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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

Perspectives / The Brain and Learning

      As we exit a decade during which scientists have used technology to glimpse the inner workings of the brain, we enter into a new age of discoveries. Perhaps this is the decade when our "snapshots of the brain" will become video images and we will gain an even more realistic understanding of how human beings learn.
      At a Brain and Learning conference last May, Kurt Fischer (p. 6), the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education concentration at Harvard School of Education, and other presenters spelled out principles that have implications for educators.
      The brain has remarkable plasticity. The ideas that intelligence is fixed, that the brain changes its architecture only in early life, and that all brain damage is permanent belong to the past. Evidence abounds that throughout life, the human brain restructures itself according to what it learns. For example, one study shows that taxi drivers who had driven extensively had larger hippocampuses, a part of the brain involved in spatial learning, than non-taxi drivers. Nuns who into their 80s had engaged in intellectually challenging activities, such as teaching and management, had more neural connections and less incidence of senility and dementia than did those who had engaged in less intellectual work. A 3-year-old who had one brain hemisphere removed because of severe epilepsy managed to regain almost normal mental and physical abilities. Evidently, the circuits in the remaining half of the child's brain took over most of the functions of the lost hemisphere. The concept of plasticity offers hope to educators, who impart the importance of lifelong learning to students.
      Humans build knowledge and skills through actions. In learning experiments, rats who controlled their ration of food pellets retained longer memories and realized better success than did the rats whose actions did not affect the outcome. Likewise, students who are in control of their own learning are apt to remember information and apply skills better. Teachers who make learning meaningful and relevant to students are gearing their teaching to this principle about learning. Mathematician and neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth, who describes how the brain processes numbers (p.14), emphasizes that teaching for understanding is the single most important strategy teachers can practice. Encouraging different approaches to the same problem, using a range of examples, and talking about numbers in a variety of contexts all help students understand the abstract nature of numbers.
      Support is crucial for optimal performance. We have all experienced the phenomenon, which Kurt Fischer describes, of seemingly understanding a complex concept—whether it was an appreciation of the symbolism in a great novel or the elegance of a geometric proof—only to find ourselves hard put to articulate our understanding to another person. Does this mean that we really didn't have the insight that we thought we had? Not at all. At our smartest, we were exhibiting our optimal performance of knowledge and skill—the level that we were capable of reaching with support from the teacher, context, cues, study guides, books, maps, graphic organizers, or whatever supported our understanding. Without the support, we went back to our functional, or ordinary, level of performance.
      In new learning, Fischer explains, a person often moves down to lower levels in order to build higher levels of skills. No student advances step by step as if on a ladder. Rather, our learning model is more like a web, through which we cycle upward and backward, gradually gaining mastery and the ability to perform more automatically and to apply our skills in different contexts. Students must always relearn and teachers must always reteach, but to be most effective, students must try to learn new skills, and teachers must teach in different ways.
      Authors who discuss learning problems such as ADHD (p. 20) and nonverbal learning disabilities (p. 26) emphasize that direct teaching and modeling can change student behavior and lead to academic progress. Joseph Ratey, author of A User's Guide to the Brain describes the process of "motoring through" a problem. "Motoring through" is what, for example, an individual who cannot dance does when he stands behind a skillful dancer and moves with that person until he masters the movement. Likewise,Individuals with faulty social brains can improve their behavior by seeing something done properly, hearing it, walking through it, and acting it out in various situations. They can deconstruct the process—break it down into small parts, then practice each one and begin to put them back together again. (Ratey, 2001, p. 298)
      The meaning to educators is clear: Each student is different. Each brain remodels itself in unique ways, but every student can learn.
      End Notes

      1 Ratey, J. (2001). A user's guide to the brain. New York: Pantheon Books.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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