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
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
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
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
Oliver Crocco received his Ed.M. from Harvard University and is currently
the Head of International Campus Life and General Education instructor at
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.
Rongsiew meets with the original author of the Manee books, Ratchanee
“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
“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.