by Kirsten Olson
New Research on Brains
you are in education, you are in the business of brain development. If
you are leading a modern corporation, you need to know how brains
--John Medina, Brain Rules, 2008
Recently I attended a conference on designing instruction based on new understandings of the brain, and an educator in the audience raised a question: Based on how the brain learns, does a whole-language (constructivist) or a phonics-based program better support literacy in young learners? The conference presenters paused and then said they couldn't answer the question because, they emphasized, brains are too complex to think about in this way -- they learn neither top down or bottom up, but process information simultaneously from both directions -- and no brains process information exactly the same way. A silence fell in the audience after this answer, as it underscored a central emphasis of the conference presentations -- that one (or two) approaches to learning really don't meet the needs of students anymore, and that conceiving of learning as "top down or bottom up" also isn't really useful. In fact, as the question revealed, we don't even have accurate physical models or metaphors for imagining learning -- we are hampered by the crudity of our conceptual models. The question and answer underscored the ways in which we have to reconceptualize how we conceive of learning based on how we are coming to understand the brain. As educators we are engaged in a revolution in how we think about teaming, and we are only beginning to work out classroom and instructional technologies that respond to learner diversity.
While this is not primarily a book about the neurobiology of learning, some critical new findings are important for educators to understand, based on some of the work being done by individuals like Anne Meyer and David Rose, cognitive researchers and designers of learning principles and technologies that tap the capacities of new media to create more effective teaching and assessment practices in the classroom. In an early paper Rose and Meyer, cofounders of the Center for Applied Special Technology in Wakefield, Massachusetts, outlined some fundamental neuropsychological principles educators need to be aware of as they plan curriculum and assessment.
- Learning in the brain is highly modularized. We learn about the color of an object in a different part of the brain than where we learn about its shape. The brain processes the word cat in a different region when the word is presented in print than when it is presented in speech, or when it is composing the word for speaking. The brain has lots of distributed modules that work in parallel, each with highly specialized learning functions.
- The pattern of activity varies depending on the task. When we listen to a speech, a different part of our brain is activated than when we listen to a symphony. The brain has a "signature" activity that corresponds to the task it is performing.
- The distribution for the task varies across individuals. Each individual has a particular "map" of activity: The brain activity of a person who has perfect pitch looks different from that of someone with normal pitch, or someone who is tone deaf. As John Medina says, "No two people's brains store the same information in the same way in the same place."
- The maps change as we learn. Novices use their brains differently from experts. The size of individual processing modules can grow and shrink based on experience, even in adults, so the brain is constantly adapting and reconfiguring itself based on experience and environment.
From our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the way the brain operates when it is learning, and the way it is changed by the act of learning, we also are beginning to understand that there is no one type of learner, but a great variety of learners. As Rose and Meyer point out, individuals who are "learning disabled" in a print-based environment may not be in a video- or audio-based environment. Making video- or audio-based learning opportunities more available allows educators to notice the unusual strengths of children: the visual memory of an autistic child or the capacity to recognize facial expressions among aphasics. "Given these data," says researcher John Medina, "Does it make any sense to have school systems that expect every brain to learn like every other? . . . The current system is founded on a series of expectations that certain learning goals should be achieved by a certain age. Yet there is no reason to suspect that the brain pays attention to those expectations. Students of the same age show a great deal of intellectual variability. . . . For example about 10 percent of students do not have brains sufficiently wired to read at the age at which we expect them to read. Lockstep models based simply on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology."
These new data have powerful implications for how we should conceive of instruction and how we think about "disability" in learning. "Co- locating" the disability of the learner with the environment is increasingly helpful in conceiving of how to meet the needs of individual learners -- asking ourselves how the environment in which we are creating instruction can or cannot meet the needs of the learners in question (Is the learner disabled, or is it the school?). Thus it is clear that our whole system of conceiving of instruction and curriculum design requires dramatic paradigm shifts. While there is wonderful work afoot on this front, most of it has emerged out of experiences with pupils traditionally labeled learning disabled. This new research is not necessarily translating very effectively into "regular" classroom instruction. Thus our wounded schools struggle along, trying to keep pace with new brain research and the increasingly sophisticated data on how learning occurs. Once again, as many of these new understandings of the brain are operationalized and more fully understood, it is not clear that the old-fashioned classroom model can accommodate these new ideas and knowledge. Again, John Medina notes that, "If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom."
The above is an excerpt from the book Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture by Kirsten Olson. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2009 Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture