Thomas Kuhn, in his classic work published 50 years ago, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains how the process of discovery works in science and what happens when there is a paradigm shift. Every field of science has foundational beliefs that people within that field learn as part of what Kuhn calls “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice.” These beliefs and assumptions determine what is to be studied and researched within that scientific discipline. Research within the paradigm is designed to gather knowledge within the framework of the paradigm. In the process of research, as Kuhn describes it, anomalies emerge that cannot be explained by the paradigm’s assumptions. At first, these anomalies are ignored or resisted. Over time, it’s recognized that they violate the paradigm and need to be investigated. Finally, the old paradigm begins to shift, and the one that emerges encompasses the anomalies. Kuhn argued that a paradigm change is in essence a scientific revolution, and that the new scientific theory demands rejection of the older one. In this way, science develops. Neuroplasticity is one such new paradigm.
What we urgently need now is a new paradigm in education — one that crosses the great divide between neuroscience and education. This new model will wholeheartedly embrace the life-altering concept of the changeable brain and use the principles of neuroplasticity. The end result will be a fundamental change in the learner’s capacity to learn.
Harvard University has developed the Mind, Brain, and Education Institute, devoted to bridging the gap between neuroscience and education. Its goal is to connect the disciplines; bring together educators and researchers to explore the latest research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and education; and apply this knowledge to educational practice. To help advance this goal, the institute also publishes a journal,Mind, Brain, and Education.
In an article published in fall 2010, “Linking Mind, Brain and Education to Clinical Practice: A Proposal for Transdisciplinary Collaboration,” authors Katie Ronstadt and Paul Yellin note: “Increasingly, neuroscientists are identifying the neural processes associated with brain development, the acquisition of academic skills, and disorders of learning. Integrating this emerging knowledge into education has been difficult because it requires collaboration across disciplines.” Part of the challenge, they note, is that neuroscientists and educators have different languages, frameworks, and priorities.
I started Arrowsmith School in Toronto in 1980. It evolved from my experience using the principles of neuroplasticity to address my own learning problems. I had become increasingly aware that traditional methods of dealing with learning-disabled students had only limited success. The Arrowsmith Program was developed from research in neuroscience, not education. The fundamental premise of my work is that by changing the brain, the learner’s capacity to learn can be modified.
The principle of neuroplasticity is considered part of the field of neuroscience and has not traditionally been taught in teachers’ colleges or studied widely in the educational system. Teachers who become administrators are taught that their job is to teach content. Thinking about rewiring the brain (so that the student becomes more capable of learning content) marks a radical departure from their traditional job description.
When I started this work more than 30 years ago, neuroplasticity was being discussed and researched in laboratories, but it was neither widely known nor well accepted. Only since 1990, partly encouraged by President George H. W. Bush’s proclaiming the 1990s the Decade of the Brain, has neuroplasticity been investigated extensively. I vividly remember standing on Yonge Street in Toronto outside my school in May 1999 as I excitedly told a colleague about an article I had just read: “New Nerve Cells for the Adult Brain,” by Gerd Kempermann and Fred H. Gage in Scientific American. This marked the first time I became aware of not just neuroplasticity but neurogenesis — how the adult brain can actually grow new neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for memory and learning. The brain was more plastic, more malleable, than originally thought.
Only as recently as 2000 did Eric Kandel of Columbia University win the Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that learning in response to environmental demands changes the brain. Here was more proof of neuroplasticity. After Kandel won the Nobel Prize, it took several more years for the concept to reach the mainstream through media attention. Only in the past few years has the idea become broadly accepted in theory. In terms of the history of science and the acceptance of ideas, this is a fleeting moment.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), considered one of the great pioneers in neuroscience, theorized the concept of neuroplasticity long before we had the refined technology and techniques to demonstrate it. He hypothesized, but could not prove, that the brain can be remapped, its very structure and organization changed, by the right stimulation. “Consider the possibility,” he once said, “that any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain, and that even the least gifted may, like the poorest land that has been well cultivated and fertilized, produce an abundant harvest.” This Spanish neuroscientist and histologist (one who studies the microscopic structure of tissue) won the Nobel Prize in 1906. Almost a century later, Kandel’s work confirmed Cajal’s hypothesis that the brain is plastic and changes occur at the synaptic connections between neurons.
The terms neuroplasticity and brain plasticity might feel new, but that’s because it is only recently that these terms have gained currency. In fact, these terms have been around a long time, and research in neuroplasticity — though mostly on the margins, it must be said — has been under way for more than 200 years.