Learning & The Brain

October 10, 2019
Posted in Learning
October 10, 2019 Peter Welch

If real learning changes the architecture of our brains, then, educators should be fascinated to discover how the brain works. In the early 1990s new imaging techniques allowed researchers to see the brain working with more clarity. It was amazing to see different areas of the brain light up when thinking happens. When these results were first examined and published, some researchers were quick to make bold claims for the implications of their work. In some cases, this gave rise to popular ‘neuro-myths’, big ideas that many educators, including myself, were quick to embrace. So, for example, for many years it was claimed that there was a so-called pink brain for girls and a blue brain for the boys, with real structural and operational differences. More recently, this view has been challenged with research showing that gender-based structural differences can be explained by the size of the skull more than anything else. The jury remains very much out in this complex and controversial debate.

The human brain is an organ of such staggering complexity that we are on a very long journey towards unraveling its mysteries. As educators, we must remain fluid with our understanding. The line from seeing a brain image, to testing a learning theory with subjects, to applying a new strategy in a classroom is far from straight and often very unreliable. There is very little applied brain research that is cross-cultural, for example. So, what may be true for first-year psychology student subjects in America may not be true for students working in classrooms at AISB in Romania.

This said, what more reliable insights can be learned from neuroscience and applied social psychology that educators can use? The most significant finding with robust evidence behind it is that our brains have the ability to change and grow, even late into life. This ability is called neuroplasticity. This shape-shifting is most pronounced in early life. We now understand that the brain over-develops in-utero and then prunes and edits neural (synaptic) connections in response to our earliest experiences. The characteristics of our first nurturing environments are therefore vital for cognitive development. As life goes on, we experience significant changes to our neural structure, with some radical renovations taking place during adolescence. While cognitive growth happens only in certain parts of the brain in later life, we can observe scans of people in their sixties showing new neurons firing in the brain.

The implications of this knowledge are far-reaching. First, all of us can be lifelong learners. You can teach an old dog new tricks! Second, and this is of huge importance, our cognitive abilities are not fixed. We label children as being smart or otherwise at our peril. The American researcher, Carol Dweck, has put a compelling case that teachers and students need a so-called ‘growth mindset’. This is the idea that, in the face of challenge and difficulty, we need to believe that we can be successful, even if we fail at first. She would argue that perseverance and resilience are better indicators of long-term success than results on a standardized test. If a student believes they are bad at math, this is probably going to be a self-fulfilling attitude. Whereas, the persistent teacher who is willing to try different approaches and stay optimistic may, with perseverance, challenge this assumption.