Brain Science: Building the Brain you Want

Human BrainReal teachers cherish the expertise they have acquired, and are still acquiring. The excitement of education derives, in part, from the never-ending streams of new insights that flow in from other disciplines. Perhaps the most exciting of these are the revelations of neuroscience, a new and fast-paced outpouring of research that is upsetting many of our former beliefs.

For example, we now know that human brains do develop and produce new neurons after the age of two. In fact brain modification takes place throughout life.

We even know something about how the brain actually works. The brain uses a vast array of neuron cells to represent information. The meaning attributed to them is in the particular configuration of the neurons and in the intensity of their signals.

In infants the brain begins to shape itself in response to whatever stimuli are presented to it. This has negative consequences, for example, when noise from a variety of external and internal sources corrupts the sound patterns a child hears. The results are often linguistic impairment or even autism.

Neuroplasticity is the name given to the way the brain changes itself systematically. In the Adult Plasticity phase the brain has begun to take strategic control of its own construction in response to stimuli or behaviors that have acquired some importance to the individual. Individuals who read Braille, for example, have an enhance brain segment which maps the sensations of the hand.

It can be said that the “self” emerges on the way to adulthood as the brain constructs itself in response to the experiences that are unique to  each individual. Each person is, in fact, a unique specialist.

In short the brain changes every time we learn a new skill.

The brain can change itself in three ways:

  1. Chemically, by increasing or decreasing the chemicals which help transmit neural signals.  This can increase short-term performance but does not lead to long-term results.
  2. By altering its structure, re configuring its networks to provide longer-term effectiveness.
  3. By altering its function, moving functions to different parts of the brain. This is often important when parts of the brain are damaged. The affected function can be moved to another set of neurons.

It is behavior that drives changes in the brain. There is no shortcut to activating plasticity. Changes are a response to behavior. This explains why learning new skills requires practice. It has been observed, furthermore, that greater struggle produces better results. According to the research each learner has to do the work that her brain requires.

Understanding brain plasticity must lead educators to wonder about our public education system. Based on an industrial model of just-in-time manufacturing students are expected to be ready for the next step as they move from Kindergarten to PhD. It is a cohort-based education that is always frustrated when students are not functioning at the prescribed level.

Brain science is telling us that intellectual diversity is the norm as brains shape themselves to meet the needs that are important to each individual. This is certainly a plea for some form of personalized education and for students to be metacognitively responsible. According to brain science we each have greater success when we repeat the behaviors that work for us, strengthening already established neuronal patterns.

We have long been told, and ignored the fact, that students have individual learning styles. Brain science suggests that the problem goes much deeper. In fact, our brains have been self-designed to meet our individual needs, not always aligned with the requirements of a cohort education.

Furthermore, the ongoing development of a brain is an active process, an adaptation to each behavior we undertake. This fact has a certain gravity since the behaviors involved can also be of a negative character. For example, drug addiction. Our brains can get good at it if necessary.

The classroom implication is that we need to think carefully about the behaviors and skills we want students to acquire. If we require them to learn simply by listening  there will likely be insufficient behavior to stimulate a healthy brain development. We risk having them become good at alternatives to boredom and unwilling to engage in significant learning behaviors because the activities are not truly relevant.

Brain science is generating massive amounts of new insight at a phenomenal rate. Among those poised to benefit are educators. But one wonders whether, after two thousand years of “chalk and talk” we are ready to pick up the pace.