Roger Stark, CEO of BrainWare SAFARI, explained the confluence of forces affecting education today: pressures on schools to ensure high levels of teacher proficiency, to be accountable for the achievement of all students, and to transition to the new Common Core Standards, all in a time when funding is strictly limited. Mr. Stark identified cognitive development of students as a key to meeting multiple challenges, citing a 2010 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report that emphasized the importance of cognitive ability in raising student performance on the PISA exams that track and compare student performance around the world. The report, which emphasized the close connection between education and economics, stated that raising students’ PISA scores in the U.S. to minimum proficiency would generate $72 trillion of GDP, a value greater than the world’s entire current GDP.
The importance of understanding cognitive development was also the subject of a report by the National Committee on Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which discussed the importance of training teachers in the cognitive and developmental sciences in order to close the gaps in student performance. Finally, Mr. Stark discussed how the traditional approaches to educational reform have focused on curriculum, teachers, technology and other external factors, rather than on the student. He said that the following presentations would provide insights into the dramatic impact of cognitive development on delivering students to the classroom better prepared to learn.
Dr. Pat Wolfe, an international authority on the application of neuroscience research to classroom practice and author of Brain Matters, contrasted the traditional approach to education, based on principles of repetition and positive reinforcement and an approach to education grounded in brain science. She gave an overview of the most important findings in neuroscience for educators from the last 10 years:
• Neurosplasticity is the term scientists use to describe the brain’s ability to change itself in response to its environment. As Dr. Wolfe said, “The brain becomes what the brain does.”
• The brain is a pattern-seeking device. We try to hook new information into networks and patterns we already recognize. If we can’t connect new information, it is discarded.
• Emotions are a primary catalyst for the learning process. Under stress, the frontal lobes of our brains (the areas that are responsible for thinking and decision-making)
• There are two different types of long-term memory – declarative (or semantic) memory and procedural memory. Procedural memory is developed by repetition to the level of automaticity (skills like walking, playing the piano or tying one’s shoes). Declarative memory is developed by the brain connecting into existing information or by actively experiencing it.
Dr. Wolfe referred to history education to distinguish between traditional and brain-compatible approaches. The traditional approach involves the memorization of dates and events, where a brain-compatible approach might focus on acting out experiences, resulting in deeper and more enduring learning.
Dr. Wolfe concluded, “We stand on the threshold of important new advances in neuroscience that will yield increased understanding of brain functioning and the way we learn. How we use this new information to teach our children may well be the most important question in our lifetime.”
Dr. Sarah Avtzon, assistant professor and director of the early childhood special education program at Daemen College in New York, discussed findings in neuroscience research regarding the mental processes involved in learning to read and learning mathematics, including broad attention, visual and auditory working memory, visual-spatial understanding, and executive functions (the brain’s ability to control and direct itself). She explained that these mental processes, also referred to as cognitive functions, are generally weak in individuals with specific learning disabilities, resulting in their struggles to perform academically. She described recent advances in neuroscience giving rise to technology that can be used to build up weak cognitive skills. The technology she used in her research to demonstrate the impact on students with SLD is called BrainWare SAFARI. Her research
showed that students who used BrainWare SAFARI for twelve weeks improved the proficiency of their cognitive processing on average from 60% to 89%, where 90% is the expected level for a normally developing student. Certain specific functions, including auditory working memory and executive functions surpassed 90% proficiency on average. The students in the intervention group became 28% more proficient in reading and 31% more proficient in math. Dr. Avtzon connected her findings to the principle of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change) and described the impact on students with learning disabilities as “life-changing.”
In concluding, Dr. Avtzon identified the need to find ways to add training of foundational cognitive skills to the education system and for a transdisciplinary approach among neuroscientists and educators. “Cognitive skill training is a critical piece missing in our current approach to intervention,”
Mr. Ron Kraft, superintendent of Hale Area Schools, brought the themes of the briefing to the level of practical application in schools. He described the pilot and subsequent roll-out of BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development in Harbor Beach, Michigan. Through the pilot, the district was able to confirm the results of previously published research with their own students achieving an average of over 3 years cognitive growth in 12 weeks. The district subsequently provided the program to all students in 3rd grade through 12th grade. Following the program’s full implementation, many students who had been in special education classes were reclassified and graduated successfully within the general curriculum. The number of students classified as special education dropped from 18% to 5% and the expenditures on special education were decreased by 50%. Mr. Kraft emphasized that the program helped students at all levels of ability, with one student increasing her ACT score following her use of BrainWare SAFARI from 29 to 34.
Mr. Kraft connected the practical impacts of cognitive development to success in school and life by pointing out the pattern-recognition aspects of learning that are developed and enhanced by BrainWare SAFARI. He described his personal experience with his son Kevin, who was described as cognitively impaired when he was adopted by the Krafts. With the help of BrainWare SAFARI and other support, Kevin successfully graduated from high school and currently serves in the Marine Corps where he has become proficient in the field of communications, which he describes as patterns that are now easy for him to see.
Mr. Kraft explained that implementing neuroscience-