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Trends in Neuroscience and Education 3 (2014) 1–3

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Trends in Neuroscience and Education

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The Latin American School on Education and the Cognitive and Neural
Sciences: Goals and challenges
John T. Bruer
James S. McDonnell Foundation, St. Louis, MO, USA

art ic l e i nf o a b s t r a c t

Although the institution of summer schools is well established within the scientific community, the LA
Keywords: School is unique in its goals and future challenges.
Education & 2014 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.
Cognitive neuroscience

1. Introduction central relevance of developmental neurophysiology to addressing

problems in early childhood education. The speakers suggested that
This volume presents papers prepared by participants at the there were other areas of cognitive and neural science that might
first three Latin American Schools on Education and the Cognitive have greater relevance to the issues that educators and policy-
and Neural Sciences (Atacama, Chile, 2111; El Calafate, Argentina, makers confront. Work in the social and behavioral sciences, for
2012; and Itacaré, Brazil, 2013). Summer schools and institutes example provides models of child development that offer roadmaps
have a significant place in the development of scientific and for policy makers, educators, and instructional designers who want
scholarly communities. The Latin American School contributes to to understand not only what children learn, but how they optimally
the development of an international community of psychologists, learn [7]. Thus, the Symposium indicated that there was an interest
cognitive neuroscientists, and neuroscientists committed to apply- in science-based educational practice in the region and that there
ing their research to improve educational outcomes for children, was a need to broaden the perspective of educators and policy
not only in Latin America but also internationally. However, in makers on what kinds of research at which levels of analysis might
addition to fulfilling the typical goals of a summer school, the LA most contribute to their real-world concerns.
Schools have additional goals and challenges. Subsequent discussions with three Latin American neuroscien-
tists – Marcela Peña, Mariano Sigman, and Sidarta Ribeiro – re-
enforced this conclusion. There was a need to develop a commu-
2. Background nity of young investigators in Latin America who would have the
scientific backgrounds needed to guide national educational pol-
The LA School had its genesis in March 2007, when the icy, a community of young investigators well-equipped to enter
University of Chile hosted the Symposium on Early Education
into constructive dialog with educators and policy makers. All of
and Human Brain Development. Symposium speakers, several of
those engaged in these discussions were familiar with or had
whom remain involved with the LA School, presented research in
participated in the Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience.
cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience which had
We decided to develop a Latin American School on Education and
potential application to educational issues. The audience was
the Cognitive and Neural Sciences, patterned after the Summer
overwhelmingly educators and representatives from ministries of
education. At the final symposium session, the symposium speak- Institute. The immediate goal was to provide young Latin Amer-
ers answered questions from the audience. It was evident from the ican investigators, already trained in either the cognitive or neural
questions that the attendees were interested primarily in what sciences, with the knowledge, skills, and international professional
neuroscientific research could immediately tell them about early contacts that would allow them to turn their research interests
childhood education, early numeracy, beginning arithmetic, and productively toward educational problems. These young investi-
the effects of daycare. At the time, there was worldwide interest in gators would first of all provide an educational research resource
how ideas from developmental neurophysiology – synaptic pro- in Latin America to further science-based practice in the region
liferation and subsequent synaptic pruning, critical periods, and and at the same time be active members in the international
enriched environments – might contribute to child development educational research community. It was also recognized that the
and early learning. Many of the teachers‘ questions assumed the LA School, concentrating primarily on basic research, would only
2211-9493 & 2014 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.
2 J.T. Bruer / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 3 (2014) 1–3

be a first step in developing the needed dialog. Eventually, the Neuroscience Summer Institute was to help clear away the “seman-
schools and its graduates would extend the dialog to ministries of tic underbrush”, as Michael Gazzaniga described it, that prevented
education, policy makers, and classroom teachers. The LA School is effective communication between the disciplines. Earlier, the goal of
beginning to address this second goal. the school was to train new generations of cognitive neuroscientists,
There is nothing unusual about the structure and organization who were as familiar with the vocabulary, methods, and assump-
of the LA School that would distinguish it from numerous other tions of systems neuroscience as they were with cognitive psychol-
summer institutes. The LA Schools offer two-week courses. ogy. As the underbrush was cleared away, a new hybrid discipline
Approximately 50 students are selected from a pool of several emerged. As the hybrid field matured, the Cognitive Neuroscience
hundred applicants each year. Two-thirds of the students are Latin Institute morphed into a single-discipline school, a school that
Americans; the remaining students are selected from applicants continues to integrate young scientists on the periphery of cognitive
outside the region. The intent is to develop an international neuroscience into its center.
community of younger investigators interested in translating basic There is certainly semantic underbrush to be cleared away
psychological and neuroscientific research into educational prac- among the fields of education, psychology, and neuroscience.
tice and policy. Each year the school has a general theme, e.g. However, the goal of the LA School is not necessarily to develop
science education and numeracy, reading, applications of technol- a single discipline or even a hybrid discipline. The goal is to lay the
ogy to education. Thirty faculty members from institutions around groundwork for appropriately translating findings from several
the world, experts in the thematic area, are invited to the school. basic science disciplines into educational policies and practices.
Faculty members agree to remain in residence at the school for Students should certainly depart the school familiar with the
three days. Each faculty member presents at least one lecture and vocabulary, methods, and assumptions of the cognitive and neural
conducts a journal club. The school schedule allows for extended sciences. However, students who intend to work at the cognitive–
periods each day during which participants can discuss work and neural–educational interface must also acquire an appreciation of
research interests informally. Students are encouraged to collaborate what kind of research at which level of analysis might be most
in designing research projects. There is one rule of social interaction appropriate to the educational problem one is trying to solve.
at the schools: any time a student sees two faculty members Some problems might best be addressed at the cognitive or
conversing, the student is required to join the conversation. behavioral level; others might be more susceptible to solution at
Summer institutes and schools, like the LA School, have an the neural level. A brain imaging study is not always the best
established place within the scientific and scholarly community. answer to an educational problem, nor is a reaction time study.
There are hundreds of them every year in part because they are an Neither the cognitive nor the neural sciences alone have the
effective and a cost-effective way to build communities and foster answers to the variety of educational issues challenging us. Playing
dialog. Some schools, like those at the Marine Biology Laboratory a constructive role in the educational environment requires under-
in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory standing the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of the com-
in New York, having been operating over the past century and plementary disciplines in relation to solving acknowledged
have attained mythic status for their contributions to the biologi- educational problems. Disciplinary parochialism will not do. Thus,
cal sciences. The perceived benefits of schools to both students and a unique challenge for the LA Schools is to foster critical dialog
faculty are easily summarized. Summer schools provide advanced between “separate but equal” disciplines.
training for the participants, often advanced training is not A second challenge is to constructively channel the enthusiasm
available at the student‘s home institution. The school faculty for brain science that is pervasive among both educators and
provides expertise drawn from among the best investigators in the researchers. Historical contingencies started educational neu-
discipline. Student–faculty interaction allows students to discuss roscience off on the wrong foot. Starting in the mid-1990s early
theory and research topics and to garner advice on their own childhood advocates began to argue that findings in developmen-
research program, with the possibility of future long-distance tal neurophysiology – developmental synaptogenesis, critical per-
mentorship or collaboration. The concentration of a variety of iods, and the effects of enriched environments on rodent brains –
related research interests at a school can lead to productive provided a biological basis to transform our understanding of early
research collaborations among students, and their advisors, who childhood development, teaching, and learning. The impact of this
have similar or complementary research interests. The intellectual argument was evident in the questions educators asked at the
and social interaction at the school provides networking opportu- March 2007 Symposium. Although the specific educational impli-
nities that can lead to lifetime professional relationships. Schools cations claimed for this science have been rejected by the scientific
facilitate the development of research communities and dialog community as “neuro-myths” [1,3], those implications are still
within that community. All these benefits serve to bring younger alive among teachers and thriving among those providing com-
scientists, who may be on the periphery of a discipline or research mercial products to support “brain-based” education. Educational
domain, closer to its center. For longer running schools, former neuroscience must actively engage in addressing these misunder-
students often become instructors, adding further intellectual and standings. Maybe one of our goals should be the training of
social cohesion to the field. effective communicators of science to the education community
The LA School serves all of these purposes. However, there are as Goswami [6] has argued. Among teachers and teacher educators
additional factors and challenges that are unique to the LA School. espousing a “mind, brain, and education” perspective, there is also
First, consider the research community the LA School is trying to a tendency to point to findings in cognitive neuroscience that
develop. There are numerous single-discipline or sub-discipline appear to justify particular educational practices, effective or not,
summer schools, like Skinner‘s example of the Summer Institute in that happen to cohere with the individual‘s philosophical or
Social and Personality Psychology. School attendance results in the ideological predispositions. However, in these expositions rarely is
skills and knowledge to engage more fully in that research field. it the case that brain-based data is provided to support the particular
Some schools begin as cross disciplinary endeavors. The Summer intervention. For example, that rote learning strengthens one‘s rote
Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience is an example. When that learning circuits is not very informative. Also, it is highly unlikely
school started in 1988 there was little dialog between system that Hebbian learning justifies teachers‘ intuitions that effective
neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, even though they learning requires repetition [4]. Indeed what kind of instruction
might have been working on the same topic or system. Indeed, and practice is required to facilitate learning of facts is a rather long
the dialog had to be forced [8]. The original goal of the Cognitive and complicated story, as Roediger and Karpicke [10,11] among
J.T. Bruer / Trends in Neuroscience and Education 3 (2014) 1–3 3

others have shown. Educational neuroscientists should foreswear the hypothesis, and test the intervention in classrooms. Some of
neuroscientific “just so” stories. LA School graduates should be able these projects succeeded but others did not. However, this type of
to successfully engage with the teacher–educator community in research program directly linked the basic research knowledge
attempts to limit the spread of neuroscientific pseudo-explanations. base to a real-world, practical and educational problem. The
There may also be a need to channel the enthusiasm of projects provided data on the success or failure of the intervention
educational neuroscientists engaged in basic research. Within this and even sometimes on the inadequacy of the original hypothesis.
research community there is a tendency to talk about the educa- Moreover, the projects also provided insights into what was
tional implications of cognitive neuroscience and neuroscience required to translate basic research into educational practice.
and rightly so. However, students should leave the LA School with Classrooms, as opposed to laboratories or imaging centers, are
an understanding that there are implications and there are noisy places, requiring interventions that have a strong signal. This
possible implications. One of the conclusions endorsed by some program also suggested that there may be need for a new type of
of the speakers at March 2007 University of Chile Symposium was education professional whose professional role is to assist teachers
that at present neuroscientific research was very much a promis- in applying research in the classroom. Basic scientists are not
sory note that in the future might help support and refine models generally well-suited to this task. At any rate, one hopes that the
of child development and learning. In most instances those LA School might be a first step toward a new educational research
implications are not yet at hand. The future promise of educational initiative, Cognitive and Neural Sciences for Educational Practice.
neuroscience is becoming an increasingly common theme in this The need to appreciate the complementary nature of the
literature [1, 5–7]. One might say the educational neuroscience cognitive and neural sciences in the educational arena and the
literature mostly talks about possible implications of neuroscience need to extend the dialog beyond the confines of the research
research for education. This literature is peppered with perhaps, community are fundamental to the LA School. The papers in this
maybe, and it is possible that. On the negative side this indicates special edition represent the first steps toward these goals. We
the relative paucity of real-world implications of the research expect that the LA School will become a permanent fixture on the
discussed. On the positive side, it indicates that there is interesting international science calendar, providing opportunities for career
and important work to be done to turn these possible implications development and international collaboration in applying the
into real-world, classroom implications. Students come to the LA cognitive and neural sciences to education.
Schools highly enthusiastic and they leave highly enthusiastic, but
with an understanding of the theoretical, methodological, and
political hurdles that they must negotiate to reach their goals.
Finally, an eventual goal of the LA Schools is to further develop
the researcher–educator dialog to the point where the School
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tions of neuroscientific research for education as found in the [2] Bruer JT. Schools for thought: a science of learning in the classroom. Cam-
bridge, MA: MIT Press; 1993.
scholarly literature are possible implications as seen from the [3] Bruer JT. The myth of the first three years: a new understanding of early brain
perspective of the researcher. Do these possible implications development and lifelong learning. New York: Free Press; 1999.
resonate at all with classroom teachers? For around 15 years [4] Geake J, Cooper P. Cognitive neuroscience: implications for education. West-
starting in the late 1980s, the James S. McDonnell Foundation ran a minst Stud Educ 2003;26(1):7–20.
[5] Goswami U. Neuroscience and education. Br J Educ Psychol 2004;74:1–14.
program called Cognitive Studies for Educational Practice (CSEP) [6] Goswami U. Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nat Rev
[2,9]. This program provided three to six years of research support Neurosci 2006;7(5):406–11.
to collaborative teams consisting of a researcher and a classroom [7] Hirsh-Pasek K, Bruer JT. The brain/education barrier. Science 2007;317:1293.
[8] LeDoux JE, Hirst W, editors. Mind and brain: dialogues in cognitive neu-
teacher. The program guidelines required the collaborators to roscience. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1986.
describe an acknowledged classroom problem (e.g. failure to learn [9] McGilly K, editor. Classroom lessons: integrating cognitive theory and class-
first formal arithmetic, failure to transfer physical science knowl- room practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1994.
[10] Roediger HL, Karpicke JD. The power of testing memory: basic research and
edge from the classroom to everyday problems, early reading
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