Interview by SINEPES
Interview by SINEPES
July 1, 2011
- What are the key findings of neuroscience in regards to learning?
There are dozens of findings from neuroscience that have a direct impact on our knowledge of how humans learn. However, from a teacher’s perspective, I believe even more important than how the brain learns is how we need to teach to take advantage of this knowledge. Three key areas that have implications for instruction are related to memory (working and long-‐term), attention spans and emotions.
Key findings related to memory fall into three broad categories. First we know that memory is a complex process and different systems respond differently to different teaching methodologies. A Little Book about a Vast Memory (Luria, 1968) was the catalyst for a great number of studies related to the human memory system and questions on how memory impacts learning. Luria’s work was important because by documenting the “curse of a flawless, synaesthetic memory”(1) he was able to demonstrate that there are various memory systems in the brain, not just a single entity called “memory. ” In this work, Luria documents the case of a man who was unable to forget, causing terrible difficulties in his life, such as the inevitable association of random concepts, which distracted him for “normal” exchanges with the people around him. Luria’s documentation of memory led to a breakthrough concept for teachers, who began to understand that information could be recorded in different “formats” via distinct neural pathways and that memory is a vast and multilayered system, which can have many different types of flaws.
Second, there are key studies related working memory. Perhaps the most applicable of memory research for the classroom teacher comes from Alan Baddeley, who has done tremendous work related to explaining the breakdowns that occur between the moment information is presented and put in temporary storage, and when it is either lost of moved into long-‐term memory.(2) Baddeley’s Center for Working Memory and Learning at the University of York in the United Kingdom has done substantial research demonstrating the vital role of working memory training in enhancing learning in students.(3) Being able to maintain information in one’s mind long enough to perform a task is the definition of good working memory. As all learning relies on good working memory, it seems logical that teachers should be better trained in extending the working memory parameters of their students. These researchers have produced valuable information that is useful in personal as well as academic realms.
Related to attention, perhaps the key studies for teachers relate to maximum attention spans. The average student has an attention span that ranges between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on age and degree of maturity. Attention spans are short because vigilance takes a lot of energy.(4) No class is just 10–20 minutes long; therefore teachers need to learn how to divide up their class time into manageable chunks in which core concepts can be taught and reinforced. In order to take advantage of this timeframe, great teachers recognize that students learn best when there is a change of person (e.g., from teacher to student), place (e.g., a change of seat), or topic (e.g., a conceptual refocus) at least every 20 minutes. It is difficult, if not impossible (unless a student is highly intrinsically motivated), for attention spans to last beyond this. Lecture format, which I like to compare with a delivery-‐room metaphor, is convenient for the presenter (the doctor), but it is not necessarily efficient for the receiver (as a patient, lying down when you give birth is not as efficient as other positions). In order to maintain attention, the protagonist of the class activity should be the learner, not the teacher, which explains why student-‐centered classroom are so popular in modern pedagogy. Third, great teachers also understand the need for “down time” during which students reflect upon new information in order to maximize memory consolidation. Because this down time is directly related to improved metacognitive abilities, it is imperative that moments of intense concentration be balanced with reflection time about the content knowledge. Such reflection time can take place through journal writing, group discussion, or explicit quiet time.
- How can neuroscience contribute toward improving the teaching and learning process?
There are many ways that neuroscience can contribute towards improving the teaching and learning process. One notable area relates to the mind-‐body connection. Neuroscientific studies explain the relationship between sleep and learning, which has huge implications for teachers. For example, we now know that sleep is vital for memory consolidation, yet many students “pull all-‐nighters” to study for tests, then wonder why just a few days later, they cannot remember what they thought they had studied.(5) There are literally thousands of different ways in which neuroscience can inform pedagogy, but this is only one of several paths through which information can be generated.
- How does the brain learn better? And how can teachers make their classes more effective?
This is the million-‐dollar question! Teaching is perhaps the most challenging profession because all other professionals pass through teachers’ hands. Teachers can make their classes more effective in a variety of ways. Perhaps most importantly, there are core instructional guidelines based on what we know about the brain. These include the following:(6)
Instructional Guideline 1: Environments matter, especially related to the impact of affect on learning.
Instructional Guideline 2: Sense, Meaning, and Transfer need to be a part of all lessons.
Instructional Guideline 3: Different Types of Memory Pathways mean that different learning experiences use different neural networks.
Instructional Guideline 4: Attention Spans are core to learning; without attention there is no learning.
Instructional Guideline 5: The Social Nature of Learning means that, if given the choice, people prefer to take in new information in groups rather than alone.
Instructional Guideline 6: The Mind–Body Connection means that sleep, nutrition and exercise all influence learning.
Instructional Guideline 7: Orchestration and "Midwifing" refers to the idea that a teacher’s job is to facilitate learning by helping students “give birth” to their own knowledge.
Instructional Guideline 8: Active Processes indicate that learning is achieved more effectively when conducted in physically involved ways.
Instructional Guideline 9: Metacognition and Self-‐Reflection draws attention to the idea that “down time” or the chance to think about one’s own learning processes, is key to deep, significant learning.
Instructional Guideline 10: Learning Throughout the Life Span acknowledges that, thanks to neuroplasticity, the order in which we learn is more important than the age at which we learn.
- What should teachers know about neuroscience?
Teachers need to understand that knowledge about the brain is vital in their formation. Leslie Hart said that designing educational experiences without an understanding of the brain was like designing a glove without an understanding of the human hand (1983), and he called on teachers to become savvier in their practice. I agree. However, teachers should be heartened by the idea that almost all best practice activities used by teachers (evidence-‐based learning practices) have been found to enjoy neuroscience backing.
Teachers need to remember that there is a give and take process in their relationship with neuroscience: while educators can learn from teachers, teachers can inform neuroscience. Real life problems have often escaped neurscientific labs; teachers need to remind neuroscientists that in the new world of Mind, Brain, and Education Science, a three-‐way exchange between neuroscience-‐ psychology-‐education is fundamental in better teaching practices.
- Long (2006).
- See Baddeley (2001, 2003).
- For some examples of their work, see Holmes, Gathercole, Place, Dunning, Hilton, & Elliott (in press); Holmes, Gathercole, & Dunning (2009).
- Many teachers suspect that attention spans are actually getting even shorter due to the great number of stimuli in the environment that require faster and faster information exchanges, such as video games. This is a logical presumption if we accept that neural plasticity is based on what the brain does the most (e.g., if it spends more time on video games than on reading, the brain becomes primed for shorter attention spans).
- Miller (2007).
- Tokuhama-Espinosa (2010)