Brain Training in Education

Only a few years ago, the brain was a sealed “black box.” It was commonly believed that intelligence was hard-wired, and if a person suffered a brain injury, he would never regain his cognitive functioning. Children with learning or attention problems just didn’t have the intelligence to do well in school, and there was nothing to be done about it.

With the advent of MRIs and QEEGs, we have, in a sense, developed the miraculous ability to “read minds,” or at least to observe and learn a lot about how they work. Discoveries about brain plasticity over the past two decades have revolutionized our thinking. As Ronald Kotulak said in his wonderful book, Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works, (Andrews McMeel, 1997), “the brain gets better and better through exercise but ‘rusts’ with disuse. It is the ultimate use-it-or-lose-it machine.” This is easy to see in babies; babies who are talked to, played with, cuddled, and stimulated with colors, shapes and music thrive, and babies who lie in a crib all day with no stimulation often end up being developmentally impaired. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine found that children who are rarely touched or played with develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than normal for their age (“Fertile Minds”, J. Madeleine Nash, Time.com, February 3, 1997.)

The discovery that stimulating our brains with interesting challenging activities makes us “smarter” and happier has the potential of creating an educational revolution – if only we can get educators and the people who fund them to pay attention! Force-feeding academic knowledge, or “training to the test” without helping children to develop the cognitive bases for learning are exercises in futility. After all, if children can’t pay attention and remember, how can they learn?

As a programmer turned clinical psychologist working with children, I have devoted my career to developing computerized learning software to help cognitively challenged adults and children. Based on the learning machine model developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1950’s, computers can allow people to work at their own pace, while at the same time stimulating them to perform better than their self-perceived or environmentally imposed limitations. And, most of all, computers can make learning fun! If you present educational exercises to students in a video game format, it is likely that they will be eager to do well. This is in no way meant to belittle the role of good teachers; I come from a family of teachers and truly respect what they do. I am only saying that educators would do well to put the most powerful, effective, and entertaining tool ever invented to work to help them solve the nation’s education crisis.

Research has shown that training cognitive skills leads to changes in the actual structure and chemistry of the brain. Most important, cognitive training improves frontal lobe or executive functioning ability. Currently some of the most exciting research results are in the area of working memory, the ability to remember something while you work with it. (Examples would be doing math in your head or having someone give you a set of driving instructions while you are in the process of driving to a destination.) Developing working memory generalizes to executive functioning – response inhibition, complex reasoning, and reduced inattention and hyperactivity in ADHD children (Klingberg, et al, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2005 Feb;44(2):177-86.) Computerized working memory exercises, such as those found in TNT Reading and Captain’s Log, are exciting and fun for kids.

As a psychologist, I have seen again and again that once students discover that they can be successful in cognitive skill building, they often develop much higher self-esteem. This, in turn, gives them the basis for believing that learning is fun and that they can be good at it. This is a life-changing discovery.

In my years of doing child and adolescent therapy, I have repeatedly been rewarded by amazing success stories; I have seen children go from failing everything in school to making the honor roll; I have had parents tell me how their child’s teacher finds it unbelievable that the bright wonderful child in her third grade class had such a reputation as a trouble maker in second grade; children who were behind their peers and struggling to learn to read have gone on to win awards for being the best reader in the class. When I witness these transformations, I recognize again the importance of teaching kids to think, not just spoon feeding them knowledge. I believe the right tools combined with the encouragement of good teachers can make all the difference.

Dr. Joseph A. Sandford, Ph.D. founded BrainTrain, Inc., in 1989 to develop and distribute the Captain’s Log Cognitive Training System. Growing up in a family of teachers, he had been a programmer before becoming a clinical neuropsychologist. Thus, it was natural for him to perceive the unique ways in which the computer could be used to benefit clients and students with cognitive difficulties. In addition to the Captain’s Log software, Dr. Sandford has authored the IVA+Plus and IVA-AE – computerized tests of attention; the SmartMind Pro EEG Biofeedback system; TNT Reading, winner of six awards; the BrainTrain Memory Gyms and the award-winning BrainTrain Memory Games.
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