Janet Zadina interview: Translating neuroscience into educational practice

Janet Zadina (USA), an invited speaker for a special session on education at the 45th FEBS Congress, shares her unusual career path and her interest in applying findings from neuroscience to teaching and learning.
Janet Zadina interview: Translating neuroscience into educational practice

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A determination to better understand learners’ struggles led former educator Dr Janet N. Zadina to an interest in neuroimaging studies of dyslexia. Pursuing that interest, she became a neuroscientist, conducting MRI research into dyslexia in the Department of Neurology at Tulane University School of Medicine, USA, where she completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in cognitive neuroscience. She was honored with the 2011 Science Educator Award from the Society for Neuroscience, and today is an internationally renowned speaker, consultant and author.

You are a reading specialist. What caused you to return to school to study neuroscience?

As a teacher of struggling readers, I was very frustrated with the state of research on dyslexia. One day I saw an article about a neuroscientist giving MRI brain scans to students with dyslexia. I said, “Wow, a new window into this. I want to do that.”  Fortuitously, I met the scientist, who was giving a talk at Tulane Medical School. I approached her and we discussed my doing similar work at the Tulane lab. I was in the PhD program in Education and, eventually, we created a program whereby I could do my dissertation work in the lab and have a joint committee. It was an intense process switching from education to neuroscience. Eventually, I received a postdoctoral fellowship to continue my MRI research on neurodevelopmental language disorders. My speaking career was taking off around the time Hurricane Katrina destroyed our lab and now I devote my time to translating neuroscience into educational practices, blending my experience and education in both fields.

What can neuroscience offer educators?

If you are involved with teaching students in any way, then understanding the brain processes involved in learning can make your teaching more powerful. If we know some of the underlying issues that could be negatively impacting students’ grasp of the information, we can adjust our strategies accordingly. Educators have long used observation of behavior as a basis for instructional design and practices. New neuroimaging techniques now let us look inside the brain of learners as they perform tasks and give us new insight. These new insights support much of what we have believed, but also offer a window into processes that can’t always be determined by behavior, such as working memory issues.

One of the aspects of this that I am most committed to is dispelling the neuromyths that got started in the early days of attempts to bridge brain research and education – the early “brain-based” ideas. For example, multiple pathways are involved in learning, not just visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Using more pathways in a lesson energizes the instruction. We want to make sure that we are not wasting time on noncredible strategies, as well.    

You were awarded the prestigious 2011 Science Educator Award by the Society for Neuroscience. Why do you think this award was given to you?

I was so humbled and honored to receive that award. When my lab work was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, I felt that I had worked so hard to become a scientist late in life and that I had lost it. I was getting so many invitations to speak that it was full time and I couldn’t accept them all, so I was doing that. I still attended the Society for Neuroscience conference and worked for free helping a scientist in the city where I had evacuated, but I wasn’t in the lab and I felt the loss. When someone in Brazil where I spoke nominated me, I didn’t think I would get it because I wasn’t a bench scientist. They said, however, that this work was just as important – informing the public about neuroscience. That was very meaningful to me. And I have come to see that I am make a difference by blending my fields and that gives me great happiness.

You have given over 250 presentations in the last 10 years. What excites you the most about being with educators? 

Although I loved being in the lab doing the research, I am also thrilled that I can make a difference in the field of education by traveling to institutions around the world and getting them excited about applying new information to their practices. It is extremely rewarding to have experienced, long-time educators come up and tell me that this information has re-energized them. Educators want their students to succeed and giving them new ways to help learners and seeing their excitement is very rewarding for me.

What information in your talks do you feel is most important right now?

My talk on The Hidden Learning Disability of Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma is very much in demand right now due to the increasing amounts of stress our students are experiencing. As many as 50% of college students may have enough anxiety or depression to negatively impact learning.  We know that immigrant and migrant students have high levels of stress and trauma in the classroom. 

At first, this was a special talk I gave to educators after natural disasters, such as when I went to L’Aquila, Italy, after the earthquake.  Many people who experience trauma think that they have brain damage or are losing their mind, when it is the effects of trauma on cognition. I provide the science of what is happening and strategies to reduce symptoms and improve functioning. Now it is my most requested talk as we realize that all classrooms must be trauma sensitive. 

More information on Janet Zadina’s talk at the 45th FEBS Congress

Janet Zadina is scheduled to speak on ‘Exploring new horizons in education: using multiple pathways to enhance and energize science instruction’ at the 45th FEBS Congress in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Tuesday 7th July 2020, in the ‘FEBS/IUBMB Special Session on Education – Learning and the brain: Translating the science of learning to educational practice’: 2020.febscongress.org

Top image of post: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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