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Learning and the Brain: Present and Future

Learning and the Brain:
Where Are We and Where Do We Need to Be?

The first of a continuing series of workshops and discussions on this topic, sponsored by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is being held in Aurora, Illinois on 20 October 2007. As background, panelists were asked to briefly describe what they felt were the most important current understandings of the brain for educational practice, and what directions they felt research could most productively take in the future. Their thoughts are provided here. Your thoughts are welcome in the on-line forum below, open to all interested. Postings will be reviewed to avoid spam, and so may be delayed in appearing. For additional general background, see Serendip's Brain and Education Resources and Brain and Education: Thinking About New Directions.


Kalina Christoff (University of British Columbia)

Kurt Fischer (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

To build better educational research and practice, we need to create a community of educators and scientists to connect practice and research, so that research informs practice, and simultaneously practice informs research. Already, several cognitive/neuroscientific principles for education in the classroom provide means for improving educational practice by building better learning environments and analyzing learning pathways – both commonalities and differences. For example, research on development and learning provides a common ruler (scale) for analyzing diverse learning pathways and connecting them to teaching and curriculum, all within a single framework. Related questions and challenges include ....

What are learning pathways through which students build knowledge in schools, and how can we specify them in ways that will help teachers use them to improve learning? How do we deal with learning differences?

Students are naturally motivated to learn about key interest areas, showing what we call epistemic motivation. How can schools and parents more effectively connect this natural interest in learning with the knowledge that students need to learn in schools and at home?

The tools of modern technology provide enormous potential for motivating and supporting learning, as evidenced in computer games on the one hand and in the best educational software and programming on the other. How can schools effectively use these technological tools to promote learning?

Paul Grobstein (Bryn Mawr College) - meeting presentation notes 

Existing understandings with implications for classroom practice ....
The nervous system is spontaneously active, generating outputs along with predictions of input. Inputs which don't match predictions facilitate learning. Classrooms need to be better organized to encourage exploratory output, prediction generation, and associated learning.

Much of learning occurs unconsciously, without awareness on the part of either student or teacher of what inputs are being processed and how. Classrooms need to be better organized to take account of unconscious learning, and to encourage conscious reflection on associated changes.

Important challenges for future research ...
Human behavior in general, and educational activities in particular, depends fundamentally on dynamic and reciprocal interactions between unconscious and conscious processing. There is a need for new research that targets explicitly the respective contributions of unconscious and conscious processing to learning and, in particular, the mechanisms by which they interact both counter-productively and productively.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (University of Southern California)

What I think is important:
Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning and decision-making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. In particular, the neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision-making and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.

What needs to be done in the future:
Further research is needed to explore the role of emotion in learning as it plays out both in school contexts and in the real world. In particular, the role of social interaction is critical to better understand, for the neural platforms for social functioning may well be heavily intertwined with platforms for more traditional academic learning.

New insights from the neurobiology of emotion may also have implications for traditional academic issues such as transfer and generalizability of knowledge outside of the classroom context, for processes involved in motivation, and for processes related to engagement and interest. These must be more thoroughly explored.

Stephanie Pace Marshall (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy)

The increasing complexity, interdependency and urgency of our most significant social, political, and economic issues—local, national, and global—require that learners of all ages intentionally and continuously develop, access and increase their capacities and potentials for critical, creative, ethical, and integrative thinking and problem-solving.

Advances in the learning sciences, especially neuroscience and its research on "self-directed neuroplasticity" (Jeffrey Schwartz) “suggest” if not demonstrate, that thinking actually changes the structure and function of our brains.

Understanding this capacity of our minds to change our brains, has far-reaching implications for the transformation of learning and schooling, and the context and conditions in which our children’s whole minds are ignited, activated, and nurtured, by design.

Our children must learn how to continually increase the capacity of their minds.

Marvin Minsky (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Uri Wilensky (Northwestern University)

Why is there so much pattern in the world? The secret to the beautiful and functional patterns we observe in nature and society is that the large-scale patterns arise from the interactions of lots of smaller pieces, a process known as emergence. Cognitive science research has demonstrated the considerable difficulties people have with understanding emergent phenomena. New agent-based computer modeling tools enable learners to overcome these difficulties and consequently to develop deep understandings of complex systems. They enable young learners to understand advanced content and all learners to engage in inquiry and to make sense of the interdependent nature of so many ecological, economic and social problems. These tools are increasingly in use by the research community and are infusing into education at all levels of instruction. The challenge is to manage and scale-up this transition so that all students can benefit.


Ron C. de Weijze's picture

In support of personal memory

The brain is the highest level 'functional structure' imaginable that nature has accomplished in the universe as we know it. We should cherish it for life, and the way to do that, I presume, is by keeping record of all content that it copes with, assesses as 'true', and needs to pass on to others, even next generations. Now, this may sound a bit overestimating ourselves, but I believe that as we have found out how to enhance writing inventing the typewriter, enhance counting inventing the calculator, enhance computing... in a similar way we are finding or have found out how to enhance learning and thinking. And I am not referring to old metaphors as the steam-engine (explaining drives and needs), the telephone-centre (explaining cables and wires of the brain) or even the blackboard/screen and chalk/typing-pad of the computer. I do mean our current capability to trace and dump any serendipity or lateral (brain) activity that spontaneous action and intuitive improvisation creates, as roots and branches of trees that people develop in dialogues, exchanges and interactions. If anything assesses their unique (shared) being, it is that network of trees and of constantly renewed recollections. Memory is all-important. Even cancer-research is targeting the memory of cells to exploit the 'memorized' knowledge of their own health! In a similar way, I am convinced and I have turned into my project, people, particularly students and learners of all kinds, are to be supported in their recollections of 'good times' when they were able to cope with particular things, in context. Times change and so do people, including their coping strategies. However, times may return in the same or even greater intensities, which may trigger the need to know again, to re-learn, what that best way of coping was. Then, recollection needs to be instant, total and top quality. We do have counselors for that, but I believe it is like with predicting the weather: today is the best predictor for tomorrow. People's own memories are the best instances for recollection to cope with returning situations. Systematic support is needed to counter the second law of thermodynamics, that makes memories disappear into oblivion. That is where schooling comes into play, revitalizing those insights and coping mechanisms. Having a fire-drill every half year so to speak. These instances of memory need to be 'dumped' into personal knowledgebases, assorted into personalized categories, where they are interrelated for better sustenance, for better understanding and for prediction and alertness. Each of these categories is one more property of personal life, and each of these instances of memory, when reused in different categories, binds the roots, branches, trees, networks into one being, one person, unforgettable, at least for him/herself but in the long run for us too.

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