Last year in a Boston Globe article, Bill Gates claimed that providing vaccines to developing countries was easy compared to changing the education system.  Those who have taken on the Sisyphean task of education reform know that that’s true. The education system is a complex, multi-faceted system that has an enormous amount of inertia.

Interested in further exploring the intersection between education and neuroscience? MaRS hosts Art, Science and the Brain: New Methods of Learning for the 21st Century

A new wave of research is looking to change the nature of education for the 21st century based on brain research: on what actually goes on in our grey matter when we learn new things.

So much has occurred in neuroscience in the last 20 years: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allowed scientists to create real-time colour-coded videos of people’s brains as they worked on actually tasks.  The discovery of “mirror neurons” showed that empathy had a biological driver, and studies mounted to show that the brain itself was much more “plastic” in its structure than previously thought.

As such, the biggest influence on education theory in the 21st century is so-called “brain-based education,” or the restructuring of teaching practice to account for what we know about the brain. One thing that has become clear, based on the work of Howard Gardner, and many others, is that people can learn things in many ways, the so-called “multiple intelligences” approach, that equally values oral, verbal, visual and kinaesthetic learning.

Students also need an opportunity to self-direct their learning experience, and need help to develop routines of “structured practice,” to develop certain cognitive skills. Specialists like John Medina and Daniel Willingham have advocated fiercely for change in education based on what we know about our brains.

Several MaRS clients are working in the space, on educational video games and well-tested instructional techniques. Spongelab is a digital media studio in Toronto working to create “content-rich immersive experiences” to teach science. Study after study shows that games are an ideal way to motivate people to learn new skills.

MaRS clients JUMP Math, KEEN Differentiated Learning and MusIQ Kids have all tested their instructional methods against brain-based models to validate their process and prove increase in learning by students.

students who trained with the game for 20 days showed an increased IQ score during verbal testing

A recent article in the Globe and Mail profiled Dr. Sylvain Moreno, founder of MusIQ Kids. Moreno is a neuroscientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, and has created a computer-based cognitive training program designed to teach kids the basics of music. The results of their study showed that students who trained with the game for 20 days showed an increased IQ score during verbal testing as compared to a control group.  Moreno’s research has shown that music and language use some of the same networks in the brain, so he is not surprised by the results.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University is the father of research in music and neuroscience, and is speaking at MaRS on Nov 1 alongside performances from pianist Eve Egoyan, multimedia David Rokeby and Moshe Hammer’s Hammer Band.

In his popular book This is Your Brain on Music, Levitin draws on his experience as a producer and sound engineer for Blue Oyster Cult, Santana and the Grateful Dead, and combines it with cutting edge neuroscience research to give us a fascinating picture of how the brain understands and creates music.

Check out Daniel Levitin on CBC’s The Hour.

What remains to be seen is how this new information on what brains are doing when they’re learning can do for education. Entrepreneurs on the ground, and researchers like Dr. Levitin are certainly laying the ground-work for a seismic shift in education policy.

Interested in further exploring the intersection between education and neuroscience? MaRS hosts Art, Science and the Brain: New Methods of Learning for the 21st Century from Oct 31 – Nov 1.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…