Interview with Dr. Janet Zadina

What sparked your initial interest in the field of brain research and why did you decide to pursue a career as an educational neuroscientist?

I taught high school students who couldn't read so I got a Master's Degree with a specialization in reading. At that time, they had to do independent study for most of it as education wasn't addressing that age group in regard to reading. I read all the research on dyslexia and it was all over the place. We just didn't know. I was discouraged. Many years later I saw an article in the paper about a researcher who gave brain scans to readers with dyslexia. Wow! A new way of looking into this! I said "I want to do that. Maybe then I can help these students if we could just learn more." Of course, there were no programs at the time to train teachers as neuroscientists so I had to create a special program with collaboration between the medical school and the School of Education. It sounds simple, but it was a long and difficult process. Eventually, I was hired as a researcher, did my dissertation in at the medical school in conjunction with the School of Education, and then was awarded a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Cognitive Neuroscience.

It is often observed that there is a communication gap between scientists and the general public and particularly between scientists and educators. Do you believe that your work is helping to bridge that gap? Are more young scholars seeking to become specialists in both fields?

Yes, there is certainly a gap. The problem of lack of credibility in the field of Educational Neuroscience came about when educators got very excited about what they were first hearing about the brain and learning and, with the best of intentions, didn't understand, misinterpreted, or made untenable leaps from research on animals to classroom practice. We didn't know very much then so there weren't many credible practices that these teachers could say in their presentations. In trying to fill in the gaps, they created neuromyths that still abound. My overarching goal is to bring credibility to this field and to build a bridge. Many people want to do what I do but there are few programs offering a degree in Educational Neuroscience. We need a program that includes both educators and scientists because the scientists often don't understand how to speak to teachers nor have they taught struggling learners and the teachers must understand the greater body of knowledge in order to put an individual study into perspective and determine its value. They need to cross-fertilize in a specially designed program.

In your TED talk, Using Brain Research to Energize School Reform, you discussed how neuroscience can energize school reform by informing curriculum choices and school budgets in various important ways. Could you share some of those ways?

In the last 10 years there have been amazing developments in this field. It is quite clear now that we have learned some important things that are not being implemented into educational policy but are well-substantiated in the literature. I will give one example - the importance of dual language instruction. There are books on this topic, but to summarize we know that having young children learn two languages early on leads to better academic performance, especially in reading. We know that dual language programs are an outstanding intervention for the poverty achievement gap. We know that the earlier we learn another language, the easier it is to learn and speak, but we don't offer foreign language until high school.

In the most recent issue of the newsletter on your web site Brain Research and Instruction you wrote that teachers in schools and colleges can expect to encounter an increasing number of students whose learning is impaired by stress. To what do you attribute this phenomenon and how can teachers prepare to serve this special population of learners?

The importance of addressing stress is based on two factors. First, there have always been many students under stress but it wasn't studied and we didn't realize how many experiences can cause anxiety and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Second, we have more students with stress in our classes because we have returning soldiers, immigrants and migrants (at high risk for PTSD), and children from poverty. Teachers can address this two ways. First, they need to learn how stress operates in the brain/body, how it affects learning, and strategies that can reduce stress. Secondly, they must teach this to their students and include strategies in class that reduce stress. My next book, in progress, will be to help teachers and students address this.

Your recently published book, Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain: Energizing and Enhancing Instruction, applies neuroscience to classroom practices and shows how teachers can improve learning by applying its principles. Can you give us some practical tips about how to use research-based strategies in the classroom?

One important concept to come from recent research is the need to address working memory in the classroom. Working memory, the amount of information you can hold "online" while you work with it (enter a phone number, work a math problem), is critical to achievement. We all have normal limits on our working memory and some students are impaired in this. Anxiety, distractions, and coming from poverty are just a few factors that can decrease working memory capacity. Working memory is required for reading comprehension, completion of math problems, and writing. A few tips to deal with this critical underlying, invisible brain process are:

1) Be sure that you are not making it worse. If you give long instructions, long matching test questions, long multiple choice questions, or long reading paragraphs you may actually be testing working memory, not the content.

2. Break down material for learners. Readers who are knowledgeable about material can read long, complex sentences and not have a problem. But struggling readers or those trying to understand new material can be impeded by working memory limitations. Learning materials should be presented in short sentences and in steps while students are struggling to learn a concept.

3. Show students how to deal with working memory issues. Have them represent something visually, which uses much less working memory. Have them break sentences into parts and make notes as they go. Have them write as they work through math problems. Writing sentences and paragraphs uses working memory, so dictating may be easier and then transcribing. As with everything above, knowledge is power, so share this information with your students.