How do we learn what to learn? This fundamental question drives the work of Rachel Wu at the University of California, Riverside. Before we can learn anything, we need to know what to pay attention to. From infancy, people are bombarded with distractions that can make that challenging.
While there is a wealth of cognitive neuroscience research on the topic of attention and learning, that work has yet to fully translate to educational settings for youth. In a new review paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Wu, along with colleagues at Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics the and the University of Oxford, explore a potential path toward integrating existing research with developmental and applied work.
CNS spoke with Wu about the review paper and its implications, as well as some insights for all learners as we start a new school year.
CNS: Why is this an important area for research?
Wu: My collaborators – Gaia Scerif & Andria Shimi – and I became interested in this research area because learning what to learn is one of the most important, fundamental problems for learners of all ages but particularly for infants and children, who are still developing a sense of what is relevant to learn in a distraction-filled environment. If the learner understands what is relevant, then the remaining task facing the child is actually learning that information. Children who cannot figure out what is relevant may face learning delays, not because of their learning ability per se, but rather because they may be learning irrelevant information instead. Distinguishing between the two possibilities can open research avenues for more successful interventions for struggling learners.
CNS: What was the goal of the review paper?
Wu: The goal of the paper was to document our efforts to share potential ways forward for the developmental cognitive neuroscience of attentive learning to influence and be influenced more directly by education. Basic and applied science can complement each other, and there is a lot of scope for research in our topic that can be guided by educational needs.
CNS: What has been traditionally holding back the integration of adult cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology into educational neuroscience?
Wu: One key barrier, especially for the adult cognitive neuroscience of attention and learning, has been limited communication to and from developmental psychology and education. Advances in this research area often are not communicated to the other disciplines, and at the same time, input from educators has not shaped and influenced translational attention neuroscience questions. This issue is not unique to these research areas but rather represents a larger issue associated with how we are trained and encouraged as scientists to specialize within our research areas. A second important barrier is also difficulty integrating findings from one area to another, especially when there are specific constraints that face different age groups or methodologies.
CNS: What gaps do you seek to fill in educational neuroscience with your work?
Wu: My collaborators and I hope to continue this line of research to address the issue of learning what to learn, an issue often overlooked. There is vast, groundbreaking work on the neuroscience of specific educational problems, such as the neural basis of reading development and mathematical cognition, but there remains a gap in the context of more domain-general attentional selection skills that are key to learning, especially in young learners.
CNS: What are the major challenges moving forward?
Wu: Merging research areas with applied educational work is always challenging, with respect to differences in theoretical approaches, methodologies, and even terminology. The review summarizes our efforts from the past 7 years, with further efforts to come.
CNS: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the neuroscience of learning?
Wu: It seems that many older adults believe that they cannot learn new skills because their brain has “solidified” and is no longer plastic, like infants and children. However, there is more and more research showing not only that it is possible to learn new skills in older adulthood, but also that doing so can induce changes in the brain. This misconception is related to children and adolescents thinking that they will never be good at science or math, or other areas of study, because their brains are not “wired” in a certain way.
CNS: Any specific tips for people heading back into the school year who are interested in neuroscience-based education?
Wu: My tips for learners across all ages are: Don’t give up, try as much as you can as seriously as you can, and before you give up on something, make sure you have been learning in the right environment with the right supporters. The studies with older adults in particular show that you are never too old to learn and change your brain in the process.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz