Could brain scans change the way we learn?

Scans of our brain could reveal which methods of teaching work best
18 August 2022

Interview with 

Rob Cortes & Adam Green, Georgetown University


Cartoon of the brain.


Standardised testing has been a cornerstone of education when it comes to measuring a student’s development. But, as we come to better understand how our minds operate, could brain scans help to tell us more about how we learn, and even surpass test scores when it comes to predicting students' learning? Julia has been talking to Rob Cortes and Adam Green, of the University of Georgetown, to see how MRI scans can highlight brain development, as well as how different areas of the brain interact to help us develop faster.

Rob - Yeah. The students that we looked at were taking a real world high school course in Virginia. And it was called the 'geospatial course' and they took it over an entire year. And the main focus of that course was to learn geographical information systems, mapping. Basically to build maps and representations of data, to sort of solve complex problems. And we had a hypothesis that building these spatial skills might also transfer to verbal reasoning, which was our main sort of outcome of far transfer. If most of our reasonability is underlied by these spatial representations, then if the students taking this class improve on those spatial skills, they might also improve on the reasoning. And that's what we found. They improved on spatial skills that they weren't trained on in the class. They also improved on verbal reasoning and then the improvement in those spatial skills directly tracked with and mediated that improvement in verbal reasoning, which was really exciting. And then, like we mentioned, we were able to also look at their brain activity during that time and that was even more predictive.

Julia - I'm guessing that you scanned them at the beginning at the end of the course. So when you compared that change over time, what was the comparison in terms of showing that they've learned something compared to the test scores?

Adam - So we scan them before with a brain scan using functional magnetic resonance imaging. A lot of people have probably been in an MRI. This is a method that uses the same technology in a slightly different way to look at how blood is flowing in the brain as a measure of where activity is happening in the brain. And so we use this measure both before and after they took this class as a way of looking at a change, because learning is always a change. And so, if you're going to measure learning, you need to do that in this kind of longitudinal way with at least two time points. When we looked at that change, we compared that change to the change in performance, which is to say how well they did on some tests of verbal and spatial thinking. And we also compared that brain change to the ways that we are all used to having learning measured like our grades and our performance within a class. And in every way that we looked at it, the brain was the most predictive thing to tell you how well students were gonna be able to transfer what they learned.

Julia - And you taught the participants a space based task. And then you were looking to see if their skills improved, not just in similar tasks, but different tasks and verbal based tasks. And you did see that. So why do you think there is this transfer and is spatial learning a good thing for people to be doing to improve skills elsewhere?

Adam - Yeah and I think it's particularly timely and this is something that Rob and I have been talking about recently. I think our brains are getting a little bit soft and mushy when it comes to spatial cognition. So it may be that it's more important than ever for students to take a class like this. The reason I say that is we're relying more and more on our devices to map the world for us. People get completely turned around and completely hopeless if the GPS loses signal or the cell phone loses signal while they're driving. Things that seem verbal on the surface are actually relying on spatial resources in the brain. So we're building these shapes and these quasi spatial images in our head to spacialise information that seems verbal. The reason we do that is because our brains, the build of our brains through evolution, is already good at spatial stuff. So evolution tends to be fairly parsimonious and, rather than just building a new brain part to do a new task that becomes relevant, what tends to happen is the co-opting of resources that are already there, that are already good at doing something, and then transferring or transforming the information we get to be understandable. In this case, spatial terms. So that our good spatial resources can handle them.

Julia - And Rob, I'm guessing you've done a lot of brain scans. These things take a lot of time, especially with the analysis of the data. So we can't really scan every pupil at the start of the year and the end of the year to see if they've learned something. So how do you think this technique could be used to improve education on a mass scale?

Rob - I think we've touched on a little bit but, diving deeper, I think one of the key areas would be curriculum development. So that's something that typically happens on a small scale anyway. When we're testing out different curriculums of ways of teaching a certain subject, you can scale up that curriculum. We find the one that works best in an evidence based way. Then we can scale that up and have really strong evidence that that is an effective curriculum at improving learning and changing students' brains.


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