Learning and the Brain

by Jeff Camp | January 26, 2018 | 0 Comments
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The Life of the Mind

We each know what it feels like to think. To reason. To learn something.

It is easy to imagine that other people experience thought in roughly the same way we do because, well, how would we know any different? We each experience life through the filter between our ears.

But our brains don't all work alike. To pick a trivial example, some of us are right-handed and some are left-handed. Even that is a simplification. My mother is left-handed, but she has come to prefer right-handed scissors. My wife always writes with her right hand, but only because her parents insisted on it when she was a child. When learning any new activity, she finds it easier to favor her left.

Brains are lumpy. For most everyone, some things are easier to learn or remember than others. Even the brilliant don't necessarily shine brightly in every direction. For my son, for example, math concepts stick like velcro, but names squirm away like eels.

Three pounds of neurons

Educators have to try to get inside the heads of their students.

Three pounds of neurons in spinal soup define who we are. Experts strain to understand the brain, how it works, and what it can do. Each person's brain develops through context. That context includes education, certainly, but also relationships, experiences, toxins, drugs, injuries, fatigue and infections.

David Eagleman, a Stanford neuroscientist who will speak at the upcoming Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco, describes the uniqueness of our brains as "each living on our own planet." The mysteries of individuality endlessly inspire writers, musicians and artists. We can't know what goes on in another one's head.

But educators and parents have to try. At PTA meetings, professional development seminars and conferences, they learn about new ideas to help them get "inside the heads" of students. Researchers and writers vie for attention for their new insights and ideas, which almost by definition are perhaps just a little speculative. Every year or two the main insight from of a book will spread through school communities like branches from the tree of wisdom.

Or, unfortunately, like kudzu.


Some popular insights about learning and the brain aren't true.

Ideas about the brain tend to spread if they are interesting and simple, even if they aren't true. Sometimes, a research-based insight will mutate through retelling into misinformation. Here are examples.

Left/Right Brain. For many years a popular misconception held that people are either "left-brained" (analytical) or "right-brained" (creative). Basically, the whole idea turns out to be a misinterpretation. Further research demonstrated that cognitive functions are better understood as requiring the interaction of many regions across both hemispheres of the brain. More importantly, the implication that students are either analytical or creative (in the same way that they are mostly left handed or right handed) is a false choice.

Learning Styles. Another popular misconception holds that each student comes pre-wired only for a particular "learning style" (visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic). The theory didn't hold up to scrutiny; students have preferences, but for many students those preferences can evolve or overlap as their skills develop. The "learning style" model can do harm if it causes students to believe that they cannot learn unless material is presented to them in a particular way. It can also do harm if it leads parents or educators to gloss over learning issues like dyslexia or dysgraphia, treating them as mere differences of learning style. (On a positive note, the idea of learning styles may have had some benefit: it encouraged teachers and curriculum developers to be creative in their presentation of facts and concepts.)

Gotta Get Grit. It's obvious that students who give up when the going gets tough won't be as successful as those who stick with it. But persistence is only one factor in success, and there are risks to overdoing a message that "grit is it." When students don't do well, it's not always their fault. Over-emphasis on grit can unintentionally lead to blaming the victim.

Grind On. Some parents or teachers push students to put in a lot of time on homework, wrongly interpreting the 10,000 hour "rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. It isn't really a rule at all, but an observation: to become really good at something requires considerable time spent in deliberate practice. The "deliberate practice" aspect is the bit most often lost in the retelling; the main point isn't the number of hours you grind away, but the quality of focus you bring to it. Compliant repetition doesn't lead to mastery.

Brain Health

The brain is a part of the body, and there is plenty of evidence that students learn better when they are healthy. Here are a just a few things that schools and families can do.

Promote Sleep. Sleepy kids don't learn well. To get the rest they need, students need to turn of their phone and go to bed! School districts can do their part by setting school start times that don't interfere with the natural diurnal cycle. Humans evolved to awake after dawn.

Promote movement. There is ample evidence that exercise supports cognition. Some schools are better than others at building movement into their daily plan.

Hydrate. It doesn't get simpler than this: Dehydration interferes with clear thinking. If your school doesn't have convenient and appealing water fountains, it's worth looking into.

Be skeptical of headlines!

It is good for parents and teachers to learn about child psychology and brain science research, but there are risks, too. Research turns into received wisdom through a flawed process. Insights from research lose nuance when summarized. Those summaries are further condensed into into headlines, tweets and memes. Robbed of context, even insights like the value of praising effort can be taken too far.

Scientists are usually pretty careful about drawing conclusions from research, including their own. If your school or PTA holds a meeting about learning and the brain, or a discussion about differences in how students learn, try looking beyond the headlines, or beyond secondary sources that summarize research. Search online and you will usually be able to find the original research behind a trending idea. Yes, it will be full of numbers and technical language, but you may find that a few minutes of skimming can change your understanding of a research conclusion.

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