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The Q&A: Steven Woltering

In this week's Q&A, we interview Steven Woltering, assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

Steven Woltering is an assistant professor in the department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Steven Woltering is an assistant professor in the department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University. He started at A&M in 2014 and founded the Neurobiological lab for Learning and Development, which seeks to develop neurological research that can be used to enhance sociological or educational research. Woltering is especially interested in self-regulation and how it can be applied in the education field. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Can you talk to me about the Neurobiological lab for Learning and Development and what its place in the Educational Psychology department is? 

Steven Woltering: The idea about this lab is, well, we only have three missions that are research oriented. What I would like to do is really promote the use of biometrics. So that means neuroscience and psychophysiology and using these measures to improve social research that is going on in education departments.

For example, what can we learn from the brain that we can ultimately apply in education or can be useful for psychological measures and that can help kids or students become better learners? What you see is a lot of research focuses on self-reported measures, questionnaires, behavioral tasks.

Sometimes your physiology, or what goes on in your body, can tell you lots of things that you cannot actually measure if you were to ask people simply to self report. I think that’s a really big area in which education departments can grow. You see this already with psychology departments. There’s a lot of psychology departments that are already using a lot of neuroscience and technology in it.

These days, there’s a lot of job advertisements you see they request that people have neuroscience experience. I think that education is going to be next. We’re going to ask the questions, hey, we’re doing all this research, trying to understand the brain, can we try and make that link with education?

The second mission we have in the lab is an educational one. Teachers these days are being more and more confronted  – and parents – by neuroscience, with information that has to do with physiology. Very often people do not understand all the strengths and the weaknesses of the methodologies.

Part of what our lab is planning to do is hold workshops, seminars and courses that can teach teachers and people who are becoming leaders in the field of education … teach them about the strengths and weaknesses and give them the tools they’re able to read and understand academic papers written about neuroscience so they can read them critically and interpret them responsibly.

The third mission we have, and this is more of a long-term mission because we’re just starting out, that’s more community involvement mission. Can we find particular tools, for example, wearables, feedback devices, and help students become better learners? That’s one of the things we have as an ultimate goal in order to make a difference in education and to do some outsourcing so some of the research we do isn’t confined to academic papers, but that we also work in tandem with schools and organizations and institutions that are more closely aligned to our work.

Trib+Edu: Could you elaborate on how neuroscience research can be linked to social research? How does that connection work?

Woltering: That’s a great question and also one of the most difficult questions currently out there. The brain is enormously complicated. If I’m being honest as a neuroscientist, we don’t understand even half of it. It’s a big mystery how it all works. However, sometimes we can find agencies of behavior or we can have two clever experimental designs to find out very specific cognitive functions that we would otherwise not be able to measure using observations or using questionnaire measures alone.

In the work that I’ve been doing, I have looked at children with disruptive behavior problems. And these are kids that often take a lot of energy for teachers to deal with in classes. Discipline issues can take a lot of resources away from an educator and are often deemed as one of the top reasons of teacher burnout in class. It’s important that we understand what is going on.

If things you need to know about neuroscience, or at least physiological measures, is that they’re not a silver bullet. Often, expectations are extremely high. They think, "Oh now we can look inside of the brain and understand how people think and read their minds." That’s a myth. We can’t do that. However, what we can do is through neuroscience we can either support or reject certain models or ways of thinking that we have about behavior.

For example, take disruptive behavior problems. In some of the work that I’ve been doing, we found that certain neurostructures within the prefrontal cortex, typically what’s been thought of is that some of these kids with disruptive behavior problems are unregulated. They don’t regulate their emotions enough and therefore their brain activity in their prefrontal cortez which should regulate their emotions is underactive.

In some of my research, we found almost the opposite. We found that situations where these kids have to control their emotions, they showed increased activation. They had more, higher activation in these emotional regulatory systems in the brain.

We were thinking for our explanation of how that may be, and we came up with a hypothesis that we call for example a “Frustration Hypothesis of Aggression.” What’s happening is not that these kids are not trying to regulate, they’re actually trying a lot. They’re trying so much, they’re getting tired of it… They’re trying to regulate, but you can think of self control as a muscle. Somedays when you work it a lot, you get tired of it. If you get tired of it, you stop doing it.

But these kids, they try and try but they lack the cognitive tools to do it effectively and when they’re tired they lash out and they can become aggressive. We support this more sophisticated model of disruptive behavior problems where we think, "Hey, there may be a step where these kids get frustrated and anxious about situations and then they lash out.”

So maybe in therapies, we shouldn’t focus on the output of therapy behavior. We should actually give them the cognitive tools so they can better regulate their emotions in the moment when they can’t control their emotions anymore.

Trib+Edu: Is it beneficial for educators or education researchers to have a better understanding of neuroscience ideas?

Woltering: Personally, if you ask me, do you need to know a lot about neuroscience to be a good teacher? If I’m honest with you, I don’t think you need to understand the brain. I don’t think teachers having neuroscience and really understanding the brain – it’s incredibly complex. It’s like when you’re driving a car. Do you need to be a car mechanic to be a good driver? I don’t think so.

However, when we think about curriculums and when we design therapies, when we have professionals going out and trying to help kids with particular problems or, for example optimized learning, I think that neuroscience or physiological measures may have an important role in that and can give us more clues in how to better help kids.

However, it’s not like some other people may say, who have high expectations of neuroscience, that it’s going to completely replace existing teaching tools or the ways we have done it before. I think that’s a myth. I think certain people who are in neuroscience or brain-based learning, try and sell it to people that way and I think we need to be careful about that.

I think the way we make advancements is going to be slow, it’s going to be incremental. The psychological models that we currently have are not just going to be based on behavioral research, but also on physiological research. It’s going to be in multiple areas.

For example, look at sleep. Sleep is something that we cannot ask questions about. We cannot have self-reports about. Neuroscience, or physiological measures, can have a different way of measuring sleep quality. For example, using sleep staging you can find how long people are experiencing different sleep stages. We also know that sleep is very important for learning and we know very little.

There is very little systematic research about sleep and learning and especially about the physiology underlying sleep. That’s also an area where our lab is moving into collaboration with other centers here at Texas A&M to use physiology in a way that asks different kinds of questions and looks at different kinds of sleep quality.

Trib+Edu: I know the center does not officially open until the end of November, but can you talk to me about upcoming research projects?

Woltering: We currently have four different projects we’re kind of exploring. Because the lab is just starting, we haven’t actually started testing any subjects yet. We’re hoping to do that in the next few weeks. The first project is a project with adolescents. We call it the “Impulsivity Project.” It looks at the neural correlates of impulsivity.

What we're trying to do is better understand eating behavior and we also want to better understand the neural correlates underlying impulsivity. Why is it so hard for certain adolescents to control themselves when they see a nice hamburger and they want to go eat it and why it’s more easy for others to control their emotions. That’s the focus of the first project.

The second project is a developmental project. That’s a study that’s also coming soon. That’s a study that really looks at the developments of learning and not just the behavioral but also the physiological components… It’s a longitudinal study with a unique set of data.

It’s wonderful data. I’m very interested in self-control and self-regulation, so I’m going to look at the development across all those years of kids in self-control. It comes from age 5 to age 20. There’s data on almost anything. Can I predict, from somebody who is 5 years old, what their chances are of getting into jail or how successful they will be in school environments or how their social functioning will be, looking at factors of emotion regulation?

You can compare those factors to IQ. What’s the best predictor, do you think, of school success? Is it IQ or is it emotion regulation? A lot of research actually suggests it’s not IQ, it’s your ability to control your emotions and impulses which is a more and stronger predictor of success in life than IQ itself. There’s not a lot of emphasis and not a lot of techniques that teaches kids how to control their emotions. We are very focused on academic learning, that’s what school is about. There’s not a class on emotion regulation. You kind of have to pick it up yourself.

The third project we’re doing right now that has to do with a biofeedback device. We have a device called the spire. People can wear it in their everyday life. It’s able to pick up people’s breathing rate and on the basis of their breathing rate it can give people feedback on whether they are stressed or not and the feedback will appear on your phone.

The fourth project we’re looking into is in collaboration with the Center for Aging and Longevity. We’re looking into investigating sleep, and I spoke a little bit about that before as well.

Trib+Edu: Speaking generally about existing research on education and the learning process, has this neurological element been missing for the most part? 

Woltering: I remember when I was studying, I was asking my supervisor, "I’m interested in bridging what we learn from neuroscience in education.” I was kind of laughed at. Educational neuroscience, I would say. “Well that’s not really a science,” that’s kind of what I got back. We’re not really there yet, it’s a bridge too far.

What you’re seeing more and more is that the last couple of years there was a Harvard-based initiative… that tries to bring educators and neuroscientists together and it gives them a platform to kind of do that. That’s not always easy because a lot of people have to jump out of their comfort zone.

If you’re a pure neuroscientist, what you do is you work a lot with processing. You become an expert and you’re often working in very controlled environments. That’s very different from the soup educators swim in, where it’s dirty, lots of things are happening, they’re working with real live kids and they don’t work with strict controlled environments.

So for things to develop from this very highly restricted experimental environment to a classroom, there is a huge transitional gap. With the ascent of technology, we can start to bridge that gap. We can start to ask questions, we can have more measurement error, we can measure kids’ physiology in more real life contexts. We’re getting there, where we can try to attempt to bridge that gap.

There is excitement for it and you see that academia is moving in that direction. What you don’t see yet is a lot of universities, especially education departments, that have a neuroscience lab. This is what makes Texas A&M special. We are among the first universities that are really in an education department who have stuck their necks out and said, “We’re going to build here a neuroscience lab and have somebody who has neuroscience experiences work with us.”

That will create some really interesting things, I think. When you think about innovation, innovation kind of occurs at the crossroads of different fields and disciplines. I think that when you make a move like this, you will get conversations you normally would not get.

That exchange of ideas, that’s what I’m experiencing right now in my work. I’m talking to a lot of educators, I’m talking to a lot of neuroscientists, a lot of engineers, a lot of different people. It’s a really interesting soup to be in, very creative. My problem is not to have too many projects. I’ve only been here for a year, but it feels like I’ve been here for much longer. I’m already having concrete ideas and writing proposals for four different studies and my lab is not even ready yet. The excitement is very high.

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