From the Principal’s Desk – 25 July, 2019
Over the last few years, with the advances in neuro-science, a great deal has been written about how our brains work and how students learn.
Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (Latin American Social Science Research Faculty, Ecuador) in an interview with Rafael Heller in Kappan, shared some recent findings by the Delphi panel – a group of experts in neuroscience, psychology, and education.
She firstly debunks the following “mistaken beliefs” still held by many teachers and parents:
- That students have differing learning styles;
- That it’s possible to do more than one cognitively demanding task at the same time;
- That specific abilities (for example, math, reading, spatial perception) are localized in specific parts of the brain;
- That there are significant differences between male and female brains (there are small differences, but there’s far more brain variation among men and among women).
Tokuhama-Espinosa warns us to be wary of all the commercial programs on the market that are selling products to schools and parents based on bogus claims:
“It’s always good to be skeptical about commercial products based on brain research,” she says. “Don’t be fooled by how many scientists a company has on its advisory board, or what they’ve been able to teach rats in the lab, or even what they’ve been able to teach some kids under controlled conditions. It’s just not that straightforward to turn research findings into effective programs and apps. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Instead, she cites the following 6 core principles about how all brains work – across contexts or cultures:
- Human brains are as unique as human faces; the basic structure is similar, but each person’s unique genetic makeup combines with life experiences (and free will) to shape neural pathways.
- Each individual’s brain is differently prepared to learn different tasks; the variables are the person’s biology and genetic makeup, prenatal and perinatal events, environmental exposures, the learning context, prior learning experiences, and personal choices.
- New learning is influenced by prior experiences; the brain is highly efficient in decoding external experiences and comparing them with existing memories.
- The brain is constantly changing based on individual experiences; these changes, part of a complex, dynamic, integrated system, occur at the molecular level, even before they are visible in behaviour.
- The brain is plastic; that’s true throughout the lifespan, though there are important developmental differences by age.
- No new learning takes place without some form of memory and some form of attention; most school learning requires that working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory are functioning, as well as conscious attention.
Tokuhama-Espinosa encourages teachers to act on the above findings and use them to reflect on their teaching strategies and their effectiveness.
“I think this is the best way to empower teachers,” she says. “If they know the science, then that allows them to be better researchers in the classroom. And, you know, teachers do more experiments in a day than a neuroscientist does in a lifetime. They may not document it or present it at conferences, but they are always experimenting, constantly asking themselves, What do I plan to do? What did I actually do? Did it work? Why or why not? And the science gives them the background knowledge they need to make those judgments.”
“What We Know (and Think We Know) About the Learning Brain: An Interview with Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa” by Rafael Heller in Phi Delta Kappan