Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Author Norman Doidge 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.

Fast ForWord

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.

Related reading:

What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

What New Brain Wave Research Tells Us About Language-Based Learning Disabilities


Exclusive Webinars with Experts on the Brain and Reading

Tuesday, August 13, 2013 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

2013 education webinars

I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall!  We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2ndfor a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.  

8/19 - Using Brain Science to Close the Achievement Gap

Dr. Martha S. Burnswill discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.

9/11 - Reading Fluency: The Neglected (but Necessary) Goal of Your Reading Program

Dr. Timothy Rasinskiis a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this andyou’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.

10/2 - The Neuroplasticity Revolution: New Ways to Improve Learning

For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy.Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be “Hot!”

Brain Plasticity: A New Frontier For Education and Learning


Study: Fast ForWord Improves Writing in College Students

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 (All day)
  • Joseph Noble, Ph.D

Fast ForWord college writing Have you wondered what the effect of the Fast ForWord program is on older students, or how it develops other skills besides reading? Many studies conducted on Fast ForWord primarily concentrate on reading results among K-12 students, but the program helps with other skills and with other students as well. 

In a peer-reviewed study entitled, “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, Beth Rogowsky, et al, documented the effects that the use of Fast ForWord had on college students’ reading and writing skills.

College-Age Study Details

  • Quasi-Experimental Design: The study included Experimental and Control groups, but the assignment of students to each group was non-randomized in order to study the effect of Fast ForWord on students struggling with writing.
  • Experimental Group: 25 college students who demonstrated poor writing skills and who received Fast ForWord training.
  • Comparison Group: 28 students who did not receive Fast ForWord training and were selected from the general college population at the same university as the experimental group.
  • Fast ForWord Training: Daily training for 11 weeks with Fast ForWord Literacy and upper levels of the Fast ForWord READING Series (Levels 3–5).
  • Assessments: At the beginning and end of the spring college semester, both the training and comparison groups took:
    • Gates MacGinitie Reading Test (GMRT)
    • Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS) Written Expression Scale.


Results from this study showed that the training group made a statistically greater improvement in both their reading and writing skills than the comparison group. In addition, the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training but ended up exceeding the writing skills of the comparison group after training.

  • Gates MacGinitie Reading Test: After training, the Fast ForWord group increased their reading score by 4 points, while the comparison group’s reading score decreased by 1 point.
  • Oral and Written Language Scales Written Expression Scale: After training, the Fast ForWord group increased their writing score by 24.8 points, while the comparison group’s writing score decreased by 2.5 points.

To give you an idea of the type of change that took place in students’ writing, here’s an example of a piece of writing by one student before and after Fast ForWord training. The student was asked to examine a table that listed the percentages of books read by 5th and 9th grade male and female students and write a paragraph that described the information.

Before: “As children advance in grades we see a clear increase in the number of books they have to study or carry. We also can notice that more boys in both 5th and 9th grades tend to carry more books.”

After: “The table shows that in the 5th and 9th grades, girls are more likely to read 2 or more books than boys are. In the 5th grade; 70% of boys read 1 book or less and only 30% of boys read 2 or more books.  In the 9th grade more boys, 50%, start to read 2 or more books. Overall in both 5th and 9th grades girls beat boys when it comes to reading books.”

Meeting the Need for Writing Proficiency

Writing is both what you write and how you write it. Besides getting the facts correct in the post-Fast ForWord example, the student writes with more “texture,” adding much more detail and using more variety in sentence constructions and grammatical conventions, and even adding a nice colloquial touch at the end that adds a bit of spice to the paragraph.

With only 27% of 12th grade students achieving a writing score of “Proficient” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011), and only 45% of students meeting SAT writing benchmark proficiency, American students show a clear need for something that will help them improve their writing skills. 

Most writing programs train or concentrate specifically on writing skills; the proposition borne out by Rogowsky’s study is that writing can be improved by training the complexities of the language and cognitive skills upon which writing depends. One could say that high school and college students not only need to “read to learn” but also “read to write.” When they read and process information accurately, they get the facts right, which is always a boon in conducting research.  And reading increasingly complex materials – such as students encounter as they move through the higher levels of Fast ForWord – models correct and highly textured writing for students.

As brain plasticity research has taught us, people are never too old to learn. This study shows how strengthening foundational cognitive skills in the context of listening and higher level reading tasks can help older students who are in college and how this kind of training can significantly improve not just students’ reading but also their writing skills.


Rogowsky BA, Papamichalis P, Villa L, Heim S and Tallal P (2013) Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(137)1 – 11.

Related reading:

How a Low Performing School Achieved Double-Digit Gains on the California Standards Tests (CSTs)

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day


Growing Together: Connectomes, College Students, and Practical Tips for Providers

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

Fast ForWord collegeIf you attended this year’s 100% virtual Visionary Conference on May 17th, then you already know about the amazing research presented by perennial audience favorites Dr. Martha S. Burns and Scientific Learning co-founder Dr. Paula Tallal. But if you happened to miss it, you’re in luck—because we’ve captured all of the conference sessions so you can watch them at your convenience and catch up.

Find the links to the research presentations below, along with links to additional sessions full of practical information for clinical providers in support of this year’s theme, Growing Together.

What’s New in Neuroscience?

In a jam-packed session, Dr. Martha Burns took conference attendees on a fascinating tour of trends and milestones in recent neuroscience. She reviewed years of foundational research underlying detailed maps of the neuronal connectivity of the brain that today we call “connectomes.” She then covered recent studies revealing the semantic map of the human brain, with words and word meanings mapped hierarchically over the cortex. She wrapped up with details about specific connectomes within the brain, the cognitive domains controlled by each (from a speech-language perspective, those governing attention and flexibility are particularly interesting), and symptoms related to dysfunction within a connectome. Advances in connectome research, according to Dr. Burns, point to new possibilities for evolving the clinical application of Fast ForWord program technology.

New Research with College Students

Dr. Paula Tallal’s session presented revolutionary new research using the Fast ForWord program with college students. The studies sought to determine whether college students using Fast ForWord would show improvements in attention, reading, and writing. Results were impressive, with significant improvements not only in attention and reading, but in writing as well. Dr. Tallal went into detail about the design and results of each study, so you will want to watch the presentationto fully understand the implications of this exciting new peer-reviewed research.

Product Updates and Enhancements

Every year, we look forward to sharing the recent and planned product enhancements with our providers at the Visionary Conference. This year, Ching Lee and Joan Ferguson of Scientific Learning gave online walk-throughs of product and reporting enhancements for both the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs. Their session is a must-watchfor any provider looking to stay current with product and reporting features, as well as those who are curious about future enhancements currently in the works.

Connecting Fast ForWord to Reading Assistant

Using the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs together can be a powerful treatment approach for children and a strong marketing differentiator for private providers. Speech Language Pathologist Beverly Gough’s session focused on strategies and techniques for blending the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programsin private practice. She walked through a number of clinical scenarios and answered audience questions, providing a wealth of valuable information mined from her years of professional experience as a Scientific Learning provider.

Growing Together:  Maximizing Your Reach

Finally, attendees heard from Speech Language Pathologist Renee Matlock about how to reach more students and grow a clinical practice through offsite implementation and general marketing best practices. Ms. Matlock is a recipient of the Scientific Learning Sustained Excellence Award marking the highest quality of implementation of Fast ForWord for more than 10 years. After the release of MySciLEARN®, Ms. Matlock found that parents preferred the ease of having their children work on Scientific Learning products from home. She proceeded to transform her business into a 100% offsite practice, and generously shared her learning at the Visionary with all Scientific Learning Providers. It’s the perfect session for any provider looking to grow their practice—so be sure to watch and learn!

Related reading:

Human Intelligence and the Brain: Mapping Intellectual Ability

How are Reading Skills Related to White Matter in the Brain (and Why Does It Matter)?

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day


Instilling a Love of Reading: What Every Teacher and Parent Should Know

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 (All day)
  • Jacqueline Egli

As an educator I spend a considerable amount of time providing advice to parents whose children are finding it difficult to be inspired with reading! Parents will describe their child as  “struggling,” “disinterested,” or ”anxious” about reading and are searching for ways to instill the love of reading, when it is such a tedious task for their child.

It’s really quite simple: Children who do not read well will not be inspired to read, or to practice reading more. So, how do we get our reluctant readers to find reading fun?

As the director of a school that specializes in working with students with reading disorders—and a parent of a youngster who was diagnosed with dyslexia in 3rdgrade—I see this issue from both sides.  Some suggestions that I share with our parents (and that I used with my own son) can create a safe haven for reading for the emerging reader, gifted reader, or a student who needs more direct instruction to improve reading skills.

The Practice of Reading Skills

Keep the work of developing reading skills separate from pleasure reading. Students who require reinforcement in their decoding or vocabulary should practice those tasks for a short time (15-20 minutes) several times per week. Use some of these ideas to make the reading fun!

  • Play Scrabble using real or nonsense words!Get the real game board! Let students use a dictionary to look up words that they can create with their tiles. Or, play a game with nonsense words, but everyone should be able to read their words! Non-word reading is a good way to practice decoding.
  • Word of the day: Have the whole family select a “word of the day” and keep a tally on how many times that word is read, or spoken throughout the day. At dinnertime, share the results of the family “survey” and select a new word for the next day.
  • Matching game: Have your child use index cards to write their words for practice on one card and the definition on the other. Play this game like the Memory card game (also known as Concentration), encouraging the student to read the word and the definition for every card turned over. (My son and I both did this when we were studying—he used his 5thgrade spelling words and vocabulary, and I had my “deck of cards” on education law terms and definitions for my Master’s degree coursework).
  • Use Unique Materials!Change it up! Have your child practice by writing spelling words on the sidewalk with colored chalk. Put shaving cream on the kitchen counter and let your child write their spelling words in foam! Put a piece of screen material in an open picture frame. Have your child place a piece of paper over it and write their words on the paper with crayon. This approach provides practice and highlights the individual letters with a unique, textured surface. See some examples here:  
  • Create your own storybook: Children, by nature, will be more involved and interested in practicing oral reading if they are excited about a topic. Using some of the newest technologies, such as the camera feature on your phone, have the child take photos of a favorite activity that the child or the whole family enjoys doing, or take pictures that match the vocabulary list!  Put those photos into a PowerPoint and have the child tell or type the words, match vocabulary or create a story to go with the photos. With PowerPoint you can add motion, sound, or music—so be creative! You can even print the pages and bind them into a book, and you have some great stories for practicing oral reading. The book can also make a great gift for a relative for a birthday or holiday.

Reading for Pleasure

Children who are behind in their reading abilities, such as decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension, may not always select independent reading material that “matches” their age and grade. In fact, many children who struggle with the mechanics of reading may be interested in topics that are way above their independent reading level. To meet their intellectual interests and instill the “habit” of reading for pleasure, consider these ideas:

  • Read aloud for evening wind-down: What child doesn’t want to delay bedtime? This is a perfect time to read a chapter or two and discuss the elements of a read-aloud story. Ask questions about the characters and setting and inquire if they can predict what will happen next. Let your child select a book that they have an interest in, regardless of the reading level, and read it to thembefore bedtime. For those youngsters who are gifted, be sure that the topic is not above their maturity level. You may want to read the selection before you read it together, as some authors do include more mature themes than some of our learners are ready to handle.
  • Books on tape in the car:Face it—we are a mobile society! I have parents who report spending many hours in the car for errands, driving kids to practice for sports, and waiting on our busy roads to make it home in the late afternoon hours. Audio books can be a great way for everyone to enjoy a good mystery or listen to a story that will soon be featured in film at the local movie theatres. Use of an audiobook is also a great way to keep a youngster connected to current trends in literary work. Students who are behind in their reading abilities may still have an interest in the latest chapter book that will be featured in an upcoming movie, such as Hunger Games. Although your child may not be able to wade through the actual printed version, listening to the audio series will permit them to understand the content and will encourage their discussions with their peers about the latest chapter of a popular series.
  • Model reading activities!In our busy lives we sometimes forget that our children and students need to see us reading! Some schools still include a specific reading time where everyone in the school reads a book or magazine for 15 minutes.  As parents, we should practice what we want our children to do, so they can see our enjoyment of literature! Every summer, I would take a stack of paperback books with me to the beach, and my children would know that I was enjoying my “junk novels”. Now, when we get together for our annual beach week, my young adult children break out their Kindles and read too!
  • Don’t get concerned if your child has selected something to read independently that is not at their grade level.Nothing concerns me more than when I hear a parent or teacher indicate that the “child” is selecting a storybook, chapter book or series to read that is “not at their grade level”. Reading for pleasure should be just that, for pleasure. Allow and encourage reading for entertainment value. I often remind my students’ parents that “eyes on print” is a good thing, and not to get concerned over the level of the material that a child reads for pleasure. I don’t look at the back of the book I am purchasing for my annual beach trip to see what grade level it is before I purchase it. I select books that I am interested in reading for fun!I enjoy books that have a mystery and involve law, written by authors such as John Grisham. What I don’t do is determine the Lexile Score, or Independent Reading Level of the text or content. So, allow your child a choice in what they wish to read independently and encourage them to develop the habit of reading!

Above all, BE PATIENTandENCOURAGINGwith your child as they develop independent reading habits. The “art” of reading is quite complex. Some children will require more support, individualized instruction, and continued practice, and may benefit from the services of a reading specialist. Your positive influence, patience, and support can make your child feel safe to take the “risk” of reading new words or selecting more challenging material. Celebrate the small steps, and keep positive so your child will become more confident!

Related reading:

18 Ways to Encourage Students to Read This Summer

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day


Brain Myths in Education: Making Sense of Fact vs. Fiction

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

education myths

In the nearly 25 years since Congress designated the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain,” educators have been flooded with information about how the brain learns. Some of the “brain myths” that educators have learned are actually right on target, while others are outright wrong. Some data is still open for debate and other inquiries are just getting under way.

We asked Dr. Bill Jenkins and Dr. Martha Burns for a little help in sorting fact from fiction for those of us with other things to do besides reading through the original research studies and teasing out our own conclusions. They presented a great live webinar on the topic, and here’s what we learned:

Myth #1: The Brain is Hardwired – True or False?

Until the 1990s, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was indeed hardwired with fixed neural circuits. The Decade of the Brain revealed that this view is false—the adult brain is not hardwired and neither is the child brain. In fact, learning goes hand in hand with the re-wiring of brain circuits on the fly, a re-organizing ability that lasts throughout our lifetime.

Myth #2: There are Multiple Intelligences – True or False?

When I first heard about the idea of multiple intelligences, I responded to it immediately. I’m a visual learner!I thought. Of course.And I know I’m not alone.

The truth is more complicated. The construct of multiple intelligences falls under the category of “still open for debate” and may depend as much on our frame of reference as anything else. Regardless, what’s important for teachers is to understand individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and not evaluate students along one dimension of Smart vs. Not Smart.

Myth #3: There’s a Critical Period for Language Learning – True or False?

The widely held belief that language learning must be mastered early is an example of a fact being taken too far. True, it is typically easier to learn a new language before age 7, but we retain the ability for language learning throughout life.

In fact, intensive language trainingcan produce large gains in oral language and reading skills even in older children who are not yet fluent. This includes in-person training or computer programs such as the Fast ForWord Language and Reading programs. They key is an individualized and intensive approach that influences brain organization through mechanisms of neural plasticity.

Further, learning a new language later in life can be good for the brain—better than, say, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.

Get the Facts About 10 More Brain Myths

Drs. Jenkins and Burns had much more to say about fact vs. fiction in how the brain learns. Watch their on-demand webinar on Brain Myths in Educationand get answers about these brain myths and more:

  • What role does diet play in learning?
  • Are gluten-free and casein-free diets really better for brain health?
  • What are the differences between boys and girls when it comes to learning?
  • Can all students meet high learning standards?

Related reading:

What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

Eric Jensen Links New Brain Research With Teaching in New Webinar


How to Re-Wire your Burned-Out Brain

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D


So it is only October and the buzz and excitement of starting a new school year has already fizzled. Life is a little boring, the holidays seem too far away, you are more tired than usual, and you are having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about your job or your children’s upcoming book reports and science projects, or whatever. What’s going on? Of course you know, burn-out.

What exactly is burn-out? Does it come from working too hard, not being appreciated?  Perhaps, but from the standpoint of the brain, burn-out occurs when motivation declines.  The human brain is designed to keep motivation levels high for activities we need to survive, those that are very rewarding, and those that involve novelty.  Hence we are usually very motivated to escape a dangerous situation, eat chocolate cake and watch a new movie we just purchased. We tend to associate reward and novelty with play and leisure – video games, a golf or tennis match, watching a new TV show or a sports event, playing a new board game,   or visiting a new vacation spot – even though we might work very hard at those activities.  Rarely do you hear avid golfers complain about golf burnout.  But you also rarely hear CEOs talk about being burned out. They may retire to relieve the stress of their job or spend more time with their family, but rarely do they complain about their workload or burnout.  Why not? Because the excitement of a new round of golf and the reward that might come from winning or achieving a greater profit margin motivates the golfer and the CEO.  However, when your daily life becomes repetitive, unexciting or non-rewarding, motivation decreases. Burn-out is really the symptom of a brain that has lost its motivation. And motivation declines when two important aspects of life are missing – earned reward and novelty.

So, what can you do about burn-out?  The answer actually comes from neuroscience research. Whether your burn-out is associated with a job in or out of the home, the solution is not to work less and play more (because poverty is not very rewarding).  Rather, the solution is to turn work into play.  And the way to do that is to imbue your day with novelty and challenges where there is an expectation of reward.

Reward thyself:  If your work is not very rewarding or your boss is not good at showing appreciation, one important key to avoiding burnout is to build in self rewards for a job well done. Each morning, next to your to-do list, make a “reward when completed list”.

  • After I work out I will…buy myself a little treat (a new pen, some fun post-it notes or allow myself a small ice cream cone)
  • After I finish my major work project I will…do something nice for myself (set aside time to watch the football game I recorded last week but never had a chance to watch, take a long hot shower with a special soap or set aside an evening with a few close friends)
  • After the house is cleaned I will…do something that makes me feel better (take a short walk to the park, check out some of the new houses for sale in my neighborhood, call a high school friend I haven’t talked to for months)

Keep it new: If a job largely involves repetitive routines, try to come up with something new to add.

  • Long boring commute – add something  different each week 
    • Try a slightly new route
    • Add a new song or pod-cast to your iPod to listen to
    • Rent audio books from the library
  • Hours at a computer – add something new to look forward to
    • Listen to music in the background using headphones
    • Make a contest or start a pool with workmates over your most boring tasks. Guessing the number of junk mail messages each of you has to delete each week – the losers take the winner out to lunch on Friday
    • Start a company softball or volleyball team, a duplicate bridge competition, a  bowling league, a game of cards at lunch
  • Change it up – change your routine
    • If you always eat lunch at noon, eat a late breakfast and take a mid-afternoon walk
    • If you always get in at 8:30 and leave at 4:30 pm, try a few days of getting in at 7:45, leave by 3:45 and go for a swim or a late afternoon hike
    • Do it a new way – rotate the pillows on each of the beds you make each morning, move the living room furniture around,  try one new recipe for dinner each week, learn a new technology to make your life a work simpler, take a management course and implement one new idea a week

Delay gratification: Make your work schedule its own reward by scheduling  your most boring task first each day and your favorite task last so all day you are looking forward to the activity you enjoy the most.

Finally, build in healthy brain-building activities to your week. A happy brain is a brain that is thinking, creating, planning, solving, and learning new things. Schedule activities outside of work that make you feel good about yourself and keep your mind sharp:

Related reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

Creating the Optimal "Internal" Learning Environment


Using Stories to Teach: How Narrative Structure Helps Students Learn

Thursday, June 14, 2012 (All day)
  • Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Teaching narrative structure

Ever since the letter K was a baby, she loved to make her signature sound: ka, ka, ka. K knew that the only other letters in the alphabet that could make her “ka” sound were the letter C (when he didn’t sound like an S) and the letter Q. K enjoyed making her “ka” sound as often as possible in as many words as she could. Soon, however, K also learned that whenever she stood in front of the letter N at the beginning of a word, it was impossible to make her signature sound. At first, K was very sad about this, but after working with N and other letters to make fun words like knot, knob, kneel, and know—words that the other letters could only make with her help—K learned that staying silent sometimes was an important job for a letter, and that many of her alphabet friends also had to be silent from time to time. After a while, K was just as comfortable being silent as she was making her signature “ka” sound.

Scientists have long known that human beings are storytelling creatures. For centuries, we have told stories to transmit information, share histories, and teach important lessons. While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world.

Educators can create memorable learning experiences for their students by harnessing the power of storytelling in the classroom. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.

Creating a compelling story with a coherent narrative structure requires attention to detail, descriptive language, and a beginning, middle, and end of some sort. Different kinds of stories produce different kinds of reactions:  personal stories from the teacher’s own experience can help create and solidify strong bonds between educator and student, while stories of pure fiction may stimulate imagination.

Spending a little extra time on storytelling during lesson planning and actual classroom time keeps the learning experience highly engaging, creative, and truly, dynamically human. A story-filled classroom also encourages students to relate their own stories (whether factual or fictional), which helps grow their critical thinking, memory, and vocabulary skills.



Further reading:

Melanie C. Green. Storytelling in teaching. Association for Psychological Science. April 2004.

Related Reading:

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day

The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

So You Think You Know Something About the Brain?

Thursday, June 7, 2012 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Science of learning

According to a recent EdWeek article, it’s time for educators to step up their understanding of the science of learning.  While educators are increasingly interested in how the brain learns, very few programs certify teachers and administrators in educational neuroscience.  The result is that educators get their knowledge piecemeal from a variety of sources, say the experts—and that approach, though well-intentioned, leads to a fair amount of misinformation.

“In a studyof 158 preservice secondary school teachers in the United Kingdom, Mr. Howard-Jones found that more than 80 percent believed incorrectly that students should be taught based on their brains' ‘learning styles,’ and another one in five mistakenly thought a student's brain would shrink if he or she drank fewer than six glasses of water a day.”

How well are you sorting fact from fiction?   Test your knowledge of the brain and learning here.


Deliberate Practice: How to Develop Expertise

Thursday, April 12, 2012 (All day)
  • Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Deliberate practice

Anyone who has ever conscientiously taken on the challenge of learning a skill – from playing a musical instrument to speaking a foreign language to simply improving one’s penmanship – understands the importance of practice.

As a neuroscientist, practice fascinates me because it is all about establishing pathways in the brain. The ability of the brain to form and re-form routes for specific thought patterns, and for those routes to become more deeply ingrained the more we exercise those thought patterns, makes it possible for us to learn and refine a multitude of wonderful skills throughout our lives.

The Best Practices

In her recent article “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect,’” Annie Murphy Paul reviews a book by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University who studies how the brain acquires language. Marcus’ book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, discusses how learning a new skill, such as playing the guitar, requires practice—but the right kindof practice.

Certainly practice requires a commitment of time. But more importantly, to be truly effective it requires a commitment of the mind – a deliberate intent – for optimal learning to occur.

According to Marcus, “Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect” (2012).

In other words, the best practicedemands that the learner be attentive to his or her errors, weaknesses and deficiencies, and consciously work to remedy them.

From a neuroscience perspective, this observation points to a natural conclusion. Research has shown us time and again that the more we utilize certain neural pathways for building skills – such as throwing a ball or multiplying by fives or recalling all fifty state capitals – the more effectively we ingrain those patterns in our brains and the more automatic the correct skills become.

The Hardest Work

Imagine the budding guitarist bent over her instrument. At 11 years old, she focuses on learning three more chords beyond the three she learned last week. She’s having great trouble with that F, but she’s well in control of the other five. Should she spend her hour of practice playing the music she truly enjoys and save that F for another day, preserving her positive attitude? Or should she feel her frustration, work through it and spend her time on ironing out that problematic F, again and again and again?

Which is the better practice?

Researcher Anders Ericsson of Florida State University wrote that “deliberate practice requires effort and is inherently not enjoyable” (1993). Long hours spent repeating the easy or already-mastered work is simply not enough and not as effective. The best practice requires us to dig deep and uncover our weaknesses. With a greater focus on our faults, we become better able to find them and develop solutions to remedy them.

Robert Duke of the University of Texas-Austin demonstrated this effect when he and his team videotaped piano students as they practiced a challenging concerto, and then ranked the quality of their final performance. In the end, it was not the repetitions nor the hours of practice put in. The best performers zeroed in on their errors and strove to fix them before moving on. (2009)

Behaviors for Success

The students in our everyday classrooms have an advantage over the guitar student practicing at home. She has to work independently the majority of the time, interacting with her music instructor only once or twice a week; the lion’s share of reinforcing her learning and practicing behavior is her personal responsibility.

In our day-to-day classrooms, we get – relatively speaking – much more time to help our students devise strategies and establish behaviors for success. Through helping them learn how to face the hard work, to focus on what’s difficult or wrong and make it easier or right, we can help them to establish those all-important neural pathways that will lead to success.

For further reading:

It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skillsby Robert A. Duke, Amy L. Simmons and Carla Davis Cash

Related Reading:

The Brain Gets Better at What it Does: Dr. Martha Burns on Brain Plasticity

Musical Training and Cognitive Abilities


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