Shaping Minds: How Education Carves the Brain’s Landscape


Montessori education and traditional schooling are two distinct approaches to learning, they have different philosophies, methodologies, and impacts on brain development. Understanding these differences can shed light on how each might influence cognitive and neurological development in children. For instance, Montessori education is characterized by its focus on the individual child’s interests and pace of learning. Montessori encourages children to choose their activities from a range of options provided, it promotes autonomy and self-directed learning. In contrast, traditional education is more teacher-centered, with a structured curriculum and standardized instruction. The teacher directs the learning process, with students often passive recipients of knowledge.

Cortical thickness refers to the depth of the cerebral cortex and plays a vital role in complex cognitive functions such as thought, memory, consciousness, language, and attention. Variations in cortical thickness are linked to individual differences in abilities and are influenced by both genetic factors and environmental experiences. Pedagogy, the art and science of teaching and education, plays a significant role in shaping the learning environment and experiences of individuals. Effective pedagogical strategies can enhance learning, cognitive development, and emotional well-being, potentially influencing brain morphology. Pedagogical approaches that provide rich cognitive stimulation, such as problem-solving tasks, critical thinking activities, and experiential learning, may promote synaptic plasticity, leading to structural changes in the brain, including cortical thickness. Research in this area often involves neuroimaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to measure cortical thickness and investigate its relationship with educational experiences. These studies contribute to understanding how specific pedagogical strategies can be optimized to support brain development and cognitive functioning.

In a new study published in Brain Sciences by Martin Schetter, David Romascano, Mathilde Gaujard, and led by Dr. Solange Denervaud from the University of Lausanne together with Dr. Christian Rummel from the University of Bern, the researchers conducted a detailed investigation into how different educational pedagogies, i.e., Montessori and traditional schooling, impact the structural development of the brain. They focused on measuring the cortical thickness (CTh) asymmetry index (AI) in various parts of the brain, with a particular interest in the parahippocampal (PHC) region, known for its role in memory encoding and spatial navigation. The study aimed to understand if and how the pedagogical approach influences the morphological development of the brain’s cortical regions. The authors recruited 111 students aged 4 to 18 and 77 adults aged over 20. These participants were divided based on their educational background, those who attended Montessori schools, and those from traditional schools. The team used MRI scans to measure the cortical thickness in various brain regions and calculate the asymmetry index, a metric that indicates differences in cortical thickness between the brain’s hemispheres. Their analysis focused on comparing the CTh AI across different age groups and educational backgrounds. The researchers controlled for factors such as age, intelligence, home life, and socioeconomic conditions to ensure that the observed effects were specifically due to the pedagogical approach.

The team found that at the whole-brain level, there was no significant difference in CTh AI between the adult and student groups, suggesting that general brain development in terms of cortical thickness symmetry remains consistent across ages and independent of educational background. They also found that educational experience significantly impacted the CTh AI in the temporal lobe, particularly within the PHC region. This effect was not observed in other brain regions. The researchers found that participants with a Montessori background showed a cortical thickness asymmetry favoring the left PHC region. This is associated with a stronger involvement in semantic encoding, which is the processing and integration of meaningful information, while participants from traditional schooling backgrounds exhibited a cortical thickness asymmetry leaning towards the right PHC region, linked to spatiotemporal context encoding, which involves the memory of events and their temporal-spatial context.

The study’s findings suggest that the type of educational experience, Montessori vs. traditional affects specific regions of the brain involved in memory processing. The observed differences in the PHC region’s cortical thickness asymmetry imply that Montessori and traditional pedagogies may foster distinct cognitive strategies and memory processing styles, with potential long-term implications for knowledge transfer and application. These observations are emblematic of the deeper cognitive strategies fostered by different learning environments. Montessori education, with its cornerstone principle of encouraging exploratory learning and conceptual understanding, appears to cultivate a neural predisposition towards semantic memory, facilitating a more integrated and interconnected knowledge framework. Conversely, traditional pedagogical models, with their focus on rote memorization and compartmentalized learning, seem to steer neural development towards episodic memory, potentially limiting the breadth of knowledge transfer and application. In conclusion, the new study highlights the importance of considering neurodevelopmental principles in educational policy and curriculum design. The authors’ findings advocate for a pedagogical framework that promotes deep learning, critical thinking, and the integration of knowledge across different domains. Such an approach not only aligns with the natural proclivities of the developing brain but also prepares individuals to navigate the complexities of the modern world with agility and creativity.


Schetter M, Romascano D, Gaujard M, Rummel C, Denervaud S. Learning by Heart or with Heart: Brain Asymmetry Reflects Pedagogical Practices. Brain Sci. 2023 ;13(9):1270. doi: 10.3390/brainsci13091270.

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