Can neuroscience help frontline teaching professionals better understand SEN students emotional changes and learning experiences? An innovative project in Hong Kong believes it can.
In a class of students with special educational needs (SEN), learning requirements and progress can be vastly different. It is not uncommon to have students in the same class engaged in different activities at the same time, from playing a mathematics game on a tablet computer in one corner and counting numbers in another, to doing addition on worksheets elsewhere. This is a typical SEN classroom where teachers are required to attend to diversities in learning needs and behavioural patterns.
Among the many everyday challenges SEN teachers face is the emotional fluctuation of individual students, especially autistic children, who tend to show significant delays in language development and struggle to express personal feelings. To ensure effective classroom learning and teaching, frontline teachers mainly rely on personal experience and subjective observations to make assessments and early interventions to handle emotional outbursts or make appropriate adjustments of teaching plans.
To help frontline teaching professionals better understand SEN students’ emotional changes and learning experiences,has applied neuroscience knowledge and theories in classroom settings through an interdisciplinary project in collaboration with the (CityU). Thanks to a HK$1.4 million subsidy from the Innovation and Technology Fund and industry support, the project has resulted in the launch of a portable, multi-user brainwave recording and analysis system that can concurrently monitor up to 40 SEN students — the size of a normal class in Hong Kong. With students wearing Bluetooth sensors, the system takes real-time measurements of changes in their brainwaves, and the information gathered via a data collector is transmitted to a computer for real-time analysis of emotional status and attention levels.
This allows teachers to observe the status and attention levels of multiple students in the classroom and adjust classroom activities accordingly. Leading the project was Director of(CBE), Dr Savio Wong Wai-ho, whose specialisations are in educational neuroscience, learning and decision-making, cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging. He said the system represented a significant breakthrough, adding that the application of neuroscience in frontline education was still at a relatively early stage, yet the development potential was considerable.
For educators and caretakers, they can observe the physiological and mental statuses of students more easily. It is also a tool for educators, therapists, parents, schools and researchers to objectively measure the effectiveness of various therapies and training programmes to facilitate improvements in teaching plans.
The system was recently used in the classroom at Hong Chi Morninghill School in Tuen Mun on a group of students with special educational needs.
Their attention levels were monitored through the system, and the teacher could give them other assignments when necessary to preempt possible outbursts and keep them concentrated. Based on the initial results obtained from the school trial, Dr Wong and his team will analyse the data to optimise and improve the system, with the prospect of application in mainstream schools to support teachers in understanding students with special needs. ‘It is hoped that this will ultimately promote a more integrated approach to education,’ Dr Wong said.
Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary science that studies the biological mechanism underlying behaviours. In recent years there has been a significant increase in education-related neuroscience research aimed at understanding the brain mechanisms involved in learning, and developing more effective education practices informed by neuroscience knowledge. The application of neuroscience in education is one of the new areas developed by EdUHK in line with its Education-plus approach. CBE was established in 2016 as a research centre under the Faculty of Education and Human Development (FEHD). Its mission is to promote neuroscience research and translate the findings into education theories and practices.
While behavioural methodologies adopted in traditional education research generate numerous invaluable insights into education practices, making use of cutting-edge technology in the field of neuroscience could complement the traditional approach.
Dr Wong said.
CBE pulls together EdUHK scholars from different academic backgrounds with a wide range of expertise in neuroscience, including areas such as memory, hearing, reading, decision-making and emotion, among others. Regular research seminars and technical training workshops are organised in addition to public lectures that aim to disseminate research findings to the community and provide teachers, parents, schools and policy makers with the crucial neuroscience knowledge needed to make more informed decisions. For more information about CBE, please visit its website at: www.eduhk.hk/cbe.
We are grateful to The Education University of Hong Kong for permission to republish this article, which first appeared in the inaugural issue of its magazine Education-plus ()