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Last week, Scientific Learning was pleased to host The Neuroplasticity Revolution, a webinar with Dr. Norman Doidge—psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. The concept of brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in structure and function in response to experience—is “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years,” Doidge told an audience of more than 3800 registrants.
Doidge reviewed concepts of brain and mind in history—dominated until very recently by the idea that the adult brain is hard-wired and therefore fixed in ability—and explained why it took scientists such a long time to observe and accept the brain’s plasticity. He then told the story of a woman named Cheryl, who was fortunate to find herself in need of brain rehabilitation after that old notion had been put to rest.
Cheryl had a balance problem. Her sense of balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand up without feeling that she was falling. Physician-neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita treated Cheryl with “sensory substitution,” a therapy he developed that provided corrective sensory feedback from a motion sensor through electrodes to Cheryl’s tongue. The technique immediately helped Cheryl gain her bearings and she found that she could maintain her balance for a period of time after removing the training gear. This residual effect gradually lengthened, and over the course of a year, Cheryl regained the ability to stand normally without using the device at all.
Cheryl was able to regain normal function, said Doidge, despite having 97.5% damage to her vestibular apparatus—the semicircular canals in the ear that connect to the brainstem and help to orient us in space. He noted that often, but not always, there’s some kind of neural workaround even in severe cases. Cheryl’s recovery not only seems miraculous, but also points to the fact that her brain changed itself to heal—by recruiting dormant pathways or making new pathways for the corrected sensory information to travel.
Cheryl’s, story, said Doidge, is just one example of how the brain learns. He went on to discuss “conventional learning” and learning disorders in the classroom, walking his audience through Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research demonstrating the neural underpinnings of brain plasticity and learning.
Dr. Merzenich conducted a series of experiments in which he rearranged the wiring of the nerves connecting a monkey’s fingers to its brain. He expected to see the brain maps for these fingers become distorted or jumbled, but instead found that they turned out fairly normal. He realized that the brain was able to adapt to the structural changes by taking timing into account. The thumb usually initiates movement, for example, followed closely in time by the index finger. The middle and ring finger behave in a similar way. And Merzenich realized that the monkey’s brain used the timing intervals to determine which fingers were adjacent to one another and map them accordingly. These experiments finally converted the brain plasticity skeptics.
A recording of the full webinar is now available on the Scientific Learning website. Watch and learn:
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“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”
-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself
The Critical Period
From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.
“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.
Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps
Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.
The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.
The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.
As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.
But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?
From the Lab to the Learner
Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.
Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.
Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.
Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.
The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.
Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.
From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).
In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.
In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.
The Brain That Changes Itself
Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.
What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.
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For many educators, summer school planning is in full gear! Districts are determining the who, the what and the how, and all with limited resources.
When I was working in the school system, summer school left something to be desired. The students were doing the same activities from the school year (and were still bored by them), and the teachers were working with students they didn’t know, struggling to individualize instruction. Making an effective summer learning program isn't easy; I appreciate the work that goes into making any instructional plan effective. Educating our students, during the year or summer, is not for the faint of heart. It takes an enormous amount of collaboration, planning, expertise, creativity and energy (lots of energy!) to be done well.
The Rand Corporation’s 2011 report on summer school effectiveness makes many recommendations; here are just a few:
After all is said and done, it’s important to know whether your summer school program was effective. Did all the work you put in lead to improved reading scores, for example? For schools that used Reading Assistant in their summer school programs, the answer was a resounding yes:
Is your district on track to make this the best summer school yet? If there were two recommendations I’d make, I’d say:
For further reading:
Results on Reading Assistant:
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What would it be like if you went to a cocktail party – or a rock concert or even your quiet corner coffee joint, for that matter – and you didn’t have the ability to filter out one voice or sound from the sea of other sounds around you? This ability is called “selective hearing” and is a computational function in your brain that enables you to focus in on your companion’s voice in the midst of the endless sound waves coming from ceiling fans, ambient music, and other people’s voices bouncing off the walls. Your ability to focus in on that single selected voice is impressive.
Doctoral candidate Bridget Queenan of Georgetown University Medical Center is figuring out how we humans are able to perform this difficult feat by studying bats. She has found that certain neurons in bats’ brains can “quiet” other neurons, allowing the bat to prioritize certain sounds over others. In short, through “turning up the volume” on certain neurons, bats can zero in on the most important sounds, such as their own echolocation sounds, and allow other sounds to fade into the background. (2010)
Researchers at UCSF recently published an article in the journal Nature that describes how they have actually seen this process take place in humans. Using a sheet of 256 electrodes placed on the brain, they can see which neurons activate at the sound of certain voices through the use of sound samples played simultaneously. They could then “decode” the data from the electrodes to find out what the patient heard without talking to the patients themselves. (2012)
When you consider that a bat must hunt, gather, and navigate through spaces populated with thousands and thousands of other bats, it’s easy to see why a brain function like selective hearing is essential to survival. Humans have depended on selective hearing throughout our history for much the same reason.
Although most modern humans are no longer engaged in hunting and gathering activities, our world would look very different were it not for selective hearing. Imagine living in a city – or even a moderately sized suburban town, for that matter – with its ambient atmosphere combining traffic, voices, weather sounds such as wind or rain, and the rest of the cacophony of daily life that we simply don’t think about from moment to moment. Were it not for selective hearing, we would drown in an overwhelming sea of noise, unable to focus on any one sound well enough to effectively evaluate its importance. Considered in that context, the neurological capability that we call selective hearing has played a significant role in defining how we function as a species.
You can also see how this ability would be important in the real-world context of the classroom. Without it, students who are already easily distracted would simply be swallowed by the noise. Independent research has shown that students’ selective auditory attention improves after they use the Fast ForWord program for as little as six weeks. (2008)
So the next time you find yourself unable to focus on someone’s voice at a party, or you encounter a student who is having a hard time paying attention in a noisy classroom, take a moment. Appreciate your ability to use your selective hearing. And have patience while that other person works to engage theirs.
Bardi, J. (2012). How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain. Retrieved from the University of California San Franciso website: http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/04/11868/how-selective-hearing-works-brain.
Mallet, K. (2010). Bat Brains Offer Clues As to How We Focus on Some Sounds and Not Others. Retrieved from the Georgetown University Medical Center: http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=54075&PageTemplateID=295.
Stevens,C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective audiory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research. 1205, 55 – 69. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108.
On October 30th, noted neuroscience researcher and co-founder of Scientific Learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, conducted a live webinar titled “What do Neuroscientists Know About Learning That Most Educators Don’t?” In her presentation, Dr. Tallal discussed her original research on auditory processing, its relationship to language development, and the far-reaching effects that deficiencies in those areas can have on learning.
Research continues to support the hypothesis that difficulty discriminating between small changes in sound is at the heart of learning problems both in students who have a diagnosed difficulty and those who do not. Dr. Tallal described how oral language is the foundation for learning and for most successful educational outcomes, adding that oral language itself is dependent on the brain’s ability to discriminate and process auditory information. Children who have difficulty perceiving the many subtleties of language find the deck stacked against them in their educational careers. They can experience a variety of impediments to learning, including:
Students with this subtle level of auditory processing problem need specific differentiation that is not possible in most classrooms. The good news, as Dr. Tallal describes, is that modern technology can be used to address the difficulties these children face and help bridge these skill gaps. In fact, it is this level of research and development that informed the development of Scientific Learning’s software programs, including Fast ForWord.
To close, Dr. Tallal took questions from the educators relating to how these insights can be used to improve educational outcomes in all classrooms. Teachers left this insightful webinar with practical strategies that can be used to help learners of all abilities.
Our Fall Webinar Series for Educators is here! Join us for presentations on topics from how the brain learn to how you can increase test scores and reading proficiency for your students.
How the Brain Learns
Dr. William Jenkins, one of our four founders and an expert in learning-based brain plasticity, will review the three dimensions of executive function often highlighted by scientists—working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Learn about the development of these skills across childhood and look at some popular misconceptions about executive function in children. His last webinar on executive function was a big hit—you‘ll want to join us for this one!
10/11 - Teaching with the Brain in Mind
Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen returns to share specific, practical brain-compatible strategies you can use in the classroom right away. Discover how the brain works, how teaching changes the brain, and what it takes for students to acquire complex learning and achieve their best. Jensen’s webinars are always packed—be sure to register and arrive early!
Dr. Paula Tallal will join us to discuss the latest neuroscience research on learning, her original research on auditory processing and language, and the classroom application of these scientific findings to help struggling learners succeed. Dr. Tallal is one of our four founders and a very engaging presenter—don’t miss this rare opportunity to learn from her!
Real Life Results with Scientific Learning Programs
Returning presenter Cory Armes will discuss how the Fast ForWord program supports English Language Learners by simultaneously developing academic skills critical for reading, such as English language conventions, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension. A live Fast ForWord demo will be included in this webinar.
Dr. Martha Burns will open the webinar with an overview of how the brain learns. Then, special guests Dr. Dave Mundy and Cindy Keever from Westfield-Washington Schools in Indiana will discuss how students achieved nearly double their expected gains in reading with the Fast ForWord program. Bring your questions for our guests!
Maura Deptula will provide an in-depth look at the Reading Assistant online reading coach and results achieved by students using it. Reading practice with Reading Assistant helps strengthen fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. This webinar will include a live product demonstration.
9/10 - The Science of Learning
One of our most popular presenters, Dr. Burns returns to discuss ways to accelerate your children’s learning. Recent brain research shows that developing the critical cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing can make a significant difference for your children and result in improved test scores. Dr. Burns will discuss key areas of the brain and how these areas influence reading and academic performance. Angela, a parent from Wisconsin, will discuss her son’s progress and results with the BrainPro program.
This presentation is an update on previous studies out of the St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana. The latest study investigated the changes to the district’s performance on the Louisiana state assessment between 2003, three years before implementation of the Fast ForWord software, and 2011, when over 9,000 St. Mary Parish students district-wide had used Fast ForWord or Reading Assistant software, or both. The data span a period of nine years, from 2003 - 2011.
The Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, abbreviated as LEAP, is part of Louisiana’s criterion-referenced state testing program and is administered to students in the fourth and eighth grades. It measures how well a student has mastered the state content standards in the subjects of English language arts, math, science, and social studies.
This summary shows results achieved by the district on the English Language Arts portion of the LEAP as well as substantial improvements in District Performance Score, a combination a school district’s individual student scores on the LEAP, iLEAP and Graduation Exit Exam as well as attendance and dropout rates, and graduation outcomes. Improvements in other critical district numbers are covered as well.
Fast ForWord was first used in the St. Mary Parish Public School System during the 2006-2007 school year. Since that school year, fourth graders in the district have shown dramatic improvements in their English language arts achievement as measured by the LEAP. In 2008, for the first time in a decade, the district exceeded the state average for the percentage of fourth graders performing at or above the Basic level on the English Language Arts exam. In the five years of Fast ForWord implementation in St. Mary Parish elementary schools, the percentage of fourth graders in the district performing at or above Basic on the initial LEAP English Language Arts test increased from 55% to an impressive 81%.
By the time district-wide implementation was achieved in 2009, the improvements had impacted the district performance such that the District Performance Score exceeded the state baseline. And, in fact, the rise in Performance Score continued between 2006 and 2011, with the district score increasing from 80.0 to 96.7, nearly double the increase of the state baseline score.
In addition, between the years 2006 and 2011 the district increased the promotion rate of both the General Education and the Special Education students. During the same period, the number of students requiring Special Education services decreased by 17%.
If you have questions on this report or any other Scientific Learning study, please feel free to contact our Customer Service Team.
The Grand Forks Public Schools in Grand Forks, ND, wanted to evaluate the effects of the Fast ForWord® products on the academic achievement of their students. A study was designed such that students at one elementary school used the Fast ForWord products and comparable students at a different elementary school served as the comparison group. Both elementary schools fed into the same middle school and the study participants were in the fifth grade at the time of Fast ForWord use.
Students used the 30-minute protocols, which call for students to use the Fast ForWord products for 30 minutes a day, five days per week for 12 to 16 weeks. Students used the products for an average of 132 days across 11 months.
The Measures of Academic Progress, abbreviated as MAP, are state-aligned computerized adaptive tests, administered by the district each spring. They accurately reflect the instructional level of each student and measure growth over time. The Grand Forks Public School District uses the MAP to assess students in third through eighth grades.
A comparison of the fifth graders at the two elementary schools showed that students at the school using FastForWord products made significantly greater improvements in all areas tested compared to the students at the school that did not use the products. The areas tested were reading, language, and math, with the study results demonstrating that the products can positively impact achievement across multiple subject areas.
Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, FL, wanted to evaluate the effects of the Fast ForWord® and Reading Assistant™ products on the academic achievement of their students. Students in Florida are assessed with the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, abbreviated as the FCAT. The students in this study were initially at FCAT Level 1 or 2, where Level 3 means performing on grade level and Level 5 means the student is successful with the most challenging grade-level content. These study participants attended middle and high schools in the Marion County Public Schools and most of them were eligible for Exceptional Student Education services.
Each spring, all Marion County students in Grades 3-10 take the FCAT. This is a criterion-referenced test. The Reading portion of the FCAT is designed to assess student achievement of the high-order cognitive skills represented in the Sunshine State Standards.
One way for students at FCAT Levels 1 and 2 to meet their Annual Learning Gains (ALG), a component in determining a school’s grade, is for them to improve their scores by more than a state-mandated level that varies depending on grade level. Across the students in this study, in order to meet Annual Learning Gains, the students had to improve at least 115 points.
After using Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products, 60% of the participants made ALG with the actual improvement of 173 points, on average, exceeding the expected gain of 115 points by a statistically significant amount.
Hi! My name is Erin Ellinwood and I’m a product manager at Scientific Learning. I am super excited to write about our first ever iPad App, the Eddy’s Number Party!™game, for preschool and kindergarten aged children. Our products have always been grounded in science and built with scientific advisors, and this game is no exception. Equally pairing early math curriculum with two critical cognitive skills, working memory and attention, Eddy’s Number Party! helps prepare kids for success in kindergarten and beyond. In the game, kids help Eddy’s friends surprise him with the biggest dog birthday party ever and practice counting, remembering, and matching numbers.
Designed for Young Learners
Our roots here at Scientific Learning are in developing cutting edge adaptive learning games for delivery on desktop or laptop computers. Because this game targets a younger audience, we talked to teachers and educational experts to see what technology they thought would be best for preschool and kindergarten age learners. The resounding feedback we heard was that our game would be most developmentally appropriate on the iPad. And so, our first iPad app was born.
Makes Learning Fun (We’re Getting Great Reviews from Our Kid Testers!)
Sometimes learning can feel monotonous, especially for 3 to 5 year olds, so we added some key components to help break things up:
Includes and Enables Parents
Grown-Up Central is a unique feature among apps for kids (and my favorite part of the app). I believe that it is important to give parents the ability to review the game’s goals, tour all game levels, and learn about the underlying research and development behind the game. In addition to all of the information it provides about the app itself, Grown-Up Central also features a visual report card that shows a child’s progress and gives suggestions at each level for “what to look for” (such as a child beginning to count up from a known quantity) and how to further “bring learning to life” (such as cooking with the child from a recipe).
Being the product manager for the Eddy's Number Party! game has been a fantastic challenge, and I’m proud of the result.
I hope to see you at the party! Click here to download from Apple’s iTunes App Store or visit the App Store and search for "Eddy’s Number Party!”
And, if you like the app, please consider leaving a review in the App Store!