In our first interview for Junior Learning’s new blog, we sat down with our co-founder Dr Duncan Milne to gain some insights into the future of classroom education. Dr Duncan holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience and Education from the University of Auckland, New Zealand; and is alumni of Harvard University. He is the author of 2 books on brain-based learning. His most recent publication: Teaching the Brain – The New Science of Education was released in 2013. He also volunteers his time as director of Tools for Literacy at Dyslexia International, and gave the keynote address at UNESCO’s World Dyslexia Forum in Paris.
JL: Your research and new book focus on how the brain learns and developing teaching and intervention programs that are underpinned by brain-based models. Why is it so important for teachers and parents to understand the science of how the brain learns in order to teach literacy and numeracy effectively to children?
Dr Duncan: In my opinion, the new science of education brings together teaching and the brain. Our understanding of the workings of the brain, gained through neuroscientific research, can be used to guide educational theory and practice. It is possible to consider each learning operation, such as speaking, reading, spelling, writing and mathematics, as a series of circuits and connections across processing systems in the brain. This understanding also allows us to consider brains that work a little bit differently (e.g the dyslexic brain) and guide personalized learning programs. Although the link between educational and neuroscience is in its infancy, the time is right to bridge educational practice and brain research in a way that is practical to teachers and parents.
JL: What are some of the key insights into your book: Teaching the Brain: The New Science of Education?
Dr Duncan: When children learn in the classroom they are acquiring cognitive tasks that have been invented. For example, the brain never evolved to do reading or times tables because these skills haven’t been around for that long. So, the brain must use older mechanisms, such as visual object recognition or sound discrimination and create linking circuits for learning. Teaching the Brain allows teachers to look inside to see the impact of teaching on the brain and best methods available for accelerated learning.
JL: What is the most exciting insight that you’ve gained through your work?
Dr Duncan: I think the most exciting insight is seeing the brain change in response to effective teaching. As connections are formed, parts of the brain light up during successful processing. Even in the case of children with learning difficulties or dyslexia, we see successful intervention leads to processing that looks like other good readers (normalization) or activations in other areas that are bought in to help an area that isn’t working very well (compensation). These brain changes relate to performance changes, and that’s very exciting.
JL: We know that the digital age is here to stay. What do you think are the pros and cons of educational technology in the classroom? And how can teaching and intervention programs be complemented with digital learning approaches?
Dr Duncan: There are many advantages of digital technology in the classroom. One of the greatest is the opportunities is multi-sensory learning, especially with tablet technology where children can see, touch and hear as they interact with the software. However, there is a limitation as young children don’t learn as naturally in a 2D world. For example, they cannot touch and feel the shape of the letter. Hybrid technology in the form of appcessories has overcome this limitation. Here, Touchtronic Letters enable children to touch, feel, and manipulate the letter in 3D space, whilst being able to take advantage of the benefits of the digital world.
JL: You have a passion for creating high quality educational toys, games and technology applications. Where do you see the future of Junior Learning’s products going?
Digital learning applications are great at engaging children and providing them with feedback, but they are typically missing the important aspects of multi-sensory learning opportunities that are so crucial for helping young children learn. The manipulation of real letters for instance is important to teach children letter orientation and visual recognition. This is what has led to Junior Learning’s development of our Touchtronic Letters. We are blending the physical and digital worlds of learning. We see many opportunities for using this technology in the teaching of literacy and math, especially where we can take abstract concepts and explain them through interactive manipulatives.
*Dr Duncan Milne’s other publications also include a 3rd book – ‘How My Brain Learns to Read’, a children’s version of Teaching the Brain.