LEARNING:
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

By Beth Conant


Watch a baby as it begins to crawl, a toddler as it takes its first steps or learns to climb stairs or a youngster as it takes off for the first wobbling ride down the road on a two-wheel bicycle. The miracle of growth and learning has fascinated parents and educators for centuries, but it hasn't been until the past ten years or so that we've had the technology to explain the process from a neurobiological perspective as well as a behavioral one.

Through the technologies of magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomogrophy scientists have been able to actually watch the human brain as it performs tasks and learns. From the information being gathered, scientists and educators are beginning to think about what the brain research implies concerning how schools should structure learning for children.

The Infant Brain

We know that when an infant is born, it is born with one hundred billion brain neurons and that between the ages of 3 and 8 a child's brain has twice as many neurons and twice as many connections between them as the adult brain. This overproduction of neural matter insures that the brain can adapt to any set of conditions. The brain hits the peak of activity at age 5. By the teen years, neurons are being pruned at a rate of thousands per second. Only those reinforced through experience survive.

Experience is the food that feeds brain connections. "In a remarkable cycle of stimulus and response, the budding brain builds itself, using the electricity generated by vision, smell, touch, hearing and taste to activate and organize the neural cells that make up its tissues." (Hotz, 1996)

Windows for Development

We know through the research that there are windows for development of particular skills, periods of time during which the development of skills will be easier than at any other time of life.Indeed, if these skills do not develop during this time, they may never develop to their full potential. Vision, language, music, social development and logic/mathematic concept development all have these windows during the first 5 to 10 years. We know that at no other time in a person's life can so much be learned than in the first ten years and much of what a child learns is learned in the first five years!

Movement and Learning

Hemispheres of the brain that do not begin working together in a coordinated fashion until around age 8, can be stimulated to work more efficiently together through movement. When children are able to move as they learn or practice new tasks, it makes the learning more efficient. Asking children to sit still in desks as they work may be counterproductive.

Music and Math

We know that the study of music rewires neural circuits that may also strengthen the circuits used in mathematics. Students who study music at an early age tend to be better mathematicians than students who do not study music. It is believed that listening to music may have the similar benefits. When school budgets are cut, what is frequently the first "frill" to go? Music! Perhaps we should play music quietly in the background as children work in the classroom and integrate it more into the projects and themes we select with students.

Stress and Its Effect on Learning

We know that stress has a profound effect on the brain. Stress triggers the "flight or fight" syndrome when stress hormones flood the brain readying it for instantaneous reaction. All the glucose,the fuel of the brain, travels from the higher centers of the brain where reasoning and thought occur and goes to the muscles. When we needed to escape lions and tigers and bears, this was a lifesaving response, but today is counterproductive. These stress hormones may stay at high levels for days after a particularly distressing event. Chronic stress may actually produce hormones that destroy neurons responsible for learning and memory. High stakes learning situations that produce stress in children may reduce the school's ability to carry out its mission. This phenomenon may account for the fact that some children who become stressed in test-taking situations do not do well.

Robert Sylwester, a writer who has synthesized research in his book, A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain, believes that schools need to be more aware of the climate they produce for children. He explains that the release of endorphins,"feel good" peptides have the opposite effect. Positive social contacts such as hugging, supportive comments from friends, music, etc., may elevate endorphins. Sylwester (1994) says, "A joyful classroom atmosphere that encourages such behaviors produces internal chemical responses in students that make them more apt to learn how to successfully solve problems in potentially stressful situations."

Social Interactions and Learning

In animal studies, it was discovered that social interaction was crucial to learning. Without social relationships, animals showed no brain growth despite training. Studies of infants raised in orphanages with minimal human contact tends to confirm this finding in humans as well. Social interaction is essential to human learning and well-being. In practice, this translates into many opportunities for children to interact with other children and adults in the classroom. The traditional quiet classroom where no talking is allowed, is not the best learning environment as we once believed!

Memory

The brain is an association machine. It calls on associations to make sense of the world. Material memorized by rote is not transferable or usable unless it is tied to an association or experience. Sylwester (1994) says that "Memories are contextual. School activities that draw out emotions--simulations, role playing, and cooperative projects, for example--may provide important contextual memory prompts that will help students recall the information during closely related events in the real world." Schools need to provide young students with many opportunities to build their repertoire of concrete experiences upon which more abstract learning can be hooked.

"Merlin Wittrock, head of UCLA's Division of Educational Psychology, maintains that much of the instruction in today's schools is based on a flawed premise. "In place of the usual 'drill and practice' programs, he advocates complex problems without simple solutions that engage numerous systems of the brain and strengthen the connections among them." (Nadia, 1995)

Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds, stated, " Schools will need to accept the fact that lectures and "teacher talk," which commonly comprise approximately 90% of classroom discourse, must give way to more effective student involvement. Today's learners must become constructors of knowledge rather than passive recipients of information that even the least intelligent computer can handle more effectively."

When we talk about higher standards and rigor in curriculum, we are talking about these kinds of differences. Memorization is a low-level skill. We must ask students to use skills and concepts in life-like situations to solve real problems that have meaning for them. These are the kinds of learning situations that produce learning that can be used beyond the classroom in many environments.

Summary

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers' College, sums it up well when she says in aTime Magazine'article, "Why Do Schools Flunk Biology" (1996), "Why is this body of research rarely used in most American classrooms? Not many administrators or school-board members know it exists. In most states, neither teachers nor administrators are required to know much about how children learn in order to be certified. What's worse, she says, decisions to cut music or gym are often made by noneducators, whose concerns are more often monetary than educational. Our school system was invented in the late 1800's and little has changed. Can you imagine if the medical profession ran this way?"


Bibliography coming soon.

Check out this site for more information on Brain Research.