Saturday, March 16, 2013

Brain Science and Learning

Reading, writing and arithmetic.  From yesterday’s one room schoolhouse to today’s virtual classroom and from high school campuses that look like small towns to the desks of home school students, the driving questions in education remain the same.  “How do students best learn?” and “How do teachers best teach?”   Answering those questions has been my life’s work for over 20 years both in and out of the classroom.  My passion is to help teachers incorporate strategies, methods and techniques that foster student engagement and learning.  Further, I help students understand how they learn and empower them to take control over their learning.   

A great deal of attention has been paid to how the brain works in recent years.  Some of the research findings offer new information and possibilities, some simply affirm what has long been accepted as true, and some findings completely dispel previous assumptions about the brain and learning.  Experts in the field of brain research and education such as Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (The New Science of Teaching and Learning), Mariee Springer (Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age), Gary Small (iBrain), David Sousa (How the Brain Learns) and John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers) are helping us understand how students learn and how teachers, in response, should mobilize.  A number of noteworthy facts and strategies have emerged.

For instance, learning is largely an emotional exercise.  Two of the most important factors in learning are whether the student thinks the teacher likes or cares about him and whether the student thinks the teacher believes in him and his abilities.  If a teacher expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the student, learning declines dramatically and failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Research has also concluded that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ.  Parts of the brain that are unused wither.  The parts of the brain that are used, however, become stronger.  This is good news for learners of all ages.  With activity and use, neural circuits grow and re-wire.  Neuro-pathways and connections become stronger and information is stored and retained.  It can also be more readily retrieved.  Neuroscientists call this process brain plasticity.   Contrary to popular belief, one can grow his brain function.  It is not static.
Learning is also increased and retrieval made easier when different types of memory pathways are incorporated when teaching.  In addition to auditory and visual strategies, kinesthetic pathways should be activated to incorporate as many of the senses as possible.

Another key component to teaching and learning is relevancy.  How many times have you heard it said (or said yourself), “Why do I need to know this?”  If learning experiences are designed to solve real world, meaningful problems the information is more likely to make it to long term memory.  If the learning is tied in some way to something the student is interested in or cares about, the likelihood of long term memory and retrieval increases even more.  It takes time and careful planning, but delivering content in engaging, experiential and relevant ways is critical to successful teaching.

Additional findings include the concept of “chunking.” Since the brain can process a maximum of four items at a time, which is much fewer than previously thought, it is helpful for information to be grouped together in manageable “chunks.”  “Chunking” occurs when working memory processes a set of data as a single item. (like memorizing stanzas of a poem)We can then access large amounts of relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Finally, time considerations are important.  The average attention span of a child is 10 to 20 minutes.  Any learning experience should change person, place or topic frequently.  Adding a component of reflection to the learning experience will yield tremendous gains as well.  When students are given an opportunity to simply think about what they have just taken in, learning is deepened.

Other factors such as nutrition, exercise, hydration, sleep and even laughter are important. While teachers have little control over these a strong partnership between parents and teachers will help tremendously.