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Virginia professor offers insight into neuroscience-behavorial theory link

By : Greg Norman

By establishing connections between neuroscience and behavioral theory, researchers could provide new insights into how children learn in grades K-12, a cognitive scientist said at the 18th Annual Edgar W. Couper Lecture on April 23.

Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia professor of psychology, spoke at this year’s event, titled “The Mind, the Brain and the Future of Education.”

“We’ve got a controversy within (learning) behaviors in education and we can look to the brain to mediate (that),” he said.

Willingham opened the lecture with an introduction to behavioral theory, explaining that the mind works upward in a series of mental levels to complete tasks. He used an example of a child struggling to read, noting that they must first be attentive to the text, but also know how to represent words in images to understand them.

“At each level, the things that are at the next lowest level are embedded in the things at the next highest level,” Willingham said.

However, when trying to look at behaviors and how they develop from a neuroscientific perspective, some challenges arise.

Willingham cited that not all theories can be analyzed due to fundamental differences, and behavioral theory is an artificial science which is concerned with how things ought to be and not how they are. When measuring the progress of behavioral studies, he believes it is difficult to find a form of feedback for success.

“In education, we’re trying to create methods of instruction, curriculum and lesson plans in order to reach some goal,” he said. “But first we need to decide what the goals are.”

In the areas where neuroscience and behavioral theory do intersect, Willingham outlined principles for strengthening a connection between the two fields.

The principles included observing behaviors and what general and specific areas of the brain they use, looking at the codes of individual neurons and seeing what stimulates them and recognizing how the brain is already used in educational theory.

According to Willingham, with these techniques, neuroscience has shown some promise in identifying specific learning disabilities before they develop in young children.

“There are some brain differences that will be identifiable early on and they are going to be so profound that they will propagate up directly [through learning],” he said.

If a disability is recognized, work can be done to make its effects less impactful.

“That is potentially an exciting road to go down,” Willingham said. “The idea that you would be able to target interventions for kids before things get really difficult because there is pretty good data that early intervention is helpful.”

The lecture was supported by the Edgar W. Couper Endowment Fund for Educational Excellence, which provides annual fellowships to two students in the School of Education’s doctoral program in Educational Theory and Practice. This year’s recipients are Marianne Lawson and Jiangyuan Zhou, who spoke at a pre-lecture reception that also featured remarks from University President Lois B. DeFleur and S.G Grant, dean of the School of Education.

Couper, a former chancellor of the New York state Board of Regents, helped bring Binghamton into the State University of New York system in 1950.

According to James Carpenter, a School of Education associate professor and organizer of the lecture, Willingham was brought in to speak after hearing numerous requests from faculty in the department to have a cognitive scientist present the lecture.

Past lecturers have discussed subjects such as multiculturalism, the history of education and literacy. The last lecturer on cognitive science came 19 years ago, Carpenter said.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08