Interview with Christina Hinton

 

Mind, Brain and Education Program
Harvard Graduate School of Education

THE COMMON LANGUAGE OF THE MIND, BRAIN AND EDUCATION

OECD
Can you tell us a little about the Mind, Brain and Education Program at Harvard University and what makes it new and different from other programs being offered at universities that deal with neuroscience and education?

Christina Hinton
A key aspect of Harvard’s program is that it is interdisciplinary. The curriculum draws on a wide variety of disciplines, including cognitive psychology, neurobiology, genetics, and education, and Professors Kurt Fischer and Howard Gardner help students learn to synthesize this material. The program aims to integrate information on the mind, brain and education and enable students to move freely across relevant fields, synthesizing ideas across disciplines and using them together to solve a problem. Also, there are very few programs (aside from ours) going on right now that actually connect neuroscience directly with education.

“The program aims to integrate information on the mind, brain and education and enable students to move freely across relevant fields, synthesizing ideas across disciplines and using them together to solve a problem.”

OECD
What is the background of the students coming to the program?

CH
The backgrounds of the students in the program are quite varied. The alumni profiles provide a sampling of students who attended the program that illustrates the diversity of backgrounds:
http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=mbe&pageid=icb.page731

OECD
How did you become interested in both subjects?

CH
I was always fascinated by the brain and I love children so I started out as an undergraduate studying pre-med in order to become a developmental neurobiologist. Then, I took an education course and it immediately ignited a new passion. I realized that the issues in the field are deeply important to me and I was inspired to contribute. So, I continued studying both education and neuroscience. As I studied the two in parallel, I started to realize that there was tremendous potential for them to inform each other so I petitioned to create an independent honors major that integrated them. The timing was right to begin making these connections. Recent advances in the field of neuroscience had heightened its relevance to education. The development of in vivo imaging techniques enabled observation of the working, living brain, providing insights into the brain’s perceptual, cognitive, and emotional function that had a clear relevance for education. This trend toward educational applicability was also paralleled by an increasingly receptive society. The current scientific climate, especially in the United States, embraces neuroscience research. So, suddenly, the field of neuroscience was much more relevant to education than ever before, and educators were eager to explore it.

“Suddenly, the field of neuroscience was much more relevant to education than ever before, and educators were eager to explore it.”

OECD
How did you find out about the Harvard Program?

CH
My professors at Swarthmore College told me about the program because its goals mapped onto the goals of the independent work I had been doing at Swarthmore.

OECD
What will you do with this special discipline that you are developing? For you, what are the next steps after you leave the institution?

CH
I would like to help educators and neuroscientists collaborate to construct brain-informed educational policy. Right now, the work in this field primarily involves collaborations because, for the most part, experts are either in one field or another. However, Harvard’s Mind, Brian and Education program hopes to create more interdisciplinary experts.

OECD
What are some ideas that you have on how to better bring the experts from both fields together to collaborate more effectively?

CH
The rational behind an interdisciplinary perspective is that if we approach a problem from many different angles we will get a more truthful representation of it. But it can be challenging to do this because there are inconsistencies across disciplines. Language provides a clear example of this. Certain terms are often used differently in different fields. It is important to be aware of these inconsistencies and it will be useful to create common definitions eventually. We need to have a common language. In the meantime, it is very important to have a two-way dialogue. Otherwise, educators may misinterpret findings presented by neuroscientists, and neuroscientists may misconstrue educational goals.

“We need to have a common language. Certain terms are often used differently in different fields. It is important to be aware of these inconsistencies.”

OECD
Any there any specific examples or situations in your experience where something was mis-communicated?

CH
If neuroscientists say that dyslexia is biologically-based and children with this particular cortical atypicality are likely to have difficulties learning to read, teachers may misinterpret this to mean that there is nothing that can be done. It is a common and dangerous misconception that if something is brain-based, it is static. That is certainly not the case. The brain is incredibly plastic. It is adapting all the time. In fact, research indicates that targeted instruction can lead to the development of cortical circuitry capable of supporting fluent reading in children with dyslexia. The brain is plastic and neuroscience can help educators design targeted instruction to take advantage of that plasticity. 

OECD
Do scientists come up with specific instructions to give to the teachers?

CH
No, there is an important distinction between brain-based practice and brain-informed practice. The goal is brain-informed practice. Information about the brain is important, but there are many other factors that also must be taken into account when constructing pedagogy.

“Research indicates that targeted instruction can lead to the development of cortical circuitry capable of supporting fluent reading in children with dyslexia”.

OECD
Does the program at Harvard work with life long learning?

CH
We do a lot of work on lifelong learning as well. For example, Kurt Fisher works with adult education in business, government, and higher education (e.g. National Leadership College) and we do a fair amount when analyzing learning and development through middle-adulthood. 

Copenhagen
21 February 2006

 

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