NEURO SCIENCE AND LEARNING
Educators working closely with neuro-scientists to better understand how the brain works and its implications for education and learning
Educational neuroscience (also a component of Mind Brain and Education; MBE) is an emerging scientific field that brings together researchers in cognitive neuroscience, developmental cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, educational technology, education theory and other related disciplines to explore the interactions between biological processes and education. Research on how the brain functions has progressed rapidly over the last generation and it is beginning to have an impact on education and the learning environment. If you know how the brain works then you can change the learning environment including the physical environment, informed by that research. Researchers in educational neuroscience investigate the neural mechanisms of reading, numerical cognition, attention and their attendant difficulties including dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD as they relate to education. Despite what many people believe, educational neuroscience is not about trying to explain learning or educational processes solely in terms of brain function. On the contrary, it represents an attempt to recognise the full complexity of the developing learner, who is influenced by processes at neural, cognitive, social and environmental levels, with multiple interactions taking place between these, and effects running from social or cognitive to neural and vice versa.
For children with SEN, for example, there is a strong likelihood that the interconnections between the different parts of the brain are not working efficiently so a better understanding of this might help inform positive interventions. It is interesting that when scientists perform neuroimaging studies on gifted children, they have found that the process of interconnectivity is enhanced in comparison with those of average cognitive ability.
The Centre for Educational Neuroscience was formed in 2008 by staff at IOE, UCL and Birkbeck who recognised from the outset that building this newer discipline had to be a community activity. This community necessarily involves researchers from a variety of different backgrounds, but it must also include teachers, special educational needs coordinators, and educational psychologists, to help set the research agenda and ensure that it is targeted at application and intervention from the outset. At present, the Centre is devoting much effort to developing a network of partner schools who will be centrally involved in helping plan research activity, whilst providing a context for small-scale trials of potential interventions. For more information and contact details, see http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/
It is well established that early development of the brain is particularly important- that is over the first two years of life (that doesn’t provide a justification for starting formal education earlier, by the way). This is due to the astonishing growth in the connections if not the proliferation of neurons. So this means that even if you are a clone, ie an identical twin, you’re going to have a unique pattern of brain cell connections . Why? Because individuals have their own unique interactions with the environment, ie inputs, These inputs are literally going to leave their mark on your brain. We know too that the brain has a kinaesthetic centre, a visual centre and an auditory centre, and that parts of the brain are associated with creativity etc. Understanding the connectivity though is a huge challenge. Many teachers already think they understand that there are visual learners (brain processes are approximately 50 to 60% per cent Visual) and there are auditory learners- but sadly it doesn’t seem to be quite that simple. Some myths in this respect have become common currency.
Neuroscientists often refer to the plasticity of the brain. The term comes from the Greek ‘plastikos’, ie to form. Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills through instruction or experience. In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent the new knowledge. The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as neuroplasticity. To illustrate the concept of plasticity, imagine the film of a camera. Pretend that the film represents your brain. Now imagine using the camera to take a picture of a tree. When a picture is taken, the film is exposed to new information — that of the image of a tree. In order for the image to be retained, the film must react to the light and change to record the image of the tree. Similarly, in order for new knowledge to be retained in memory, changes in the brain representing the new knowledge must occur. To illustrate plasticity in another way, imagine making an impression of a coin in a lump of clay. In order for the impression of the coin to appear in the clay, changes must occur in the clay – the shape of the clay changes as the coin is pressed into the clay. Similarly, the neural circuitry in the brain must reorganize in response to experience or sensory stimulation. So, this has an obvious relevance to learning.
One group that takes all this pretty seriously is the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education, co-chaired by Baroness Greenfield, Baroness Morris and James Arbuthnot MP. The role of this group is to help ensure that the growing body of scientific knowledge on learning and development flows into evidence-informed education policy and practice. There seems to be growing acceptance now of the need for an interdisciplinary, co-operative venture between educators and neuroscientists to help establish the facts to dispel the myths and to link greater knowledge of how the brain works with sound education practice in schools, at the chalk face..
See a Transcript of All Party Group Discussion below