Skip to content

Brains and Learning

Pupils in a Psychology lesson

Half-term was a largely indoor experience chez Owen with Tier 3, international quarantine restrictions and heavy rain all preventing me from straying far from Stockport. One must make the best of things, however, and I have read a great deal: novels, non-fiction and neuroscience.

It seems an obvious truism that teachers should embrace new insights from neuroscience into how their students learn. Increasingly sensitive and sophisticated scanning techniques will uncover how learning occurs at a cellular level. This should allow different techniques for learning and different learning environments to be compared, even if the unfortunate experimental subject must learn with their head in the confined space and strong magnetic field of a brain scanner.

Several studies have looked at the importance of the quality and duration of sleep to learning. Not only is learning limited by inadequate sleep but sleep seems to play an important role in re-processing information for the assimilation of ideas and for the laying down of memories. Mobile devices, proffering ready social contacts, a continuous torrent of information and blue light which wakes up the brain, make it difficult for teenagers, already struggling with the onslaught of puberty, to gain sufficient sleep. This Canadian article is a good overview of the importance of sleep. We often look at this topic with the pupils, although it is hard to tell whether they move beyond passive tolerance of the information to active modification of their behaviour.

A certain degree of cynicism about neuroscience exists, however, because of past experiences with so-called ‘brain science’ developments which turned out to be nothing more than fads, loosely extrapolated from a neuroscience study and seized on by educational consultancies eager to turn a profit from schools and by teachers looking for easy ways to boost examination results.

I can remember in the 1990s listening to an excitable speaker extolling the importance of continuous hydration and warning ominously of the dangers of not drinking sufficient water: these were summarised as one’s brain shrinking and drying out with alarming consequences for thinking and indeed life itself! Whilst there is no doubt that drinking plenty of water is good for health and allowing students regular access to water is advisable, most humans seem perfectly able to maintain an appropriate level of brain hydration at least in normal temperatures.

In schools the widely reported message that near continuous drinking was the only way to avoid catastrophic drops in mental performance resulted in generations of students clutching huge bottles of water with the inevitable and consequent repeated visits to the toilet from lessons and public examinations. The disruption occasioned by these visits probably outweighed any marginal benefits to the students’ learning from full hydration.

The latest relaunch of ‘Brain Training’ through apps such as Elevate and Lumosity, designed to boost intelligence or other broader measures of cognitive ability, fits into the ’fad’. Research to back up these claims is scarce. The studies that have been done suggest that the chief results of playing these games is that you become better at playing the games rather than improving general cognitive skills or ‘fluid intelligence’ in the jargon. The key neuroscience insight is that our brains are quite plastic and can change in response to stimuli. In a well-known example, taxi drivers have brains with an enlarged posterior hippocampus, a brain structure associated with memory. Unfortunately, the memory skills do not seem to transfer to tasks other than finding one’s way around London, useful though this is; the taxi drivers actually performed worse on other cognitive tasks, perhaps because their brains had specialised in one skill area. The main effect of ‘Brain Training’ seems to be to enlarge the turnover of the relevant companies rather than to enlarge general mental ability although it seems doubtful that the apps will do anyone any harm.

Two useful teaching insights from neuroscience are, however, helpful and well-established.

Firstly, learning is about allowing experiences or stimuli to build neural pathways within the brain; these are then strengthened through repetition until the pathways allow us to complete a mental process or movement almost unconsciously and without real effort. (The contrast between a learner driver, consciously trying to respond to a huge range of visual data with a frenzied series of hand and foot movements, and an experienced driver, who performs the same actions in a polished fashion and entirely unconsciously, is extraordinary.) This means that we learn best if we are active: investigating, processing information, trying things out and solving problems to forge the neural pathways rather than passively receiving information which does not alter our brains.

In learning terms, the difference between a workshop and a lecture is significant. It also means that regular review and revision to repeatedly strengthen the neural pathways is likely to be a more successful strategy for consolidating learning than teaching topics and then leaving them untouched until just before a public examination.

Secondly, neuroscience suggests that a chemical called dopamine must be present in the brain for neural pathways to be established and for learning to occur. This chemical is released in the limbic system of the brain in response to positive emotions. Successful teachers will ensure that the emotional climate of the classroom is positive through the use of praise and encouragement and sometimes even humour! Images, statistics, questions or quotes which have emotional power are a great way to begin a new topic and engage students. Finally, the students must value the work they are doing so that there is a sense of satisfaction and reward from the completion of a task and a corresponding release of dopamine to consolidate the learning.