Unquenchable thirst for knowledge and how to use it wisely

I’m currently learning how to train/teach more effectively, it’s part of my commitment to myself and to the people who pay to come on my courses, that I will do everything in my power to be the very best I can be at what I do. This principle is something I live by in every aspect of my life and it keeps me heading in the direction I want my life to go in. What I am learning is called the 4MAT Cycle of Teaching and Learning, which makes  sense when you begin to understand what it is and how it works.


I had to write a post about how neuroscience research applies to teaching and learning and my research threw up some interesting information which I thought I would share with you.

In a recent survey of teachers in the UK, almost 90 per cent thought that a knowledge of the brain was important, or very important, in the design of educational programmes. Indeed, for at least two decades, educational programmes claiming to be ‘brain-based’ have been flourishing in the UK. Unfortunately, these programmes have usually been produced without the involvement of neuroscientific expertise, are rarely evaluated in their effectiveness and are often unscientific in their approach. Perhaps this is unsurprising since, although the central role of the brain in learning may appear self-evident, formal dialogue between neuroscience and education is a relatively new phenomenon.

So what does/can neuroscience bring to education? It can:

  1. Produce a common language and understanding about learning. This will inform attitudes, educational approaches and the quality of discussion around an increasing range of educational issues such as those associated with ADHD and dyslexia
  2. Prompt further, more educationally-focused, scientific inquiry into how science can continue to advance teaching methods to engage learners at every turn
  3. Develop multidisciplinary projects and forums that can identify tractable and useful research questions, develop collaborative research to address them, scrutinise neuromyths and evaluate programmes of ‘brain-based’ learning
  4. Provide greater preparedness for imminent social, cultural and scientific change, because change is occurring faster and faster and in order to keep up with this rapid pace, teaching must collaborate with science to ensure that both teachers and learners are given the best possible opportunities to excel.

In every phase of education, from early years to later life, there are educational issues whose understanding requires concepts about brain function. The debate about how this knowledge should be included in educational thinking has only just begun and it must continue to grow from should be included into can and must be included.

The 4MAT Cycle fits rather nicely with how the brain works because the brain is often described in terms of two hemispheres, left and right, joined together by a mass of fibres known as the corpus callosum. These can further be divided into four lobes: the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal. Each lobe has been associated with a different set of cognitive functions. The frontal lobe may, perhaps, be of particular interest to educators due to its involvement with many different aspects of reasoning as well as movement. The temporal lobe is associated with some aspects of memory, as well as auditory skills. The parietal lobes are heavily involved in integrating information from different sources and have also been associated with some types of mathematical skill. The occipital lobes are critical regions for visual processing.

However, it is not advisable to consider any one part of the brain as being solely involved with any one task. Any everyday task recruits a large and broadly distributed set of neural networks that communicate with each other in a complex fashion.

Neuroscience has shown the surprising extent to which the brain is still developing in adolescence, particularly in the frontal and parietal cortices where synaptic pruning (where infrequently used connections are eliminated) does not begin until after puberty. A second type of change occurring in these brain regions during puberty involves myelination. This is the process by which the axons, carrying messages from and to neurons, become insulated by a fatty substance called myelin, thus improving the efficiency with which information is communicated in the brain. In the frontal and parietal lobes, myelination increases considerably throughout adolescence and, to a less dramatic extent, throughout adulthood, favouring an increase in the speed with which neural communication occurs in these areas.

Taking these considerations together, you might expect the teenage brain to be less ready than an adult brain to carry out a range of different processes. These include directing attention, planning future tasks, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour, multitasking, and a variety of socially-orientated tasks. Indeed, psychological testing has even shown a ‘pubertal dip’ in some areas of performance, such as matching pictures of facial expressions to descriptors.

Although in adult brains the changes are less radical than during childhood, the brain continues to change and develop through adulthood. With increasing age, of course, the brain does become less malleable, and we begin to lose neurons at an increasing rate, although the educational effects of this loss are still not well understood. However, there is also evidence that neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) continues in at least one part of the brain in adulthood. This is in the hippocampus, an area with an important role in learning and memory.

The brain’s continuing plasticity suggests that it is well designed for lifelong learning and adaptation to new situations and experiences, and such adaptation can even bring about significant changes in its structure. Therefore, there is considerable evidence to support that we can continue to learn thoughout our lives.

Our ever increasing knowledge of the brain is producing expectations of new educational insights, and many such insights are already beginning to surface. At the same time, neuroscientists are becoming increasingly interested in how the brain functions in complex environments more closely resembling those found in classrooms. Education thus appears set to become an interesting area of challenge for cognitive neuroscience, as it attempts to explore new contexts. Some neuroscientists have even suggested that education might be considered as “a process of optimal adaptation such that learning is guided to ensure proper brain development and functionality”. This sense of increasing mutual interest underlies calls for a two-way dialogue between neuroscience and education that could helpfully inform both areas.

There is a growing need for collaborations between neuroscience, psychology and education that embrace insights and understanding from each perspective, and that involve educators and scientists working together at each stage. These collaborations are not straightforward, because the philosophies of education and natural science are very different – with various forms of psychology, bridging the two. Educational research, with its roots in social science, places strong emphasis upon the importance of social context and the interpretation of meaning. Natural science, on the other hand, is more concerned with controlled experimental testing of hypotheses and the development of generalisable cause-effect mechanisms. This suggests that collaborative research projects may need to extend the cognitive neuroscience model of brain->mind->behaviour, to incorporate processes of social construction pertinent to learning. Although challenging, such interdisciplinary projects may be the most effective way to co-construct and communicate concepts involving neuroscience, psychology and education that are both scientifically sound and educationally relevant.

Neuroscience is still at an early stage in our understanding of the brain. Most of what we know comes from scientific experimentation, in environments that differ greatly from everyday learning contexts. Another limitation in applying recent studies is their focus upon individual cognitive factors rather than the complex abilities required in everyday or academic settings. And, even in respect of these basic cognitive factors, many recent findings have served to emphasise how much more there is to know.

 This provides an exciting opportunity with so much yet to be discovered, that teaching and learning will only continue to benefit from the rapid advances in neuroscience and it’s growing partnership with teaching, although a fair degree of caution is necessary while the hypotheses, experiments and testing is verified for accuracy and efficacy in the teaching environment to ensure the very best for our learners.

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