no teaching methods that are more “brain-based” than others. (As Bruno della Chiesa, senior analyst of education at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), comically points out, “All learning is brain-based!”)
So what is a viable method for improving the quality of the Thai education system based on cognitive neuroscience? According to Fischer, a key part of improving an education system is in training teachers to become researchers. “If teachers are engaged in research… we actually have findings that are relevant to classrooms,” he says.
This technique of training teachers to be researchers is being successfully implemented in various school districts around the world. At Ulm University in Germany, a group of researchers started a program that focused on working with teachers in a local school district. The researchers train the teachers in current cognitive neuroscience and how to conduct research in their classrooms. Then the teachers collect data on what practices do and don’t work. This system has been successful in Baden-Württemberg and is spreading throughout Germany.
Connecting universities and researchers to teachers, informing them of relevant neuroscience, and training them to think like researchers is vital to bring about positive change in the education system in Thailand. This integration will allow Thai teachers, on the front lines of education, to discover the most effective pedagogical practices for Thailand based on neuroscience, leading to dramatic increases in quality.
Invest in teachers, because, as Sousa says, “Teachers are, after all, the ultimate ‘brain-changers.’”
Oliver Crocco received his Ed.M. from Harvard University and is currently the Head of International Campus Life and General Education instructor at Payap University.

English course teaches traditional Thai values to foreigners

By Nopniwat Krailerg
Waroonporn Rongsiew, a former EFL teacher, that is a English as a Foreign Langauge in the United States has recently started a new course for foreigners to learn to read and speak Thai and traditional Thai values at the same time. Her courses use the timeless Thai children’s classic “Manee Mana Phiti Choojai” series adapted to teach foreign adults.

Waroonporn Rongsiew meets with the original author of the Manee books, Ratchanee Sripaiwan.

“This course using the Manee Mana Phiti Choojai teaches not only English but the customs, culture, values and lifestyle of Thai people. It is perfect for use in teaching to young people and interested foreigners,” she noted.

K. Waroonporn said that she decided to use this book as a teaching aid as she recalled it fondly from her youth and because none of the books to teach reading and writing Thai for foreigners reflect Thailand’s culture and values.

“Students read this book and are impressed with his character. It makes learning in Thai interesting.”

“Manee Mana Phiti Choojai” by Ajarn Ratchanee Sripaiwan was used as a primary school textbooks in grades 1-6 from 1978-1994 and a total of 12 books used in teaching Thai during the years 1978-1994. The book has been adapted with the permission of the Office of Basic Education in the Ministry of Education. The book has been translated and can be found on the internet.

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How Neuroscience Can Increase Quality in Education

English course teaches traditional Thai values to foreigners