What is the Discipline called "Educational Neuroscience?"

Educational Neuroscience (also known as Mind, Brain, and Education) is an exciting discipline that pioneers how humans learn, spanning early child development and adults. Using advanced neuroimaging technologies and behavioral methods, the scientific domains of this new discipline involve a honed interest in the neuroplasticity of learning at the core of early child development and schooling, including (but not exclusive to): (i) Language and Bilingualism, (ii) Reading and Literacy, (iii) Math and Numeracy, (iv) Science, Critical Thinking, and Biological knowledge, (v) Visual and action perception, and (vi) Social/Emotional/Moral growth (especially, the study of social and emotional experiences that may impact learning).

Educational Neuroscience brings together scientists and scholars from diverse backgrounds. These individuals are joined in their mutual “two-way” commitment to inform their science, activities, and practices by drawing from two-way consideration of prevailing questions in science and prevailing questions in society. These scientists and scholars are especially joined by their commitment to (a) solve prevailing problems in the lives of developing children, (b) understand the human learning capabilities over the life span (both in the brain and in behavior), and (c) ground educational change in highly principled and meaningful translation of research that employs both behavioral as well as a multitude of modern methodologies, especially neuroimaging technologies involving brain imaging and brain recording (e.g., fMRI, fNIRS, ERPs, etc.), as well as psychophysiological technologies such Thermal Infrared Imaging (measures changes in emotional engagement in higher cognition), Eye-tracking (measures changes in attention in higher cognition), advanced software (e.g., Face-tracking), and Artificial intelligence such as Avatar science and Virtual Reality. (Note: All of these technologies are routine methods used in the PEN program described below). Such methods as used in the discipline of Educational Neuroscience provide the most relevant level of analysis for resolving today’s core problems in contemporary science and education.

Educational Neuroscience’s Relation to Other Scientific Disciplines: Educational Neuroscience is a marriage of 3 interdisciplinary disciplines in the neurosciences. Each of the 3 disciplines is strongly overlapping, or “sister disciplines,” with only slightly different foci (below). Crucially, they are bound by a powerful union involving their shared scientific paradigm, shared science theories and questions judged to be of central importance to answer (for example, the topic of the neuroplasticity of brain structure and functions; the impact of different sensory experiences on brain structures and functions; and, particularly fascinating, how differences in early sensory
experiences may afford brain structure and functional/processing advantages); and shared behavioral sciences and neuroscience/neuroimaging methods.

                      (1)  Cognitive Neuroscience: Scientific focus on brain and behavioral foundations of
                             higher cognition, often but not exclusive to studying adults,
                      (2)  Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience: Scientific focus on brain and behavioral
                             foundations of higher cognition in the developing child, 
                      (3)  Educational Neuroscience: Scientific focus on brain and behavioral foundations of
                             higher cognition in the developing child, with two additional foci: (a) focus on the   

                             development/learning of knowledge vital for childhood school readiness and
success (e.g., the learning of language, bilingualism, reading, math/numeracy, visual
                             attention/perception/action perception, emotional-social-moral development,
                             science/biological knowledge, development of concepts, critical thinking, reasoning, etc.)
                             and, (b) a powerful commitment to communicate science discoveries in principled and

                             meaningful ways for the benefit of society.



The combined goal (Cognitive/Developmental/Educational Neuroscience) is to explore the neural and behavioral basis of human knowledge, its neuroplasticity (the impact of different early-life sensory experiences on brain structure and functions), and the optimal development of the brain, cognitive, visual-perceptual (attentional), social, and emotional experiences needed for healthy growth in childhood and over life.

Cool Fact: Educational Neuroscience (Mind, Brain, and Education) programs, departments, and Centers now exist at many universities around the United States and the world. 

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In 2004, Dr. Petitto was honored to serve as an expert panel member representing the newly created discipline "Educational Neuroscience" (Mind, Brain, and Education) at the 400th Anniversary Celebration of Galileo Galilei's Birthday at the Pontifical Scientific Academy and meets Pope John Paul II. Here: Dr. Petitto with His Holiness Pope John Paul II. 

Dr. Petitto was invited by the esteemed Pontifical Scientific Academy (comprised of an international team of the world’s leading Noble Laureates) due to Petitto’s pioneering role in the creation and advancement of the discipline of Educational Neuroscience, with two others Professor Usha Goswami/UK and Professor Kirt Fischer/USA. In addition to Petitto’s role in creating/advancing the discipline, Petitto named the discipline in 2000.

Cool Fact: Dr. Petitto and the small number of other scientists who were invited stayed inside the walls of the Vatican City attached to His Holiness Pope John II’s palace (residence) for more than one week—an extraordinary experience filled with grand history indeed! One late afternoon, after the day’s long science meetings, Petitto and scientists were invited to the Pope’s private residence for a one-on-one (personal) audience with him (see Photo). On another evening, the small group of scientists was treated to a private dinner party convened by His Holiness and the Pontifical Scientific Academy inside Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel – just Petitto along with the other scientists and no one else (imagine without thousands of other tourists body-to-body)! On another day, Petitto and the other scientists were treated to a visit to the Pope's private collection of Roman Baths – stunning. 

An Audience with Pope John Paul II

The 7th US Secretary of Education Honorable Dr. Rod Paige.

While a professor at Dartmouth College, as above, Petitto founded the first undergraduate department for the study of Educational Neuroscience (Dept. of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development), which also had a Teacher Certification Program. As an innovation to the education of the next generation of young teachers in the USA, this Teacher Certification Program was designed such that it formally married the new mission, vision, Cognitive Neuroscience studies (at the heart of the new discipline “Educational Neuroscience") with the training of the nation’s future teachers. Petitto served as Chair of this new department and its Teacher Certification Program for 5 years (2002-2007). Here, students studying to be teachers engaged in advanced training and first-hand research experience in the neurosciences using state-of-the-art neuroimaging technologies (e.g., MRI, EEG, and fNIRS brain imaging technologies available at Dartmouth), became critical thinkers in the role of the brain in education, as well as probing evaluators of how and when science can (and cannot) be translated for the benefit of society and educational practice. Petitto lead this new Department while also serving on the NSF Science of Learning Center Grant on which Petitto was Co-PI, with Co-PI, K. Dunbar, M. Gazzaniga (PI), and others, called the Center for Cognitive & Educational Neuroscience, CCEN. News of Petitto’s work in the creation of the new Department of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development garnered the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, and mid-way as Chair, the 7th US Secretary of Education Honorable Dr. Rod Paige personally visited Dartmouth to present Petitto with a certificate of outstanding contributions to the STEM and neuroscience education of teachers in the U.S (December 2003).

Cool Fact: As an interesting aside for those in the discipline – Into this newly created “Department of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development” at Dartmouth College, Petitto hired two young faculty members to help launch this exciting discipline. The first was a young Ph.D. student (just about to finish up his doctoral studies with Dr. Annette Karmiloff-Smith at the University College London, UK), named Daniel Ansari, who conducted fMRI neuroimaging studies of maths and numeracy in children. Presently, Dr. Daniel Ansari is at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and is a renowned/leading international scholar in this research area. He is also known worldwide for his pioneering advances to the discipline of Educational Neuroscience/Mind, Brain, and Education. The second faculty member Petitto hired was a post-doc from Dr. Helen Neville’s lab, named Dr. Donna Coch, who conducted ERP neuroimaging studies of Reading and is presently considered a scholar in this discipline (Dartmouth College). 

In October 2010, at a Symposium on Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, Dr. Petitto, had the pleasure of being invited to address His Holiness Dalai Lama on the topic of “Expanding the Human Brain’s Processing Capacity for Thought and Language: Insights from Neuroimaging Explorations of Bilingual and Monolingual Brains,” explaining the biological mechanisms and environmental factors that, together, determine how we acquire and organize language. The event was thrilling and highly personal as Petitto and His Holiness Dalai Lama, together, engaged in a direct and vibrant public debate/discussion about the nature of human concepts, the human mind, and the impact of the environment on the structure and functions of the human brain (neuroplasticity).  Full article

   Dr. Petitto addresses the His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Educational Neuroscience at Gallaudet University - The Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) Program

Dr. Petitto is the lead founder of Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program. Presently, Petitto is a full professor in PEN, the Chair of the PEN program, and Chair of the PEN Steering Committee. Petitto’s creation of the PEN program began when she first arrived at Gallaudet University in 2011, which intensified in 2012 with the important contributions of Dr. Thomas Allen and Dr. Melissa Herzig. In 2013, the Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program at Gallaudet University opened its doors to its first Ph.D. graduate students. Petitto drew inspiration for Gallaudet's Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience program for graduate students from her work founding the first "Department of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development" for undergraduates at Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire), where Petitto served as Chair of this new department for 5 years. At Dartmouth, Petitto worked with collaborator, Dr. Kevin Dunbar, to write an article detailing the birth and nature of this new discipline Educational Neuroscience (below). Petitto was also the Co-PI on the Dartmouth NSF Science of Learning Center Grant (with G. Gazzaniga, K. Dunbar, and others), which the team won, called the Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience, CCEN.


Articles frequently requested about the nature and origins of Educational Neuroscience:

Petitto, L.A. and Dunbar, K.N. (2004, Unpublished distributed monograph).  "New findings from Educational Neuroscience on Bilingual Brains, Scientific Brains, and the Educated Mind." Building Usable Knowledge in Mind, Brain, & Education Conference. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. October 6, 2004View Document

Petitto, L. A. (2009). New Discoveries from the Bilingual Brain and Mind Across the Lifespan: Implications for Education. International Journal of Mind, Brain and Education, 3(4), 185-197. View Document


Dr. Petitto has been deeply honored to have received notable Distinguished Lecture invitations