Groundbreaking masters program to impact classrooms

Brain-based neuroscience research will soon be applied in the classroom through a first-of-its-kind Master of Education program at the University of Lethbridge.

Combining inclusive education and neuroscience principles, the new Inclusive Education and Neuroscience MEd program offers teachers the opportunity to become their school's expert on children with varying learning and behavioural challenges.

"This unique collaboration between two of the U of L's well-respected academic units brings the experience for the candidates in this program to a whole new level," says Dr. Jane O'Dea, the former dean of the Faculty of Education.

"The candidates receive the best of our Faculty's nationally-respected programming and the benefits of the cutting-edge research that has brought the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN) to a position of leadership in neuroscience research in North America."

"This is a school-based initiative," adds Dr. Nancy Grigg, associate professor and program co-ordinator.

"We're putting our research directly into the classroom. Our neuroscience partners bring data to show us, conclusively, that all kids learn differently – which means we have to develop a wide variety of teaching methods in order to meet their needs. Our goal is to have a direct impact on improving how teachers can help their students."

Grigg says there is a huge level of excitement within the Faculty of Education because of the new partnership.

"Neuroscientists know how the brain works in the critical areas that define how people learn. Educators know about instruction, how schools work, what teachers need. Bringing these fields together is critical."

A key component of this area of study is recognizing how the brain develops and how experiences and genetics work together, says Dr. Bryan Kolb, a world-leading neuroscience researcher at the U of L's CCBN.

Kolb and more than 100 researchers at the CCBN have worked for more than 30 years on revolutionary treatments in brain injury, drug addiction and conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer's Disease.

"Most of the body develops from a genetic blueprint, but the brain develops in response to experiences. So you are your brain," says Kolb.

"Teachers need to know about the principles of brain development in order to understand the impact these processes have on behaviours. Although this particular program is geared towards experienced teachers, down the road it would be useful to have all education students taking neuropsychology courses."

Alberta Minister of Education, Dave Hancock, says that the concept of changing the classroom environment to be more inclusive raises important questions that the U of L's new program will help to address.

"We anticipate that teachers will adapt their curriculum to differentiate instruction based on student needs, but what about students with additional needs," he asks. "How do we provide the tools to further adapt the curriculum so that teachers have a body of resources to draw on when personalizing learning?"

Sue Bengry, director of Student Services for Lethbridge School District 51 (and currently seconded by the U of L Faculty of Education) says the entire premise of the program is to take the research and apply it to teaching practices in the classroom.

"Classes are different today in that they now include an ever growing number of students with diverse skill and ability levels," says Bengry. "The challenge for teachers is to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to meet the needs of all students. I know from experience that teachers really want to do a great job to help students, but they've had to seek out professional development opportunities to meet their growing need."

Bengry's role is to consult with U of L program developers to insure the curriculum meets the needs of frontline educators.

"Administrators and teachers alike can now enhance their knowledge and understanding of diverse needs through this innovative program that explores current research in neuroscience and how it can improve teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms within our schools."