In­creas­ing neu­ral net­works make brains smarter

Porterville Recorder - - OPINION - Kristi Mc­cracken, au­thor of two chil­dren’s books and a long time teacher in the South Val­ley, can be reached at ed­u­ca­tion­allyspeak­ Kristi Mc­cracken

When stu­dents un­der­stand how their brain learns, they are more will­ing to put forth ef­fort. In­struct­ing stu­dents about the science of learn­ing with a les­son about how neu­rons work to cre­ate new knowl­edge in the brain has been shown to in­crease stu­dents test scores.

Know­ing that the brain can get smarter is crit­i­cal to these im­prove­ments. Learn­ing cre­ates new neu­ropath­ways or roads in the brain. The nerve im­pulses that trans­mit new in­for­ma­tion from one nerve to the next are elec­tri­cal. As this in­for­ma­tion trav­els through the ax­ons and den­drites over the synap­tic gaps, these elec­tri­cal im­pulses form path­ways.

As the path from one neu­ron to the next is trav­eled more fre­quently through re­peated prac­tice of the new skill be­ing learned, it be­comes a bet­ter road which speeds up the elec­tri­cal sig­nal. Brain imag­ing tech­nolo­gies have ad­vanced now so that nerve im­pulses trav­el­ing in the brain can be seen.

Sci­en­tists who study these im­ages track the elec­tri­cal nerve pulses as they con­nect to dif­fer­ent neu­rons to cre­ate new learn­ing which lights up the brain. What they’re find­ing is that when an ac­tiv­ity is chal­leng­ing and the par­tic­i­pant per­se­veres, the brain lights up even more.

As learn­ing hap­pens, more ar­eas of the brain light up with these nerve con­nec­tions. When stu­dents are work­ing math prob­lems, dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the brain are ac­ti­vated then when they’re read­ing text. The brain im­ages for stu­dents with At­ten­tion Deficit Disor­der or ADD look dif­fer­ent from those with dys­lexia.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists use brain imag­ing to show where neu­rons fire or light up due to new elec­tri­cal pulse con­nec­tions. Neu­rons that fire to­gether wire to­gether. As ed­u­ca­tors em­brace this sci­en­tific prin­ci­ple, they find ways to make stu­dents more ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in their learn­ing. See­ing, say­ing and do­ing at the same time makes learn­ing eas­ier to re­mem­ber than just lis­ten­ing to the teacher.

Adding mu­sic, move­ment and fun to learn­ing ac­tiv­i­ties lights up more neu­ronal con­nec­tions mak­ing an event more mem­o­rable. Re­call is de­pen­dent on the abil­ity to re­trieve in­for­ma­tion and more path­ways to that new knowl­edge makes it eas­ier to re­trieve.

Learn­ing how the net­work of nerves in stu­dents’ brains work helps them em­brace the kinds of chal­lenges that cause them to light up. Chal­leng­ing con­cepts cause new neu­ropath­ways to be cre­ated. This new learn­ing phys­i­cally changes the brain. When stu­dents are taught that they can grow a smarter brain, many of the ar­dent re­sis­tors ac­tu­ally put in more ef­fort.

Julie Adams in a re­cent blog post en­ti­tled “Neu­ral Nuggets” sum­ma­rized sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant new find­ings that re­searchers us­ing this brain imag­ing tech­nol­ogy have dis­cov­ered. She re­ported that the brain does not de­velop fully un­til age 20 for girls and age 25 for boys. The last part of the brain to de­velop is the pre-frontal cor­tex which con­trols im­pulses and pro­cesses such as cause and ef­fect.

Since teenagers don’t have a fully de­vel­oped brain, they act with­out think­ing, re­act emo­tion­ally and have trou­ble pri­or­i­tiz­ing. In or­der to con­cen­trate and re­tain in­for­ma­tion ef­fec­tively, they need 9-13 hours of sleep which also helps reg­u­late emo­tions.

Chil­dren need pos­i­tive feed­back when they are taught con­cepts in class or chores at home be­cause they’re new to read­ing emo­tions. Clearly ex­plain­ing in­struc­tions and mod­el­ing help stu­dents un­der­stand be­cause di­rec­tions and emo­tions are mis­in­ter­preted up to 40 per­cent of the time.

Nur­tur­ing good stu­dent and teacher re­la­tion­ships en­hances the emo­tional con­nec­tion and makes a huge dif­fer­ence in the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment be­cause it de­creases stress and in­creases brain re­cep­tiv­ity to new in­for­ma­tion.

Short-term mem­ory only stores in­for­ma­tion for about 20 min­utes, but when it’s con­nected to prior knowl­edge and pos­i­tive emo­tions, it trans­fers to longterm mem­ory which makes re­ten­tion and re­trieval of stored in­for­ma­tion eas­ier.

Stu­dents need in­struc­tion to be bro­ken up into 5-10 minute chunks be­cause it al­lows them to re­set their at­ten­tion span. “Brain Breaks” such as sum­ma­riz­ing the di­rec­tions the teacher just gave to a part­ner helps them process the new in­for­ma­tion.

Ev­ery 10-20 min­utes stu­dents should get up and move for a bit to get their blood pump­ing and to oxy­genate their brain. They can share a new con­cept they just learned with a part­ner in an­other group as a quick way to en­er­gize them.

Teach­ing stu­dents about how the neu­rons in their brain con­nect to cre­ate new knowl­edge in­creases learn­ing capacities and mo­ti­va­tion.

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