Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
The Near Future: Virtual Learning & Neuroscience in Classrooms  
February 2017
In This Issue

CEI brings it's STEM/STEAM Trainings to you

Valentine Songs for Children

Dear Educators,

Are you looking for ways to update your school practices? Perhaps a way to create a renewed interest in learning? This month's Wow includes a glimpse into the future of neuroscience and the implications of technological advancements for classrooms. We also include ideas for traditional and virtual service learning projects - a wonderful way to make sure that learning is relevant and that students have opportunities to work in teams to design and implement practical solutions to pressing problems.
The Sci-fi Classroom of the (not so distant) Future
By Meghan Wenzel, CEI Intern
Brain training, virtual or augmented reality, neuro-enhancing drugs, and mind-reading - while these may sound like elements straight out of your favorite sci-fi movies or novels, they have potential to enhance educational practices. These technologies are currently in their infancy; however, with the rapid progress of innovation, the sci-fi classroom of the future might not be that far away.

Brain Training
Brain training is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is increasing in popularity. Currently a variety of cognitive brain training programs are available, from Lumosity to CogniFit to C8 ACTIVATE. These programs vary in their effectiveness; however, well-designed brain training regimens have some demonstrated success. Successful programs survey users' performance and determine their individual strengths and weaknesses to create personalized daily workouts that gradually and continuously increase in complexity (Peretz et al., 2011). In general, many of these brain training programs overstate their beneficial effects, and fail to produce widespread and lasting cognitive improvements (Stern, et al., 2011). Fortunately, some of the best have more beneficial and long-lasting results (Anguera, et al., 2013).

With additional research and development these methods hold promise to provide targeted and adaptive instruction to every student. Educators could consider how to build on the current innovations:
  • Students might wear a smart watch or have an implanted micro-computer chip that accurately and continuously records their performance, assesses their progress, and provides immediate feedback.
  • These devices could collect data throughout the day and then generate personalized workouts with activities specifically tailored to each student's skill level. 
  • Educators might want to consider how things like "fit-bits" could be adapted to support academic learning.
Adaptive and Personalized Learning
In addition to brain training, we can build on ideas to provide more personalized academic experiences. Wearable technology could collect and aggregate information and achievement data on students to determine their learning preferences and styles. Currently, Knewton, an educational technology company, is one of several companies working to provide adaptive learning experiences for all students. Knewton: 
  • Assess what students do and do not know based on their performance in various academic modules.
  • Provides students who have not mastered content with additional practice or remediation to brush up on prerequisite lessons.
  • Adjusts pacing and practice length according to student performance and knowledge, and students are given immediate feedback.
  • Is in the early phases of perfecting its algorithms.
In the future, computer programs could survey prior and current knowledge, maybe based on performance in different learning modules. Or quick, on-the-spot brain scans  might be used to provide a perfect learning experience for each individual student. It is interesting to speculate how brain scans could be delivered in classroom environments. Would it involve a helmet or work station technology? Just as we have wi-fi-, could we have wireless electrodes? Or perhaps micro-chips implanted in children's brains to provide direct adaptations to facilitate learning, memory, and performance?   
With immediate brain scans, teachers might then have data confirming what students do and do not know, allowing them to personalize instruction. The program might guide teachers about ways to tailor lessons to build on each student's individual background knowledge to make the lessons personally relevant for each student. 
Software or adaptive learning platforms of the future might be able to read a person's brain to determine learning styles and generate the appropriate lesson using imagery, text, or audio technologies.

Measures and Assessments
Currently, an EEG sensor picks up radio waves from Stephen Hawkins' brain in order to "read" his mind.
  • In the future, students could plug into their desks and have their brainwaves collected, monitored, and analyzed.
  • If students are not paying attention, their desks could alert them and help them focus.
  • Teachers could receive the brainwave data and analyze it in order to determine which students do and do not understand the material.
  • Based on brainwave data, the teachers can adapt their lessons, homework assignments, and study group compositions.
Personal Brain Scans/Comparison to Experts    From various brain studies, we know that during a chess game, chess experts and novices have different brain activity. Experts notice relevant features and meaningful patterns that novices do not (National Research Council, 2000). Experts choose useful strategies efficiently, quickly construct detailed integrated mental models of a problem, and perform skills in highly automated fashion. 
In future classrooms, students could have personal brain scanning devices that would compare their brain activity to that of experts. Instead of taking subjective tests that are filled with biases, randomly selected questions, and require some luck, student knowledge and understanding could be assessed in more formative and objective ways through brain activity patterns. And if students are struggling, their brain activity could alert teachers sooner and allow for more targeted and personalized interventions.

Virtual and Augmented Reality
Currently several major companies are heavily investing in and developing augmented and virtual reality. With the release of Pokemon Go last year, augmented reality is becoming mainstream. 
By simply downloading an app, anyone can use his or her smart phone to dive into augmented reality. In the future, the capabilities of these technologies will only increase. Virtual and augmented reality hold the potential to transform the classroom and learning through virtual field trips.  Students could simply put on a headset to start exploring virtual environments. Virtual and augmented reality could also provide opportunities for students to use their learning in "real world" applications. Students could gain hands-on experience (in a virtual sense) with a variety of materials, settings, and experiences, and this could help them transfer their knowledge to various fields and problems - arguably the ultimate goal of education.
It might even be that students could engage in interactive virtual service learning experiences. Through virtual learning students might participate in feeding the hungry, renovating living environments, or removing land mines. But, how could these virtual experience benefit the proposed recipients of service learning?  It might be that the virtual activities could result in solutions delivered remotely through technology. Or perhaps students could practice through virtual reality before engaging in community actions. 

Continuous Learning
Today we are already seeing the barrier between school and the outside world begin to disintegrate. With mobile technology, students can play educational games, complete online learning modules, and take their lessons wherever they go. Augmented reality could be used whenever and wherever to provide supplemental educational instruction. Today, when we don't know something, we pull out our smartphone and google it. In the future, we could simply use our smart contact lenses to provide educational information about the world around us.

Ever want to take a pill to make you smarter? Neuro-enhancing drugs have been around for a few years now. Adderall and Ritalin are the two most commonly used. For those individuals with attention disorders who rely on them, they often enhance focus, reaction time, and memory. In the future, maybe drugs will enable us to learn in our sleep. Or maybe we can simply take a pill so we do not need very much sleep. Maybe we will be able to simply upload information, knowledge, memories into our brains, and like Neo in the Matrix, we will suddenly know kung fu.

Prevention and Celebrating Neurodiversity
Neuroscience can also be leveraged to detect cognitive deficits and disorders earlier. Scientists are beginning to identify neuromarkers that can predict future outcomes and behaviors. By including brain scans at early health check-ups, physicians could identify children at risk of developing deficits and provide early and targeted preventative interventions. This could help reduce the achievement gap and level the playing field for more students.

Additionally, by regularly discussing and using neuroscience and brain measures in everyday life, we could promote greater awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity. We might not all solve a complex math problem in the same way, that does not mean we do not all arrive at the correct solution. Likewise, our brains may develop differently and use different processes to complete a task. It does not make one way better than another. The brain is amazingly plastic, and it is able to rewire itself and compensate for a variety of things. 

I hope that this picture of the future classroom is exciting to consider, because it does not seem to be too far away. However, there are some ethical considerations we need to discuss and address before we fly into the future. With all of this sensitive brain and learning data, there will be issues of privacy. Who owns the students' data? Students and their families? Schools? Companies who created the brain scanning software? Who is able to access the data and for what purpose? Will this data lead to cognitive discrimination? Will people be judged on their brain scans instead of their performance on real world tasks? We all know that the smartest student in the classroom is not always the highest achiever. So then where do grit, creativity, and resilience fit in?

There are also cost, accessibility, and inequality questions. While many herald technology as the great equalizer, cost and accessibility will be the determinant of its ultimate impact. Will quality brain scanning equipment, virtual and augmented reality, and neuro-enhancing drugs be available and cost-efficient for everyone? Will the rich have more resources and access, perpetuating inequality and the achievement gap? How will these technologies affect our health? Will they only exacerbate the growing trend of competition? And finally, how will these technologies and supplements impact our concepts and measurements of creativity, individuality, personality, IQ, and exceptionality?

Anguera et al. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature, 501(7465), 97-101.

Gazzaley, A. (2015). Videogames and neuroscience: A vision of the future of medicine and education.

National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. National Academies Press.

Peretz et al. (2011). Computer-based, personalized cognitive training versus classical computer games: a randomized double-blind prospective trial of cognitive stimulation. Neuroepidemiology, 36, 91-99.

Stern et al. (2011). Space fortress game training and executive control in older adults: A pilot intervention. Aging Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 18(6), 653-677. 
Service Learning- How Can Your Students Make a Positive Contribution?
By Rachel Kelly and Christine Mason
"Education is not just something you acquire, but also something you apply and share," says Deborah Hecht, one of the founders of Hoboken Charter School in Hoboken, New Jersey. This theory is alive and well at the charter school where students and staff regularly participate in community service. Students in every grade (K-12) have helped bring clean water to African children, given food to homeless people, and have done countless other community projects. Students at Hoboken Charter School also excel academically, and are skilled in statistical analysis, persuasive writing, and public speaking. How are the students able to achieve so much? It may be the school's emphasis on service learning.

What is service learning? According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning "integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to
  • enrich the learning experience,
  • teach civic responsibility, and
  • strengthen communities."
In other words, service learning is when schools join forces with community or government agencies to actively help with real-world community projects. For example, students from Stowe Elementary in Minnesota made toys for birds at a local zoo and regularly visited the bird exhibit. After the physical project, the students returned to their classroom to discuss and reflect on what they learned while participating in the program.

Students can sometimes approach service learning from a cross-disciplinary perspective. They may make measurements or estimates (math), consider environmental needs (science), design or draw images (art), and either write letters to others or write or deliver a report on their activities (English/Language Arts). The students from Stowe Elementary related their community project to science, speaking/listening and Language Arts.

Enriching the Learning Experience

When students go out into the community, some students will be more actively engaged than they are when sitting in desks in their classrooms. Many learners seem to enjoy the hands-on approach of service learning, and some students also seem to learn more when they are physically active and implementing their knowledge in an actual, real-world context. Working with others on community projects also helps learners who thrive on interpersonal interactions as well as students who need to work on their social skills.

According to Joe Bandy from Vanderbilt University, service learning can also help improve the"complexity of understanding, problem analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cognitive development"  that is so helpful in applying our skills and knowledge. This is because students practice these skills in real-world situations that are often fraught with complexities related to budgets, practicality, scheduling, allocation of time and resources, and contradictory needs and priorities.

Teaching civil responsibility and strengthening communities. Teens experiencing biological changes and social pressure are sometimes insensitive to the needs of others. However, service learning could help to increase their empathy. When teens are engaged with nearby people and places that need help, their eyes may be opened to the day-to-day realities that others face. They may also find that helping others feels good, and is both meaningful and rewarding. Also, if students become involved in community service at a young age, they are gaining skills and experiences that could increase their community involvement as they age. Service learning also provides experiences that help students make closer connections to their peers, teachers, and members of their town, which in turn may strengthen their bonds to the community as a whole.
Career Possibilities

Students who take an interest in service learning are sometimes inspired to later pursue a career in government, public service, or philanthropy. Even if students do not follow this path, they will be more familiar with different ways to help their communities. With the current divisiveness and political climate in the United States, many people have been asking, "What can I do?" Students involved in service learning and community service gain a better idea of the needs and resources in their area. Service learning can give students experiences that will build their leadership skills and their sense of personal efficacy because they will have made a positive contribution to their community. When students are engaged in helping their local communities, they also establish connections that could help them explore potential careers and even possibly find job openings.
The Future

Service learning can help students gain valuable experience for when they become working adults. Finland has proven that having a positive environment and letting students learn naturally through hands-on activities boosts student achievement. Instead of spending hours upon hours answering test questions, students may find that learning through community experiences provides a more valid and realistic framework for preparing for their futures.

If we consider the future, with all that may be possible with virtual and augmented reality, students may have opportunities to virtually experience the application of their learning in an array of diverse circumstances.  So students might help peers in Africa, South America, and Tibet, learning to generalize the conclusions they reach about effective ways to make a difference in the world.

An emphasis on service learning will strengthen critical thinking and problem solving skills, give students more experiences with teamwork, and provide them with a different way of looking at the world around them. With a greater sense of self-efficacy and the realization that they can actively make a difference, students might gain much-valued experiences to address issues that face others around the globe.


Bandy, Joe (2017). What is service learning or community engagement? Vanderbilt University.
Grode, Deirdra (2009). A culture of service learning. Educational Leadership.

Service learning projects. Duluth Public Schools.
Three Wishes

Have you spent any time pondering what an ideal education could be like in the not too distant future? Have you ever imagined what would happen if some of the foremost technology was applied to education? What if brainwaves could be used to monitor learning? Or if teachers could be prompted by instantaneous MRIs- MRIs that might be provided by invisible shields that surround a student at his desk? How would education change if teachers had access to immediate information to increase student motivation and engagement? What if students could be teleported to distant locations to conduct their research? Consider the next 5-10 years. If you could make three wishes for the application of 21st Century learning for your school, what would they be?
Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement