How can we each improve our understanding of the brain to improve teaching and learning?
In a short paper, published in May 2020, young children engage with leading scientists to review and edit cutting edge research! Such a brilliant concept…
Learning more about the brain
Researchers from Montreal and Tel Aviv write a short journal to help young people learn how to understand their brain – it’s an interesting paper for two reasons. One, this is an area for discussion where we can all learn, plus two, young people are involved in producing the peer-reviewed journal.
This is my summary of the article on my bid to learn more about the brain and how it can improve teaching and learning.
The brain is composed of about 85 billion neurons. A “neuron is a cell which acts as a messenger, sending information in the form of nerve impulses (like electrical signals)”.
Each neuron can be connected with up to 10,000 other neurons – think of a giant spider web – and when we are learning, important changes happening in the brain, including the creation of these new connections.
The greater the connection (practice), the stronger the synapse sends an electrical (nerve) impulse between two nerve cells (neurons). It’s how we remember things (declarative knowledge) and perform actions (procedural knowledge).
This is called neuroplasticity, or the ability of your brain to create, strengthen, weaken or dismantle this connection between two neurons.
Rote learning is essential
The more we practice the stronger these connections become – which is why rote learning, recall, testing (exams) or retrieval practice – whatever you call it – is essential for teaching and learning.
In the journal submitted, there is a lovely analogy which is given.
Walking through a woodland without a path is challenging. We have to push through the vegetation. But if we continue to use the same path over and over, gradually a track starts to form and the easier it becomes to follow the trail.
“If we stop using the trail, the vegetation grows back, and the trail slowly disappears. This is very similar to what happens in your brain- when you stop practising something, the connections between your neurons weaken and can ultimately be dismantled or pruned.”
Learning strategies that strengthen your brain
The journal highlights the first strategy, repeatedly activating your neurons. Teachers will be familiar with retrieval practice and the many strategies that can be used – it’s important to select the correct task.
To create connections between neurons, one must retrieve from memory and activate connections. This ‘struggle’ activates learning and some of you will be familiar with desirable difficulties (Bjork, 1992) – learning should be hard.
Retrieval strengthens neurons, but feedback matters
Sitting tests also helps to remember information rather than just studying (Zaromb and Roediger, 2010).
Note, retrieval practice must be low-stakes and be engaging which contributes to the strengthening between neurons. Students should also receive feedback to know whether they have something correct or incorrect – how feedback is provided, matters.
The second strategy which is promoted is spacing (or spaced practice). Practising content more often, but for a shorter period of time. For example, rather than trying to learn the piano in 2 or 3-hour segments, approach the challenge in regular and shorter sessions.
Scientists who study the learning brain observed that breaks and sleep between learning periods enhance learning and minimize forgetting (Callan and Schweighofer, 2010). If we want to improve learning for some students, is it time to move away from 60-minute lessons?
PDF version: Understanding Your Brain to Help You Learn Better (Frontiers for Young Minds)