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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

Rethinking School

SPU’s New Brain Center Integrates the Work of Brain Science and Education

IT SEEMS LIKE A NO-BRAINER: America’s educational system could be radically transformed for the better if it applied proven principles about how the brain learns. But there’s a problem. Educators and brain scientists don’t work together. Until now, that is.

Bev Wilson
At Seattle’s Zion Preparatory Academy and other schools, SPU Associate Professor Bev Wilson and her fellow researchers are helping young children gain the “executive attention” skills they need to succeed academically.

In 2006, Seattle Pacific University launched The Brain Center for Applied Learning Research, a revolutionary venture directed by developmental molecular biologist John Medina and involving a collaboration between education, psychology, business, and science faculty at SPU, as well as educators throughout the region. The goal? To rethink the way we conduct school.

“The work of The Brain Center will have enormous potential applications for schools — not just in the city of Seattle, but elsewhere,” says Seattle Pacific President Philip Eaton, who worked closely with Medina, University trustee Dennis Weibling, and SPU academic leaders to make the initiative a reality. “To use Seattle Pacific University’s vision language, this could literally change the world of education.”

Coordinating the activities of The Brain Center is William Rowley, dean of the SPU School of Education. His leadership will be key as The Center begins to sponsor more research, teaching, consulting, and publishing. He believes that the 12 “brain rules” articulated by Medina may be the best catalysts for groundbreaking educational inquiry and discussion — and an opportunity to change “the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” approach to learning.

Research results and best teaching practices from The Brain Center will be shared with schools and colleges of education across the country, says Rowley: “It has the potential to put Seattle Pacific on the map as a major resource for educators.”

In its first year, The Brain Center is sponsoring a pilot study addressing underachievement by low-income students and research into the effects of repetition on learning. A project funded by the National Science Foundation and the Boeing Co. is also utilizing Brain Center principles to empower science teachers.

Meeting the Needs of All Children

Can something as common as a marshmallow be an indicator of a student’s future success?

The answer is yes. Take this scene for example: A marshmallow is presented to a small child. She is told that she may eat the confection immediately if she wishes. She is also told that if she holds out just a few minutes more, she will receive two marshmallows.

“If some children so much as look at the marshmallow, they eat it,” says Bev Wilson, associate professor of graduate psychology in SPU’s School of Psychology, Family, and Community. “Those children who use their attention strategically look away or think of something else to keep them from eating it. Studies have shown that children able to wait for the greater reward do better emotionally, socially, and academically on into high school. It’s quite amazing.”

Wilson heads a Brain Center pilot study called “Executive Attention and Self Regulation in Young Children.” The purpose of the study is to enable all children to realize their academic potential. The nation’s current “achievement gap” between children of different ethnicities is only one indication that many are denied opportunities that would enable them to succeed, says Wilson: “The ‘gap’ is primarily a function of social-economic inequities, and lack of resources impacts children’s cognitive and social development.”

Wilson and her colleagues are utilizing the marshmallow test and others like it with up to 80 preschool and kindergarten children in the Seattle area. Some children participating in the study attend Zion Preparatory Academy, a private school that explicitly aims to provide equal opportunities to all children, enabling those who lack financial resources or nurturing support systems to succeed alongside their more fortunate peers. The student body is 96 percent African American. Zion has joined forces with researchers to test a program that previously has only been offered to students who are primarily European American and from relatively privileged backgrounds.

The Brain Center study’s findings have the potential to benefit the community in important ways, not the least of which is by discovering methods to help at-risk students learn. “The possibilities are enormous,” says Wilson. “A cost-effective intervention that enables these children to realize more of their potential would provide a great service to them, as well as to our country.”

One specific possible outcome might be a sixweek preschool education unit that employs brain rules regarding attentional states. “This kind of intervention actually changes the way the brain processes information,” says Wilson. “Different areas of the brain become more adult-like, more efficient, when what’s called ‘executive attention’ is properly directed. The key is to start early enough. The circuits of the brain undergo rapid development between the ages of 2 and 7, making this a great time to intervene.”

A scholar of emotional processes in children, Wilson explains that “executive attention” influences a person’s ability to focus on a task, to calm down, to persist, to practice good social skills, and to show empathy for others.

Wilson’s fellow researchers in The Brain Center project are SPU Associate Dean of Teacher Education Frank Kline and University of Washington faculty member Karin Frey. Also on the team are 30 undergraduate and graduate SPU students. Several families of preschoolers participate in the project, which includes extensive questionnaires, home visits, and family sessions at Seattle Pacific. The year-long pilot study will help make the case for a federally funded study with a larger sampling of more than 400 children.

“In order for us to do a better job teaching, we welcome further insight into how to enrich the attention and cognitive and emotional development of our students,” says Zion Principal Medgar Wells. “Because God has put a piece of himself in every child, we must not put limits on what that child can do.”

Attention training, Wilson adds, is inexpensive to implement and involves everyone in a child’s life: “Parents and preschool teachers are co-investigators with us. We’re working together to help their children.”

Learning Through Repetition

If you want to remember that the capital of Morocco is Rabat, you need to be exposed to that particular piece of information more than once. Brain scientists have known for a long time that for someone to retain declarative information — such as the names of capital cities — in long-term memory requires repetition. What modern molecular techniques have revealed is that such repetition needs to occur as early as 90 minutes after initial exposure.

“Taken together, the relationship between repetition and memory is clear,” says John Medina, director of SPU’s Brain Center. “Repeat it if you want to retrieve it; repeat it more in spaced intervals if you want the retrieval to be more robust. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is put in all at once.”

The School of Education (SOE) at Seattle Pacific is working with The Brain Center in a series of experiments designed to apply some specific brain rules — such as the principle of repetition and memory — to the practice of learning. One of these is a simple repetition experiment planned for a random sample of 20 fifthgrade geography classrooms in the outlying Seattle area.

Designed by Medina in collaboration with Peter Gilbert, a biostatistician from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the experiment is being conducted by a team of SOE researchers: Professor of Education Art Ellis, Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Scott Beers, Assistant Professor of Physics and Science Education Eleanor Close, and Adjunct Professor of Education Greg Bianchi. They will divide the fifth-graders into two groups: the controls, who will be exposed to geographical information under normal classroom conditions; and the experimentals, who will have the same information repeated 90–180 minutes after initial exposure. All students will be tested on how well they retained the information.

“Not only will we compare the results of the two groups,” says Ellis, “but we will also retest after a month or two to see if the information is imbedded.”

Ellis says that only the information most important to students as they progress in their education will be repeated in the Brain Center experiment. “Repetition slows things down, and a teacher will not be able to cover as much material, and that’s good,” he explains. “The broad coverage mentality doesn’t work.”

In the United States, a teacher might try to cover 40–50 subjects, whereas a teacher in Japan might cover only a dozen. Still, Japanese students consistently achieve better than U.S. students because the more-selective class content receives more of their attention. Consequently, there is adequate time for repetition and retention of essential information.

It is hoped that the results of the Brain Center repetition experiment will provide educational policy makers with the kind of empirical data they need to make positive changes in how children are taught. In the future, a second study inspired by the brain rules Medina has articulated may examine the effect of periodic physical exercise on a person’s ability to learn. A third study might focus on “working memory,” or the ability to solve new problems based on new ideas learned.

“The exciting thing about these projects is that they don’t cost the schools anything,” Ellis says. “There is no need for special equipment or government grants.” And, hopefully, no need for skepticism once research results are in. Rabat is, after all, the capital of Morocco.

Empowering Science Teachers

Master teacher Lezlie DeWater believes the fear of science is often a result of misinformation and the failure to train your brain to ask questions that follow a series of logical steps. “Scientific thinking can empower people in all areas of their lives,” she says. “Once you focus on the relevant information and learn to ask better questions, you can recognize when you are on the path to a solution.”

Sounds simple enough, but DeWater is determined to help educators take that message to students. On leave from Seattle Public Schools, she maintains an office at SPU and is working in partnership with the School of Education and the Physics Department on a major science education study. Titled “Improving the Effectiveness of Teacher Diagnostic Tools,” the five-year project is made possible by a grant from the Boeing Co. and $1.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.

The goal is an ambitious one: to equip educators across the country to teach science — specifically physics and physical science — more effectively.

And the need is critical. “America is no longer a world contender” in science and technology, wrote award-winning education reporter William Symonds in the March 16, 2004, issue of BusinessWeek magazine. According to the National Science Teachers Association, just 27 percent of high school graduates in 2006 scored high enough on the ACT science test to have a good chance of completing a first-year college science course.

With these bleak statistics in mind, Seattle Pacific has launched a study of middle school teachers and their students in three of Washington state’s largest cities: Seattle, Spokane, and Bellevue. DeWater’s fellow SPU researchers include Physics Department Chair John Lindberg, Associate Professor of Physics Stamatis Vokos, Assistant Professor of Physics Lane Seeley, Associate Dean of Teacher Education Frank Kline, and Assistant Professor of Physics and Science Education Eleanor Close — along with researchers from FACET Innovations, a company working to bridge research and practice in education, and Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

A pre-assessment questionnaire has already been administered to 2,000 eighth graders. The diagnostic tool is designed to identify the most glaring gaps in an accurate understanding of science. “Our first task is convincing teachers that these gaps do exist,” says DeWater, who has been associated with Seattle Public Schools for 31 years, 20 of those as an elementary school science teacher. “Teachers are sometimes amazed at the problems we uncover. It’s no one’s fault. If you don’t know a problem exists, why would you even address it?”

One example is the widespread confusion that exists in student understanding of the concepts of “volume” and “surface area.” DeWater encountered one teacher who didn’t differentiate between the two very different forms of measure and likely used the terms interchangeably with her students. The students’ ideas about the two were clouded by the teacher’s own confusion.

“Our goal with the study is to identify unproductive modes of reasoning on the part of students,” explains DeWater, “and to give teachers the tools to help their students think more productively.” Webbased assessment tools are used to give students feedback on their thinking processes as they work, and to help confront misconceptions.

DeWater and the research team hope these and other interventions will result in a deeper understanding of science among teachers and their students nationwide, and help pinpoint key learning barriers for the most vulnerable teachers and students, especially in those schools where poverty is an issue. In the 2005–06 Washington Assessment of Student Learning, only 24 percent of lowincome eighth graders in Washington state met national science standards — as compared to 53 percent of other eighth graders.

“We want to leverage the expertise that The Brain Center brings, for John Medina to guide and inform this project with current brain research,” says Vokos.

DeWater has worked with cognitive scientists in the past and calls the best learning model “hands-on, minds-on teaching.” That requires, she says, a better understanding on the part of educators of just how it is the brain learns.


— By Clint Kelly (
Photos by Mike Siegel

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