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

The Australian Education Reporter - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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