“If you wanted to get your car fixed, you’d likely go to a mechanic. For legal help, you’d find an attorney. To understand the brain and how we learn, would you go to a teacher? Probably not. Yet every year, millions of parents trust that the professionals who teach their children know something about the brain and processes of learning” (Jensen, 1998, p. 7).
While this simple observation is so apparent to me now, how is it that I had never considered the fundamental importance of understanding the linkage between the structure and functions of the brain and how we learn? Sure, I know that students have different learning styles and the role that sleep coupled with nutrition and physical activity play in brain development and student’s ability to learn. But, I also harbored many misconceptions about the brain and learning. We only use 10% of our brains? Hogwash, according to Sara Bernard’s article Neuro Myths: Separating Fact and Fiction in Brain-Based Learning. The most important learning takes place by the time we are three years old? Another neuro-myth busted by Bernard’s article. We are either left-brained or right-brained learners? This is simply not the case. Clearly, I have a lot to learn. Aside from replacing erroneous facts, the reading and exploration I engaged in this week and last has begun a process of enlightened understanding of the role that our very complex brain plays in learning.
Perhaps the biggest leap in my awareness of the potential that my understanding of how the brain functions, and a direct positive impact that I can have on my students has to deal with dopamine. According to Wolfe (2010) dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays two major roles in the brain, “control conscious motor activity and to enhance pleasurable feelings in the brain’s reward system” p. 61. Illicit drugs enhance the pleasurable effects of dopamine by “inhibiting dopamine reuptake in the VTA, effectively causing more dopamine to remain in the synapse. The excess of dopamine overstimulates the nucleus, producing a pleasure response” (Wolfe, 2010, p. 67).
Can we use this understanding of dopamine’s influence on producing pleasurable sensations to our advantage as educators? Neurologist Judy Willis has some interesting insight. According to Willis, “dopamine is released when the brain makes a prediction or achieves a challenge and gets the feedback that it was correct” further elaborating that “As you meet your incremental goals and have repeated experiences of dopamine-reward, you will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote neuroplasticity, and this makes a neural network that expects positive outcomes into your new default network” (Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE! para. 4). How can I apply this neuro-knowledge to creating best outcomes for my students? Clearly, I need to focus on creating a learning environment that fosters and supports repeated success for my students, initiating a steady and predictable dopamine release that chemically rewards and “hooks” my students on learning, and more importantly, success.
Babies are another topic heavy on my mind this week. Not in the sense of desiring one of my own, but rather, the insight and inspiration that babies have to offer the field of education. In John Medina’s book Brain Rules (2008) babies are touted as great explorers of the natural world through determination, grit, curiosity and the structure and functioning of their brains. A case in point; according to Medina (2008) babies are continuously utilizing the scientific method to observe, form hypothesis, create and carry out experiments, and make modifications to their original hypothesis based on the results; all by merely sticking out their tongue as a “mirror” neuron reaction to an external stimulus. This is a link Brain Rule 12 to a presentation of resources I created that explores this topic further.
Unfortunately, according to Medina, the wonder of exploration is quickly lost as babies grow into children that go to school and discover that exploration for the simple sake of learning is replaced by a system that codifies and measures learning to the point of “anesthetizing both the process and the child” (p. 273). An educational visionary, Medina (2008) goes on to discuss his ideal “college of education that studies the brain” (p. 276) that would have the following components: consistent exposure to the real world, consistent exposure to people who operate in the real world, and consistent exposure to practical research programs. It seems that Medina intuitively sees the value in educators understanding the link between brain sciences and learning as a means to nurture our natural instinct of intellectual exploration. I would argue that this framework would translate well to a secondary curriculum that focused on providing students real-world, rigorous and relevant experiences that would foster their exploration of learning. This exploration could lead towards a future career path and would help to provide the connection between learning and “life after high school” that so many students are lacking. What if the standard in schools was educators that actually had real-life experience in the content areas that they teach and were actively involved in pursuing this duality of their professional core? What if history teachers were actually historians? Could business teachers actually operate their own business? Could an English teacher be a better resource for students if she is actively writing, editing, or blogging? The educational system as we know it would have to revolutionize, but isn’t it time for dynamic change? John Medina thinks so; “I wish classrooms and businesses were designed with the brain in mind. If we started over, curiosity would be the most vital part of both demolition crew and reconstruction crew” (p. 279). It seems like it’s time to fix that rattle under the hood.
Bernard, Sara. 12/01/2012. Neuro Myths: Separating Fact and Fiction in Brain-Based Learning. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-myth-busting.
Jensen, Eric. 1998.Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Medina, John. 2008. Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Willis, Judy. 5/22/2012. How to Rewire Your Burned-Out Brain: Tips from a Neurologist. Retried from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teacher-burnout-neurology-judy-willis-md.
Wolfe, P. (2010). Brain Matters (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.