EdTech & Design, Opinion, Research, Teaching

Neuroscience Can Teach Us a Lot About Why Students Drop Out

Despite the fact that provincial education systems have made great strides in dropout prevention, too many young people continue to leave school early and abandon their education. When CEA asked educators from across the country to identify the most significant barriers to change in education, 17%[1] of them thought it was the deeply entrenched mindsets and assumptions about education and schooling. This compelled me to explore how CEA could host an event that would encourage educators to begin to question their own belief sets about teaching and learning and the systems that they work in. I feel that the largely untapped potential of emerging neuroscience research to demonstrate how a student’s brain learns best will help define a new set of teaching practices that could positively effect student engagement, achievement – and ultimately – staying in school.

A longstanding crucial support role for CEA has been to ensure that educators receive as much useful evidence-based information as possible that they can link to practice, and with our upcoming symposium in Quebec City – Dropping Out – What Neuroscience Can Teach Us – we will examine our understanding of the workings and development of the human brain and how we can apply new scientific knowledge to the classroom. New brain imaging techniques are disproving many of the traditional beliefs about how we think that children learn. These discoveries, combined with applying neuroscience research to tackling low levels of literacy and numeracy and poor physical condition – key predictors for dropping out – could change the way we support students with learning difficulties and heighten teaching effectiveness.

Steve Masson will present a controversial set of ‘neuromyths’, which poke holes in many commonly held misconceptions about how the brain works and how children learn. If you believe that there are visual, auditory and hands-on learners, left-right brain learners, or if you receive constant pitches about educational games, products, and websites that claim to build intelligence or enhance learning using principles of neuroscience, you might be surprised to learn what the latest research has uncovered. These neuromyths can actually bias the way students perceive themselves as learners.

We tend to overlook the fact that students with low literacy levels typically don’t do well in math either. Ensuring that our students develop lifelong math capacity is a major challenge for our education systems. Dr. Daniel Ansari will mute the noise caused by biased opinions and beliefs about what works to refocus the polarizing new math vs. old math debate on a solid psychology and neuroscience evidence base to confirm which forms of teaching enable increased student achievement in math for all learners.

We all know that students need plenty of exercise and sleep, and proper nutrition to help them pay attention and to learn (and I would suggest that the same principles apply to educators). There is a direct correlation between good physical condition and mental health – two factors that lead to students dropping out. Drs. Lindsay Thornton, Alex Thornton, and Chris Gilbert will share just how much exercise – and other outside factors such as sleep – influence the brain, and its effects on students’ capacity to be focused and engaged in the classroom.

These three evidence-based angles on how we can address the stubbornly high number of early school leavers provides an excellent learning opportunity for district leaders, principals and teachers alike because everyone will be challenged to rethink their notions of how students’ brains work. Symposium participants will come away with new methods of supporting students, particularly those at risk of dropping out of school. I hope that you can join us.


[1] Hurley, Stephen. The Challenge to Change – From Vision to Action in Canadian Education. Canadian Education Association. 2014. http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea_action_to_vision_report_final_en.pdf

Meet the Expert(s)

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel is the former President and CEO of the Canadian Education Association. He has over 40 years of experience in the public education sector. As the former Director General of the Eastern Towns...

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