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Mark Harding


Monday, January 05, 2015

Three Lessons Of Brain Science


By: Mark Harding, B.A. B.Ed. M.A.
NSHSS Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction


Everybody owns a brain but nobody has an instruction manual for it. Teaching would be a lot easier if the manual came with the device for every student.

Fortunately, recent brain science and cognitive psychology have offered some insights into how the off-the-rack human brain best learns, and therefore offers the teacher a chance to tinker constructively with the machine in the absence of explicit operating instructions.

Three of the research findings that I have found effective to keep in mind when teaching are the value of repetition, the benefit of deep processing, and the creation of emotional load.

Repetition is significant because neuroscience tells us that the formation of long-term memories, starting in the hippocampus, requires repeated neural stimulation before the chemical trace of a memory begins. However, we should not confuse repetition with rote learning or `drill and kill.` New knowledge can be repeated and consolidated in various ways, from discussion to experiment to writing to artistic creation, among others.

In deep processing, students are required to connect new knowledge to old knowledge or personal experience. The neuroscientist D.O. Hebb reminds us that `neurons that fire together, wire together.` The practice of creating networks of old and new knowledge through an activity such as mind-mapping, where the students are encouraged to create relationships between what they already know and what they are trying to learn, helps to ensure that both the old and the new knowledge become retrievable through shared cues in a single neural network.

Emotional load refers to the tone or atmosphere of the classroom where the student learns. If the emotional areas of the brain are engaged during a lesson, then learning will probably be more effective. The balancing act for the teacher rests in finding the sweet spot where there is just enough stress to keep everyone engaged and striving to achieve more, but still enough pleasant emotion to ensure comfort. A practical way to do this is to set assessments and evaluations that are challenging and demanding, but can be `made up` or re-done, within reason, if students freeze under pressure, are tired, or have too many other demands on their time at that moment.

Although every new finding in neuroscience seems to open up seventeen new questions, and it becomes very easy to over-interpret the results of the research as they apply to education, I have consistently found that attention to these three `classroom modes` helps to support all learners. And, as an enthusiastic amateur in neuroscience, but as a professional educator, I look forward to the day when neuroscience might offer even more explicit advice about how to nurture the learning brain.