Nation & World

Advances in genetics can help kids learn

6 min read

Education was becoming a no-brainer, some people at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) complained.

Kurt Fischer and his colleagues looked at the revolution in brain scanning, genetics, and other biological technologies and decided that most teachers and students weren’t getting much benefit from them. Brain scans are now available to watch what’s going on when someone is learning — or not learning. Finding genes that are involved in leaning disabilities is a hot area. Why, they asked, aren’t the powers of such technologies helping teachers in classrooms?

“There’s a long history of biology being excluded from education,” says Fischer, Charles Warland Bigelow Professor of Education and Human Development. “Not in the teaching sense, but in understanding learning. We are not taking full advantage of how information from neuroscience and genetics can be used to motivate kids to learn, and how to deal with learning problems such as dyslexia and attention deficits.”

At first, the idea didn’t go over too well at Harvard. Other faculty members feared that biology could be used to unfairly classify children and to stigmatize slow learners.

Fischer and his team, including Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education Howard Gardner, put together a program that they called “Mind, Brain, and Education.” But resistance was so keen, they jokingly spoke of it among themselves as “Mind — blank — and Education.”

Doubts were international. Todd Ross, a teaching fellow in the program, recalls a European minister of education asking, “What does the brain have to do with learning?” “Obviously, there was an uphill battle to fight,” Ross remarks.

It took about a year before those at Harvard who worried about the possibility of stigmatizing kids were won over, and plans went forward in 2000. Today, the program boasts hundreds of alumni who have received master’s and doctorate degrees in this new field. Every year, it produces about 40 fresh masters and two to four doctors of education, who go on to key positions in research and practice. At Harvard, the effort is allied with the University-wide Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative, and it includes collaborators at Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Interest is high in Canada, Japan, South Korea, England, Argentina, and other countries. To keep everyone informed, Fischer and colleagues founded the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, which published the first issue of its quarterly journal last month.

Minding the brain

The “mind” part of the title takes in the broad area of cognitive development, which includes subjects involved in thinking and knowing, like psychology, linguistics, and philosophy.

“Combining such time-tested disciplines with powerful techniques like brain scanning to improve learning across the board offers lots of promise,” Fischer notes, but it also produces lots of hype. “There’s still much research to be done. We still need to train more teachers who can evaluate and put into practice the results of this research.”

Fischer and Gardner describe some of what has been done so far. Donna Coch, one of the first Mind, Brain, and Education graduates and now an assistant professor at Dartmouth University, tracks electrical activity in the brain as children learn to read. “Everything she does is groundbreaking,” Fischer comments.

He points out that such research can aid in diagnosing disabilities at an early age. “We know that the earlier you catch learning difficulties, the easier it is to overcome them,” he says.

Dyslexia, in which children with normal intelligence have trouble reading, is an example. For many years, dyslexia was not usually detected until fourth or even sixth grade. “We can now detect signs of it in 3- to 4-year-olds,” Fischer notes. “In 10 years, with the help of genetic technologies, we may be able to find it in 1-year-olds, or even at birth.”

One of the most dramatic cases of how the brain learns involves two young boys who each had half of their brain removed as a treatment for severe epilepsy. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang earned her doctorate from the Mind, Brain, and Education program by studying how these children survived after their surgery. She found, to everyone’s surprise, that they did all kinds of tasks they were not supposed to be able to do.

One had the left side of his brain removed when he was 10 years old. That side holds the circuits that control speech for most people. At first, the boy did not speak, but only a year after the surgery he was speaking fluently. He graduated from high school and has gone on to a community college.

The other boy lost the right side of his brain at age 3, the hemisphere that deals with emotion and spatial tasks. Now, at age 15, he attends a public high school and is a skilled artist. He will look at one of his drawings and comment, “not bad for a boy with only half a brain.” Everyone agrees.

Probing plasticity

“These are wonderful examples of the brain’s plasticity,” Fischer notes. This ability of an old brain to learn new tricks is only beginning to be appreciated. When part of a brain is lost to trauma or disease, the surviving parts take over to fill some of the learning and performance gaps. “We want to understand as much about this process as we can,” Fischer adds, “and use it to help both disabled and normal kids.”

Knowledge of brain flexibility is being analyzed to see how it might be used to help deaf people. Severely deaf children can be fitted with implants that replace a nonworking inner ear. “We don’t know exactly how they work but other researchers at Harvard are studying them for a better understanding of how children learn language later in life, after living with deafness or coming to the United States from other countries,” Fischer explains. It’s a way to get a good practical look at technology and plasticity working together.

Genetics also gets lots of attention from the Mind, Brain, and Education group. “Learning disabilities are heavily related to genetics,” Fischer states. “They turn out to be much more heritable than, say, schizophrenia or breast cancer.” But that relationship is complex; one gene, or even three genes, is not responsible for one disability like dyslexia. Fischer predicts that gene chips will eventually be available to help determine who is at risk for developing learning problems, and to give researchers a leg up in finding more effective treatments.

So biology is becoming more important for learning about learning. Along with cognitive science, Fischer says, “it is laying the groundwork that will eventually transform education.”