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Research and Writing Position Paper Submitted by Jill Katrin
Brandt,Ron, Wolfe, Pat (Nov., 1998). What do we Know from Brain Research? Educational Leadership, Vol. 56, No. 3, 8-13.
As research reveals more of how the human brain works, educators and scientists are contemplating how the new findings will affect current perceptions of teaching and learning. We have learned more about the brain in the past five years than in the past 100 years (Brandt & Wolfe, 1998). But almost all scientists are wary of offering prescriptions for using their research in schools. Susan Fitzpatrick, a neuroscientist at the McDonnell Foundation says, Anything that people would say right now has a good chance of not being true two years from now because the understanding is so rudimentary and people are looking at things at such a simplistic level (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 8). The following questions have arisen due to the controversy of whether brain research has value to educational practice. What does the latest brain research tell us? What does all this brain research mean for teaching and learning? Whats the best way to engage students brains? Is todays school and the brain a mismatch? Have we learned enough to incorporate neuroscientific findings into our schools? At the present time, brain research does not tell us specifically what we should do in a classroom, but there are many factors educators need to be aware of.
The crucial issue at hand is whether the recent explosion of neuroscientific research has the exciting potential to increase our understanding of teaching and learning. Educators must carefully interpret what brain science means for classroom practice. Much work needs to be done before the results of scientific studies can be taken into the classroom. The following research explains current findings.
The brain changes physiologically as a result of experience. The environment in which a brain operates determines to a large degree the functioning ability of that brain (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 10). The environment affects how genes work, and genes determine how the environment is interpretated (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 10). A childs brain at birth has all the brain cells, or neurons, that it will ever have (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 10). Thus a newborns brain makes connections at an incredible pace as the child is exposed to his/her surrounding environment. The richer the environment, the greater the number of interconnections that are made, and learning takes place faster and with greater meaning (Sousa, 1998). A further finding that should please us all is that dendrites, the connections between cells, grow at any age (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 11). Determining what constitutes an enriched environment is part of an educators role.
Another finding is that some abilities are acquired more easily during certain sensitive periods, or windows of opportunity. During the period from birth to age 10, the number of synaptic connections continues to rise rapidly, then begins to drop and continues to decline slowly into adult life (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 12). An example of this critical period is how learning spoken language is totally lost by about age 10. If a child is born deaf, the 50,000 neural pathways that would normally activate the auditory cells remain silent, and the sound of the human voice, essential for learning language, cant get through. As the child grows older, the cells atrophy and the ability to learn spoken language is lost (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 12). Although learning a second language also depends on the stimulation of the neurons for the sounds of that language, an adult certainly can learn a second language and learn to speak it quite well. However, it is much more difficult to learn a foreign language after age 10 (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 12).
Some facts will assist educators in providing an enriched environment. An enriched environment gives students the opportunity to make sense out of what they are learning. An enriched environment addresses multiple aspects of development simultaneously. Learning is a process of active construction by the learner, and an enriched environment gives students the opportunity to relate what they are learning to what they already know. Their learning is enhanced when the environment provides them with the opportunity to discuss their thinking out loud, to bounce their ideas off their peers, and to produce collaborative work (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 11).
Educators must also be aware of how emotions can influence how students learn. Daniel Golemans Emotional Intelligence (1995) and Joseph LeDouxs The Emotional Brain (1996) have been instrumental in increasing our understanding of emotion. (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 13). Emotion plays a dual role in human learning. The stronger the emotion connected with an experience, the stronger the memory of that experience. LeDoux has pointed out that if the emotion is too strong, and the situation is perceived by the learner to be threatening, then learning is decreased (Brandt, Wolfe, p. 13). Role-playing, simulations, and cooperative groupings can trigger emotions, making learning more memorable.
Findings from neurosciences can provide us with important insights into how children learn. They can direct us as we seek to enrich the school experience for all children. Research can help parents and other caregivers understand the role of early interaction and enriched environments. Brain research can also offer valuable guidance to policymakers and school administrators with school priorities. Dr. David Sousa says, By understanding the different times and areas of brain growth, teachers of the primary and intermediate grades can decide how best to approach the content and skills in their curriculum, and provide an enriched, brain-friendly classroom environment (Sousa,1998, p. 3).
Modern neuroscience research is providing quantifiable evidence of the value of early experience by providing results in a PET scan. Educators are looking for ways they can apply the new knowledge from brain research in their schools. New knowledge about our brain may help us discover new ways to help students expand their knowledge. This article basically says that as educators we whould be as curious as the brain as we seek out ways to use brain research in our classrooms.
Brandt, Ron and Wolfe, Pat. (1998, November). What do we know from brain research? Educational Leadership, 8-13.
Sousa, David A. (1998, December 16). Is the fuss about brain research justified? [Education Week on the Web].
Sousa, David A. (1998) . How the brain learns. National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Hiraoka, Leona. (1999, March) News on brain gain. NEA Today, 17 (6), 19.
-- Anonymous, May 02, 1999