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
Until now, that is.
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
— Photos by Mike Siegel
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