Better Understanding of Learning Based On Neuro-Cognitive Researches

G. Balasubramanian is a doyen of school education in India. He has held several positions of leadership at CBSE, including Director Academics. He was the brain behind the introduction of several innovations at CBSE, which included frontline curriculum, communicative approach to language teaching, Information Technology, alternatives to homework, etc. He is also an author, poet and a sought-after speaker at educational conferences world over. This article has been taken from G. Balasubramanian’s offi­cial website

Classrooms have quite often been victims of some perceived notions of teachers which has been handed over to them either by their mentors or their peers. The perceptions developed about how learning happens in the classrooms have also been consequent to some classical conditioning of their own thought processes based on their past experiences. Further, their own learning from the training in teacher training institutes has given them a few guidelines based on the theories of the past. While a large number of these belief systems have an ever-lasting validity, some of them have become and are becoming irrelevant in the context of emerging social changes.

Recent researches and studies about how brain functions and how learning happens have revealed a number of truths which I think are fundamental to learning and hence classrooms. Teachers, immaterial of the classes they handle, need to understand them and respond appropriately both in the design of their pedagogy as well as its delivery.

1. Learning is basically a neural activity

Research by Kandel, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work, indicates that learning always leads to a neural connect. Every single input received by the brain leads to a neural connect – either new or re-engineering of the existing neural connect. He observed that when people learn something, the wiring in the brain changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple information involves physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Thus, there is a continuous functional organisation and reorganisation of the brain. Some of the factors that influence learning are:

  • Previous knowledge and experience

  • Cultural contexts

  • Geographical contexts

  • Social contexts

  • Interests and aptitudes

  • Levels of understanding

2. How does the brain process information?

The brain processes most things from left hemisphere to the right hemisphere spatially. The time is processed from past to future. Learning takes place not in any specific area of the brain only but as an interaction between different segments in the brain. They claim that ‘Words are nothing but art museums in our brain- in the form of straight lines, circles, and other art forms. There is no such thing for the eye called words!’

Left hemisphere processes – words, definitions and language (in speaking). Right hemisphere processes- inflection, tonality, tempo and volume.

Researches by George Ojemann and others indicate that every piece of information, verbal, visual or through other senses, is stored in different places in the brain. ‘The biological organs remain the same way, the tissues are the same and the nerves work in a similar fashion. It is when you get to the smaller routes – the brain’s equivalent of residential streets, one-lanes dirt roads- the individual patterns begin to show up. Every brain has a lot of these smaller paths, and to no two people they are identical’. Different types of competencies are stored in different parts of the brain. The region involved for language processing- words, verb and grammatical concepts are different. Bilingual people don’t even store the skills in similar places.

3. Meaning Making is a significant activity of the brain

The brain processes information at the demand of a situation, organises, synthesises and compares the same with the previous information and provides a meaning. Such an exercise of making meaning may vary from one learner to the other depending on previous perceptions, context, content and emotions. The speed at which such a process occurs varies from one individual to another. They are synthesised through three general patterns of encoding, according to the Brain scientists:

a. Semantic encoding

b. Phonic encoding

c. Structural encoding

The way the mind interprets and understand is based on the relationship it has with materials and people. In a learning environment the relationship between the teacher and the student, the school and the student, the relationship between the peers is of great significance.

4. Emotions impact Learning

Learning is largely an emotional experience. Hence the quantum and quality of learning, the speed of learning, memory and its recall are impacted by the emotional content in the inputs leading to learning. “Emotionally Competent Stimuli” lead to effective learning and help in facilitating long-term memory and in transferring short-term memory to long-term memory. At the same time, negative emotions could lead to stress and stressful learning leads to loss of memory, conflicts in knowledge management, poor understanding and aversion to further learning.

5. Spaced repetition helps in learning

Repetition and spaced repetition help in empowering learning. One needs to understand that repetition is not “rote learning” but a simple academic exercise in facilitating empowered learning. Further repetition helps in recall of the previous knowledge and helps in connecting fresh information with the previous knowledge. Spaced repetition improves the confidence profile of the learners and hence could motivate for further learning.

6. Exercises are vital for effective learning

Physical exercises help in effective learning. In one of the studies it was observed that children who jogged 30 minutes twice or thrice a week had their cognitive abilities improved significantly compared to their pre-jogging cognitive abilities. At the molecular level, studies indicate one of the brain’s most powerful growth factors, BDNF- Brain Derived Neuro-trophic Factor, exerts a fertilizer like growth effect. The protein keeps existing neurons young and healthy, rendering them more willing to connect with one another. It also increases neuro-genesis, the formation of new cells in the body.

7.The brain is not designed for formal instruction

Researches clearly indicate that the brain is poorly designed for formal instruction. In fact, it is not at all designed for efficiency or order. Rather, it develops best through selection and survival. According to brain scientists, “the information is literally sliced into discreet pieces as it enters the brain and splattered all over the brain.” They add, “We have no idea how the brain routinely and effortlessly gives the impression of stability.”

In short, these can be said about the brain’s learnability:

· It is not linear

· It is not structured

· It is not predictable

· It cannot be instructed

· The brain always does a multi-process

8. Brain maps vary continuously

“One day’s brain mapping will no more be valid for the next day,” says Edwin Boring of Harvard University. This observation has a significant importance in the field of assessment, as we try to assess the learning of a child at different points of time. Hence, assessment while learning and assessment on learning vary and possibly both contribute to the quality and purpose of the assessment. This also has an impact on the need for continuity in learning concepts in order that the brain maps stay relevant for further learning.

9. How much can we learn?

There is absolutely no limit to our learning. It varies from individual to individual. According to a study of UCLA, California “Throughout our lives we use just a fraction of our brain’s thinking ability. We could without any difficulty whatever, learn 40 languages, memorize a set of encyclopaedias from A to Z and complete the required courses of dozens of colleges.”

Can you believe when they say ‘your brain is capable of having more ideas than the number of atoms in the known universe’?

10. Synaesthesia is a unique feature of the brain

Researches indicate that the brain has the capacity of synaesthesia – ‘A surreal blending of sensation, perception and emotion’. This is indeed a stage somewhat between reality and fantasy. People with synaesthesia experience the ordinary world in extra-ordinary ways. This feature of the brain facilitates imagination, creativity and also innovation. Multi-sensory integration of the learning also impacts synaesthesia.

In an entirely dynamic system of learning, some of these understanding could help us to review and refocus our pedagogical processes to make our classrooms more relevant, interactive and purposeful.

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