“The brain, the masterpiece of creation, is almost unknown to us.”
~ Danish scientist and pioneer, Nicolas Steno (1669) ~
How things have changed. Whilst there is still much to uncover about the brain, recent discoveries have brought greater clarity to our understanding of the how the brain operates and how the brain affects the ways in which we live our lives. Over the last century, technology has been the driving force behind brain research, with new developments enabling researchers to examine and dissect the brain on a cellular level. The outcomes of this research have uncovered many neurological, psychological and cognitive realities, impacting on a wide range of areas – reaching far beyond the medical sphere.
As educators, our prime purpose is to improve learning – but what are we learning about learning itself?
Neurological, psychological and educational research is collectively informing us of the conditions that support and promote effective learning. Understanding these conditions at a micro level is enhancing our understanding of specific learning processes, and opening new pathways to improve educational research and classroom practices.
The better we understand the way that the brain learns, the more able we will be to develop effective teaching strategies.
What have we learnt about the brain so far?
Experience sculpts the brain
Our brains are constantly evolving.
A child is born with 100 billion neurons, but it seems that only 10 per cent of the neuronal connections (synapses) already exist at birth. The other 90 per cent are developed throughout life.
What shapes the neuronal structure is experience: not only learning experience but also experienced emotions – in short, everything that makes an individual’s history. Of course, synaptic constructions are very dependent on the environment, be it the family, the school or the society in general. All brains are extremely promising at birth – but the individual path will positively or less positively determine what follows (Toscani, 2012).
This plasticity not only turns the brain into a fabulous lifelong learning device (Neville & Bruer, 2001), but it also makes remediation of certain learning deficits possible, even if they are not diagnosed early.
Minds, brains and learning games
Video game feedback engages learners by stimulating the brain’s reward system.
Insights from neuroscience are helping to explain why video games are so engaging and research suggests that, unlike most other types of technology, they may be a ‘special’ environmental influence. The same neural and cognitive processes appear to underlie both the hazard and the educational potential of video games, highlighting the need for a scientific understanding of these processes to ensure they benefit, rather than disrupt, our children’s education and development. Recent interdisciplinary research at the University of Bristol has investigated the neural mechanisms of gaming, their relationship to learning and how gaming influences learning processes in the classroom.
How emotions affect learning
Emotions are important in education—they drive attention, which in turn drives learning and memory.
Recent developments in the cognitive sciences are unlocking the mysteries of how and where our body/brain processes emotion. This unique melding of the biology and psychology of emotion promises to suggest powerful educational applications. Current emotion theory and research bring up more questions than answers. Still, educators should develop a basic understanding of the psychobiology of emotion to enable them to evaluate emerging educational applications.
The future of brain research is important to the future of education!
Together let’s celebrate Brain Awareness Week and increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research!