Brain Research Into Classroom Practice
David A. Sousa
Educators are well aware that neuroscientists are making some
fascinating discoveries about how the human brain works. Brain
imaging devices can now give researchers a look inside the brain and
determine which areas are involved as it carries out certain tasks.
Some of these discoveries are valuable for diagnosing medical
problems, while others have implications for what educators do in
schools and classrooms.
In this article, I will outline the topics I hope to cover at the
LDA of Michigan Conference on October 22, 2007. My purpose here is
to reveal just enough to persuade you come to the conference to get
more of this intriguing information.
What Teachers Face Today
Teachers and students get up every school-day morning hoping to
succeed. That hope is not always realized because many factors exist
that affect the degree of success or failure in a teaching and
learning situation. Some of these factors are well beyond the
control of the teacher and the school staff. What teachers do
control, of course, are the decisions they make about what to teach
and about how to present the lesson so that student learning is most
likely to occur. In making these decisions, teachers draw on their
knowledge base and experience to design activities, ask questions,
and respond to the efforts of their students.
Educators are finding themselves searching for new strategies and
techniques to meet the needs of an ethnically, culturally, and
socially diverse student population. Some tried-and-true strategies
do not seem to be as successful as they were in the past, and more
students seem to be having difficulty acquiring just the basic
skills of reading, writing, and computation. The number of public
school students being diagnosed with specific learning disabilities
This situation is generating frustration in different parts of the
educational community. As a result, educators are searching for new
approaches, parents are seeking alternative schooling formats
(charter schools and vouchers), and state legislators are demanding
higher standards and testing. Added to this mix are the demands and
sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the
2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act’s focus
on responsiveness to intervention. All these activities are in full
swing, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts will result
in more effective services to students with special needs.
Meanwhile, more students diagnosed with learning disabilities are
being included in regular classrooms and teachers continue to search
for new ways to help these struggling students achieve. As more
students with learning difficulties enter regular classes, general
education teachers are finding that they need help adjusting to the
added responsibility of meeting the varied needs of these students.
Consequently, special education teachers will need to collaborate
more than ever with their general education colleagues on ways to
differentiate instruction in the inclusive classroom.
Can Brain Research Help Students With Special Needs?
For the purposes of my presentation, the term “special needs” refers
to students who are:
• Diagnosed and classified as having specific learning problems,
including speech, reading, writing, mathematics, and emotional and
• Enrolled in supplemental instruction programs for basic skills,
such as those receiving federal funding until Title 1 of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act
• Not classified for special education nor assigned to Title I
programs, but still struggling with problems affecting their
Teachers may face significant challenges when meeting the needs of
children who have learning problems. Trying to figure out what is
happening in the brains of these children can be frustrating and
exhausting. Until recently, science could tell us little about the
causes of learning disorders and even less about ways to address
The nature of the difficulties facing students with learning
problems vary from maintaining focus, acquiring language, learning
to read and write, and solving mathematical problems, to remembering
important information. Thanks to the development of imaging and
other technologies, neuroscientists can now look inside the live
brain and gain new knowledge about its structure and functions. Some
of this research is already revealing clues to help guide the
decisions and practices of educators working with students who have
Because of the efforts of scientists over the years to cure brain
disorders, we know more about troubled brains than we do about
healthy ones. Early ventures into the brain involved extensive risks
which were justified by the potential for curing or improving the
patient’s condition. But now, essentially risk-free imaging
technologies (such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI)
are giving us greater knowledge about how the normal brain works. In
just one project, scientists compiled a database of brain scans of
about 500 children without apparent health problems aged 7 days to
18 years. This information will help researchers study different
stages of brain growth and expand our understanding of what is
normal brain development.
Students with learning problems comprise such a heterogeneous group
that no one strategy, technique, or intervention can address all
their needs. Today, more than ever, neuroscientists, psychologists,
computer experts, and educators are working together in a common
crusade to improve our understanding of the learning process.
Comparing the functions of brains without deficits to the functions
of brains with deficits is revealing some remarkable new insights
about learning and behavioral disorders. Some of the findings are
challenging long-held beliefs about the cause, progress, and
treatment of specific learning disorders. Educators in both general
and special education should be aware of this research so that they
can decide what implications the findings have for their practice.
What I Plan to Discuss at the Conference
My plan is to discuss research information about common learning
disabilities so that teachers and administrators can consider
alternative instructional approaches. Time permitting, the
presentation will help answer such questions as:
• How different are the brains of today’s students?
• What kinds of strategies are particularly effective for students
with learning disabilities?
• What progress is research making in discovering the causes of
different learning disorders?
• Will brain research help us make more accurate diagnoses of
• Can schools inadvertently promote ADHD-like behavior in students?
• How does the brain learn to read?
• Can young brains with developmental reading problems be “rewired”
to improve reading?
• How can we address the emotional needs of students in the
Obviously, with such limited time, I will not be able to address all
the types of barriers that can affect learning. Rather, as you can
see from these questions, I will focus on the more common
difficulties that any teacher is likely to encounter in the general
or special education classroom.
As we gain a greater understanding of the workings of the human
brain, we may discover that some students currently designated as
“learning disabled” may be merely “schooling disabled.” Sometimes,
these students are struggling to learn in an environment that is
designed inadvertently to frustrate their efforts. Just changing our
instructional approach may be enough to move these students to the
ranks of successful learners. My hope is that my presentation in
October will encourage all school professionals to learn more about
how the brain learns so that they can work together for the benefit
of all students.
Dr. David A. Sousa is an international educational consultant and
author of How the Brain Learns, Second Edition (published by Corwin
Press). He has conducted workshops in hundreds of school districts on
brain research, brain based learning, instructional skills,
supervision, and science education at the elementary secondary, and
university levels. He has made presentations at national conventions
of educational organizations and has served as a consultant to
regional and local school districts across the U.S., Canada, and
Dr. Sousa has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Massachusetts
State College at Bridgewater, a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in
science from Harvard University, and a doctorate from Rutgers
University. His teaching experience covers all levels. He has taught
junior and senior high school science, served as a K-12 director of
science, and as Supervisor of Instruction for the West Orange, NJ,
schools. He then became superintendent of the New Providence, NJ,
public schools. He has been an adjunct professor of education at
Seton Hall University and a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University.
Dr. Sousa has edited science books and published dozens of articles
in leading journals on staff development, science education, and
educational research. His popular book for educators - How the Brain
Learns, is now in its second edition. This updated and expanded
edition explains the latest research on learning and translates it
into practical and effective classroom strategies.
Dr. Sousa was president of the National Staff Development Council in
1992. He is listed in Who's Who in the East and Who's Who in American
Education and has received awards from professional associations and
school districts for his commitment to research, staff development
and science education. In 1996 and 1998, Dr. Sousa was awarded the
prestigious Expert-in-Residence grant from the W. K. Kellogg
Foundation to present his ideas to educators in the Battle Creek,
Michigan, area schools. In May 1997, he was invited on a 10-day trip
to the Ukraine as part of an international team that presented
educational research, and he worked with master teachers from some of
the former Soviet republics.