Learning and the Brain: brief thoughts on a huge subject.

learningWe give some thought to how knowledge of how the brain develops could be used to influence teaching methods and encourage learning.

It is easy to realise that as children learn, the process of learning and the ways their brains work will be affecting each other. Yet much work still needs to be done to translate what is known from evidence about the brain into educational practice. There is increased interest today in an analytical approach to this question. For example The Independent recently reported that a school in New Zealand tried abandoning the rules and safety measures they had in place in the playground. They found that pupils became more interested in their play, were better behaved and concentrated better in the classroom. An involved health researcher explained these effects in terms of the brain, saying that by actively taking risks in that environment, the children were developing the brain’s frontal lobe and learning to calculate consequences.

Particularly in young childhood, connections between neurons are developed (sometimes called brain “wiring”) and others are not developed, depending on interaction between genetics, environmental factors and experience. As time goes on, a process of “synaptic pruning” tends to develop stronger existing connections and to drop weaker ones. Neuroscience for Kids (University of Washington) briefly describes the general neuronal basis of learning. There are also changes that take place at the neuronal level when the brain tries to recover from an injury, and there are those who have physical and/or chromosomal differences that influence the way their brain develops.

What about learning academic subjects? Could neurological and neuropsychological knowledge aid teaching, including special techniques for those who have brain injuries or different “wiring” to learn as well, perhaps in different ways? Is it possible to gear teaching to a child’s maturity level, taking account of the ways in which functions within the same child reach stages of maturity at different times?

There is a description of how brains mature, and how this can be taken account of in the classroom as well as at home, atwww.apa.org/education/k12/brain-function.aspx (Margaret Semrud-Clikeman, Michigan State University, and American Psychological Association). The history of current theories in relation to education is comparatively recent and still in formation. They have been informed by brain research from the late 20th century onwards and data from brain scanning techniques (MRI etc.) that have become more fine-tuned. Theories about how we learn in general go back much further.

learning2Either where a child is having some difficulty with learning, or where a blossoming strength or talent appears that the child might be able to utilise further, parents often look for specific educational systems that might address them. Obvious examples are the techniques and computer programs for helping students with dyslexia to read etc., some of which are used by schools, some at home and some by specialist organisations. A specific example of a method based on brain research and theory is Paula Tallal et al’s “Fast ForWord™”.

Many curricula, methods and books are disseminated and marketed to address quite a wide variety of learning-related problems and questions, some of which overlap with the field of therapy, and many of which label themselves as brain-based, at least in part. (“Brain-based learning” is more of a descriptive term, rather than the name of one particular method, although it tends to be associated with a particular system used in the USA.)

Providers will often describe how they believe their methods interact with the brain. Interested parties will ask what are these beliefs based on; is there sound evidence that the brain works in the ways suggested by the proponents of the method, and that the method works in the way they believe it does? How constructive (or otherwise) might one of these methods be for a particular child, and how much time and money could be worth investing in it?

These methods are likely to have been put forward by people who believe in their efficacy, based on a mixture of theoretical research and experience with teaching children. In some cases there is a behavioural component, designed to make children respond in particular ways – would these be helpful to any child or could an autistic child, for example, perceive and respond to this component in unexpected ways?

But how else can a family or teacher looking for something to help a specific child, and beginning to ask questions like this, set about evaluating one of these methods? The principles suggested in relation to therapies by the Peninsula Cerebra Research Unit based at the University of Exeter, www.pencru.org/research/whatdowemeanbyresearch (under “Searching for evidence on the Internet”) would help as an information-gathering and decision-making tool.

Where there is evidence available, how does that evidence base itself on children like, or unlike, the child in question? There are also practical considerations such as, how would the method fit in with the rest of the child’s education, lifestyle and analyses of their needs such as their educational psychology report? What do the teacher(s) and/or the SENCO think of it? If there is a specialist organisation for the child’s condition or learning difficulty, do they or their member families have any experience of it?

Related subjects

A related set of products and methods comes from the “brain training” industry, which is largely concerned with the field of personal development, aiming to target aspects of cognitive performance, language learning etc. The terms “evidence-based learning” and “evidence-based training” can also be found, the evidence often being related to data about the outcomes of the learning.

An important linked area, which is another huge subject in itself, is that of memory. Many children with additional needs have seemingly puzzling memory traits, such as weak memory retrieval, remembering something at one time and not at another time, or being slow to process learning. A topic for another time, perhaps!