CAN NEUROSCIENCE IMPROVE THE WAY STUDENTS LEARN?
If all students in a class don’t get the same mark, the differences can’t all be due to curriculum or teaching. They’re more to do with how students learn. US special forces are now using accelerated learning techniques to learn a language in just six wee
What do you do if students are not learning to their full potential despite your best efforts?
“Neuroscientists now understand why some students learn easily and others struggle, and what to do about it”, Dr Martha Burns explains. [Dr Burns is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and she has authored more than 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication].
Dr Burns says that teachers are changing their students’ brains “every single day of the week” because parts of their brains develop and grow with use.
“Every time you ask a student to do a practice problem and they do, you are building myelin,” Burns said. “You are making these fibre tracts more and more efficient. Teachers can also create new connections in the brain”. Neuroscience is a scientific discipline that includes a range of areas that explore, among other things, how the human brain learns and what factors affect that learning. In the past 20 years, neuroscientists have gone from unravelling learning problems to understanding how to accelerate learning.
Learning capacity equals brain plasticity. The capacity to learn new things has a neurological basis: as we learn, the brain changes. The brain changes involve new connections that form among brain cells – neurons – as well as chemical changes that enable those connections. Brain changes occur each time a person learns and retains new information. The term brain scientists use for this capability is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity or learning capacity is known to vary as we age. In a young child, learning takes place without any effort. Researchers have shown repeatedly that the child does not need to be paying attention to speech; the brain organises on its own.
But, as any adult who has tried to learn a second language knows, learning to ‘hear’ the differences between speech sounds of second languages requires more effort. All humans have this neurological capacity to change, which we call learning. And although it’s easier when we’re young, the brain can grow, adapt and learn at any age. Learning speed equals brain efficiency How easily the brain processes new information, changes and adapts, that is, learns, may be referred to as brain efficiency. Neuroscientists consider brain efficiency as speed of processing. Brain efficiency is also affected by brain chemistry. Most likely everyone has had the experience of ‘processing slowly’ when tired, or under the influence of alcohol or some medications. In these cases the brain’s efficiency is slowed down by neurotransmitters that have an inhibitory effect on most processing.
There are also neurotransmitters that make it easier to pay attention to new material and to hold on to newly learned information. Some of the neurotransmitters that researchers believe help with new learning include acetylcholine, which generally keeps attention levels high and dopamine, which maintains motivation and helps the brain save new connections. It turns out that the way we present information to a learner - child or adult - in many ways enhances these ‘learning’ neurotransmitters. For example, when a teacher uses novel materials, or commends a student on a job well done, norepinephrine and dopamine are naturally increased.
Application to education
So, what does this new brain science contribute to education? Neuroscience now helps educators in two ways. First, it can provide teachers with an understanding of why some kinds of learning may be more difficult for some students than others. Second, perhaps more importantly, neuroscience is providing educational tools that enhance learning capacity and efficiency. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that all students exhibit different patterns of learning that equate to underlying cognitive capacities of memory, attention, processing and sequencing. Surprisingly, this has little to do with native intelligence or IQ. Attention There is a direct relationship between how well we pay attention and how well we learn. Some students are better able to attend to the internal detail of words than are others. These students are naturally ‘good’ at tasks like phonemic awareness: activities like rhyme. Other students, however, despite equal intelligence, process words in the same way that most of us perceive faces, as a unit. Those students appear to pay more attention to the context in which a word is embedded. For example, when a person says, ‘Wow, did I ever h--- a bad day!’ the exasperation of the person speaking and context provided by the other words, and perhaps the speaker’s facial expression and body language, help us to understand what the fifth word was, even though it wasn’t spoken intelligibly.
Memory For other students, attending to internal detail of words may be adequate, but they may have trouble remembering what they hear. Psychologists call this auditory working memory. Students who have trouble with this may have experienced difficulties learning grammatical endings. Later they may struggle to remember all the parts of directions given aloud or details from paragraphs they read or hear. Processing was discussed earlier and is a cognitive efficiency variable that affects learning.
Sequencing Finally, some students struggle learning how to deal with the order of sounds in words, words in sentences, sentences in paragraphs and paragraphs in longer narratives. During early development, children with sequencing problems may have trouble learning rules of grammar and morphology, or the structure of word forms, getting confused about the use of prefixes, say, or grammatical word endings.
Small differences in the sequence of words or phonemes can entirely change the meaning of sentences that are almost alike. For example, the sentences, “the boy hits the ball” and “the ball hits the boy” require awareness of sequencing differences to know who or what is hit. What can be done?
The exciting news from neuroscience is that computer-based programs have been developed that can increase anyone’s brain capacity and efficiency, at any age. In addition, neuroscientists are reaching out to educators to help them enhance their teaching methods in ways that increase their ability to reach all students, regardless of learning styles or individual cognitive strengths and weaknesses. They’re helping teachers understand the ways in which they can enhance natural learning brain chemicals. Applying neuroscience to education promises to open many additional doors. Dr Martha Burns serves on the Faculty at Northwestern University, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and on the medical staff of Evanston Northwestern University Hospital. She taught in public schools and has consulted with school districts across the US. She has published widely on the neurological foundations of language and reading disorders and is a frequent speaker at international conferences. She has been a practising speech-language pathologist for over 40 years.
For further information, visit www.learnfastforschools.com.au