Laboratory for Thinking, Reasoning, Creativity & Educational Neuroscience

The overall goal of the research conducted in our Lab is to discover the underlying mechanisms involved in the ways we Learn, Think, Reason, Solve problems, and Create new ideas and concepts. We investigate learning using many different methods ranging from naturalistic studies to conducting controlled experiments. We are investigating the key learning mechanisms underlying the use of analogy, causal reasoning, scientific reasoning, and creative thought. We are also investigating the ways that the brain is involved in learning using neuroimaging methodologies. By investigating thinking and reasoning in these different ways we are able to provide new insights into the cognitive and brain-based mechanisms underlying learning. In particular, our investigations of scientists reasoning in their labs has enabled us to go beyond he myths of chance discovery, flash of insight, and the lone scientist toiling against the grain. Instead, we find scientists use well defined strategies of analogical reasoning and causal reasoning as well as group reasoning strategies. This research has implications for the way scientists are educated, science is taught, and theories of how scientists think, reason and make discoveries. How new concepts are generated, discovered and taught, particularly in the domain of science are central to 21st century learning. This research is providing new insights and models of basic cognitive processes used when we learn-- analogy, causal reasoning, induction, problem solving, group reasoning.

The hallmark of the research conducted in the Dunbar lab is that we investigate Learning  from multiple perspectives and use many different methodologies to understand how we Learn. The use of different converging methodologies makes it possible to propose models that are applicable across a wide variety of contexts and provide insights into the nature of what it means to Learn and develop new educational strategies for . We use a vast array of methods in the lab raging from asking people to think out loud as we tape and analyze their thought processes, to scanning students brains as they reason about a complex topic, to analyses of DNA as we attempt to unravel the complex interactions of the human Learning.

Researchers in Educational Neuroscience investigate how people learn, spanning early child development into adulthood. Using advanced neuroimaging and behavioral methodologies, the five scientific domains of this discipline revolve around neuroplasticity of learning at the core of early child development as well as learning by students in high school and universities: (i) Language and Bilingualism, (ii) Reading and Literacy, (iii) Math and Numeracy, (iv) Science and Biological knowledge, and (v) Social/Emotional/Moral growth. Overall, how we learn and how the brain contributes to the ways in which we learn are  essential  components of understanding how and why educational practices and interventions have such varied outcomes.

While there have been many tributaries to Educational Neuroscience, such as Neuropsychology, Physiology, and Educational research, it was only with the advent of  of neuroimaging technologies such as EEG, fMRI, and fNIRS,  that it was possible to investigate how a normal brain learns and uses the types of knowledge that are central to education such as Science, Math, Reading and Language.  The discipline of Educational Neuroscience, first proposed by Laura-Ann Petitto and Kevin N. Dunbar in 2001 at Dartmouth College, and formalized in a new department of  Education with Educational Neuroscience at its core, adding Professor Donna Coch on reading  & Professor Daniel Ansari on Numeracy to round out a group of Educational Neuroscientists (Research on the nature and extent of Educational Neuroscience is covered in Petitto & Dunbar's (2004) New findings from Educational Neuroscience on Bilingual Brains, Scientific Brains, and the Educated Mind ). They also redesigned the State of New Hampshire Teacher Certification Program to incorporate Educational Neuroscience in teacher education.  Then, Petitto, Dunbar and colleagues Michael Gazzaniga, Scott Grafton and Todd Heatherton formed the Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience at Dartmouth College in 2004 with a large Science of Learning Grant from the National Science Foundation. Since then, a number of other Educational Neuroscience centers and departments have been formed both across the Nation (e.g. Gallaudet University, Stanford University, The Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, etc.) and all over the world (e.g., University of Hong Kong, Cambridge University, University College London). Gallaudet has the first PhD. program  specifically for Educational Neuroscience and more are expected shortly. Thus, Educational Neuroscience is a robust and rapidly expanding discipline.

Educational Neuroscience brings together individuals from diverse backgrounds, including cognitive brain scientists, science of Learning medical and clinical practitioners, and those in educational policy and teaching. These different stakeholders --not just researchers-- are joined in their mutual “two-way” communication, with a commitment (a) to solve prevailing problems in the lives of developing children, (b) to understand the human learning capabilities over the life span (both in brain and in behavior), and (c) to ground educational change in the highly principled application of research that employs both behavioral as well as a multitude of modern methodologies, especially brain imaging. This discipline provides the most relevant level of analysis for resolving today’s core problems in education. Educational Neuroscience draws its empirical strength from its sister disciplines, Cognitive Neuroscience,  and Developmental Neuroscience, which combine decades of experimental advances from cognitive, perceptual, and developmental and social psychology with a variety of contemporary brain imaging technologies for exploring the neural basis of human knowledge over the life span.

Here in the Dunbar lab we conduct Educational Neuroscience research using behavioral, cognitive, educational and neuroimaging methods that converge on understanding how we learn important educational concepts that are used in the classroom, the laboratory, and also non-academic contexts.  Our goal is to discover why certain concepts are easy or difficult to learn, how to facilitate learning in real-world contexts and how to produce robust and long lasting learning.  For example, we have investigated why it is so difficult to learn new information that runs counter to ones previous knowledge using fMRI and behavioral studies (Fugelsang & Dunbar 2005,  2006); how the basic learning mechanism of analogy is instantiated in the brain (Green et al. 2008, 2010, 2012, using fMRI; Forster & Dunbar 2011, Forster & Dunbar in preparation using fNIRS); what happens in the brain when students are asked about molecular conceptions of matter in Chemistry, and Newtonian concepts in Physics and what this reveals about the difficulty of learning such concepts, using fMRI (Dunbar et al. 2008); the effects of a performing arts education on the Brain (Dunbar, 2008); How changing the context of Causal thinking alters the way the brain processes causal information (Le, Fugelsang & Dunbar, in preparation, using EEG). Coupled with naturalistic investigations of science students and scientists, and cognitive experiments with students, we are gaining a deeper understanding of learning and ways to facilitate the learning process.

Here in the Department of Human Development & Quantitative Methodology we have a strong group of researchers conducting Educational Neuroscience research:  Professor D.J. Bolger, Professor Nathan Fox, Professor Kevin Dunbar, Professor  Richard Prather.