What I know now about how the brain works

Cognitive science – how the brain works – is quite important to teaching and learning. So why is it that it’s only been in the last three years of my career (which started in 1996) that I’ve learned anything about it?

I am certainly not an expert. My science qualifications go up to GCSE level. You would think that a postgraduate certificate in education would include something on the functioning of the organ that the job is primarily concerned with, but no. I learned about Piaget and Vygostsky, but having gone through the three lever-arch files of PGCE notes this is all I could find about the brain:

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

What’s even stranger is that I didn’t notice the lack. I taught, led departments and cross-curricular teams, developed curricula, mentored new trainees, and never once stopped to wonder whether I was missing something – until blogs opened my eyes.

Through blogs like David Fawcett’s excellent My Learning Journey and David Didau’s LearningSpy I was introduced to the works of Daniel Willingham and Robert Bjork, and going back further Hermann Ebbinghaus and others. More recently I read an excellent blog from David Bunker on using Willingham to help teach English – a subject close to my own heart – and self-confessed science geek Ashley Loynton pointed me in the direction of  The Human Memory site, my new go-to place for mind-boggling. I am still very much an amateur, and painfully aware that partial understanding can be dangerous. However, I am going to attempt to share my understanding with staff at my school in the next couple of weeks, so here’s what I know now about how the brain works. If I’ve got anything terribly wrong, or you can help clarify my lack of expertise, please let me know in  the comments before I make a fool of myself in front of the Psychology department…

Neurons, synapses and neural networks

Neurons are brain cells; synapses are the connections between neurons. When learning takes place, a new synapse is formed. At first, this connection is fragile and tentative, but every time it is used again it strengthens. Eventually, well-trodden pathways between neurons become networks which can be travelled rapidly, instinctively, and unconsciously. This is why I can drive my car without really thinking about it, but why I need to look up the year of Shakespeare’s birth every time I want to know it. It’s also why our brain can play tricks on us, looking to run through well-established neural networks even when the situation demands a road less travelled.

Neural plasticity

Neural or synaptic plasticity is the ability of a synaptic connection to develop in strength and efficiency. It is why, if we want students to learn things, we need to get them to repeat them, and why revision – seeing things again – is such an important process.

Revision - seeing things again - is essential for securing learning

Revision – seeing things again – is essential for securing learning

The formation of these neural networks in our brains means that we need to plan for learning which encourages repetition and channels students’ energies into building strong, resilient and efficient synaptic connections. Covering it once and moving on just won’t cut it.

Cognitive Science and the Growth Mindset

In my amateurish way, I think I can see why the growth mindset makes sense as an approach. It seems self-evident that the forming of new synaptic connections and the development of strong neural networks is “growth” in the genuine physical sense – the formation of a new or stronger connection in the biology of our brains. I felt slightly uncomfortable with Dweck’s “the brain is a muscle – it gets stronger the more you use it” idea, which seemed over-simplistic. But now I can see the roots of her metaphor in the growth of the brain’s synaptic connections.

Synaptic transmission (image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_synapse)

Every time I teach now, I think about what is happening in the brain. I can’t believe I never did before. But then, I didn’t know it before. Now I do, I think about it all the time. And that’s how learning works, isn’t it?

Post script: here are twelve mind-bending facts about the brain from Buzzfeed as a bonus assembly/tutor time/thunk activity!

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15 thoughts on “What I know now about how the brain works

  1. If you’re worried about looking like a fool you might not want to talk to much about this. It is fascinating, but a much more important lesson for teachers at the moment is to be deeply sceptical of anyone promoting a method based (purely) on neuroscience.

    Willingham’s great, and you will notice that he generally references empirical research (e.g. did the effect predicted by cognitive science manifest in reality). That is because the relationship between neuroscience and learning in humans is almost impossibly complicated and things often do not work as you might expect them.

    How the brain develops is interesting, but it is not a great aid to effective teaching. There is much more directly relevant science (see Willingham). If you want to talk about a way forward, it should be about teachers familiarising themselves with the large number of readily usable findings.

    • Thanks – it’s only a small part of what we’re trying to achieve. I wanted to know what the neuroscience behind growth mindset was, with a view to promoting that as an approach whole school. Our focus is much more on constructive interactions with young people, but what I have been trying to do is find the scientific basis to support it. Your point about the impossibly complex nature of the link between learning and neuroscience is spot on, and I think this is true of much educational research. Sometimes, even in a single lesson, the strategy or technique you employ which you are sure will make the difference completely falls flat. It’s messy, noisy and complex.

      Thanks again for your comment, which has encouraged me to think further and sharpen my approach.

    • Education and learning are not impossibly complicated. It’s very easy to figure out. We have 100,000 of cortical cell columns all doing just 1 thing, the Comparison Process. very likely this creates recognition, language, writng/reading, creativity, math, thinking, our conscience, brain organization and much else. It’s endlessly recursive and can be done again and again, and is self-consistent. It’s the source and origin of a huge number of words, such as understanding, speaking, thinking, creating, in which each word, is embedded the process, plus a huge mulitplicity of tasks/methods based upon it.It has both biochemical, & neuronal basics, sitting in side of our cortices which we share with the other great apes, who can also learn to use Ameslan, and teach it to their young, as do we. That is education/learning. And from this great complexity, which disguises its utter simplicity, comes most of what we are and do. It unites the arts and sciences and our religions, which all come from a single source. it unites all forms of life, as well. It organizes and unifies.

      Le Chanson Sans Fin, Universel: the Comparison Process.
      It’s on jochesh00.wordpress.com.
      Herb Wiggins , field biologist for 50 yrs. Ret. diplomat Am Bd. Psychiatry/Neurology

      • Wow – thank you for your comment! The complexity that I was referring to in educational terms is knowing which of the many many variables it was that made the difference between effective and ineffective learning. Does my enthusiasm for cognitive science make me a more effective teacher than someone with more knowledge but less enthusiasm?
        I appreciate you taking the time to share your enthusiasm – thank you!

      • The most effective forms of learning are of using visual examples. WQe are visual creatures. Our The most effective forms of learning are of using visual examples. WQe are visual creatures. Our entire brain is organized right reversed to left and upside down, modeling the lens image on our retina. An image is worth 1000 words. Showing repeated, relevant examples is another way. The more you show, the more likely the students will get the picture (grin) so to say. Feynman wrote that there was NO one way to teaching students. Many of them had different ways in which they responded to any technique, so teachers have to use a number of different methods. As he was the greatest teacher of physics ever born in the US, we pay attention to him.
        Learning also proceeds faster with re-inforcement. Here’s an example. In French class 48 years ago, our teacher gave us a verbal list of words to recall. One student, Cathy, wrote down as many words as she could. She got the highest recall store after she put her notes away. This is because memory MUST be reinforced to be retained. Taking good notes does this, using writing. Typing it out on a computer, may work nearly as well, but as it’s faster, there is not as much “going back over” what we are writing, Therefore not as much verbal learning by reinforcing may going on.
        If we write out notes, we learn LOTS faster and better than if we just passively listen. When I write out my thoughts on paper, I’m much more likely to recall them, later, too.
        Learning involves Long Term Memory. The more reinforcements, the more likely it will be go into LTM, which requires protein creation of material, relatively permanent, synaptic connections. Learning over a few days is lots better than :Cramming”. The more wakeful, the same. No sleepy student should be tolerated in class. Have ’em get a good espresso and come back. it usually hits, pharmacologically, within 20-25′, being absorbed by the stomach lining. There are other methods, too.
        Learning proceeds from the simple, to the complex, just like the comparison process works. If there are no basics, there can be no learning. Most teachers can teach WAY over the heads of their students. It’s a good teacher who teaches just above the average abilities of her students & knows where that is. that way they don’t get frustrated and you have the most benefit for the most students, tho the brighter ones might get frustrated. So you spice up the material for them too, by giving them extra references if they are interested.
        Enthusiasm always counts. I’d take a worker over a bright student any day. Or as Napoleon once said, “Morale is as three.” He was right.
        that there was NO one way to teaching students. Many of them had different ways in which they responded to any technique, so teachers have to use a number of different methods. As he was the greatest teacher of physics ever born in the US, we pay attention to him.
        Learning also proceeds faster with re-inforcement. Here’s an example. In French class 48 years ago, our teacher gave us a verbal list of words to recall. One student, Cathy, wrote down as many words as she could. She got the highest recall store after she put her notes away. This is because memory MUST be reinforced to be retained. Taking good notes does this, using writing. Typing it out on a computer, may work nearly as well, but as it’s faster, there is not as much “going back over” what we are writing, Therefore not as much verbal learning by reinforcing may going on.
        If we write out notes, we learn LOTS faster and better than if we just passively listen. When I write out my thoughts on paper, I’m much more likely to recall them, later, too.
        Learning involves Long Term Memory. The more reinforcements, the more likely it will be go into LTM, which requires protein creation of material, relatively permanent, synaptic connections. Learning over a few days is lots better than :Cramming”. The more wakeful, the same. No sleepy student should be tolerated in class. Have ’em get a good espresso and come back. it usually hits, pharmacologically, within 20-25′, being absorbed by the stomach lining. There are other methods, too.
        Learning proceeds from the simple, to the complex, just like the comparison process works. If there are no basics, there can be no learning. Most teachers can teach WAY over the heads of their students. It’s a good teacher who teaches just above the average abilities of her students & knows where that is. that way they don’t get frustrated and you have the most benefit for the most students, tho the brighter ones might get frustrated. So you spice up the material for them too, by giving them extra references if they are interested.
        Enthusiasm always counts. I’d take a worker over a bright student any day. Or as Napoleon once said, “Morale is as three.” He was right.
        My blog on Le Chanson Sans Fin will show you lots more, including the wellsprings of creativity

        Herb Wiggins

      • I didn’t say education and learning were impossibly complex, I said “the relationship between neuroscience and learning in humans is almost impossibly complicated”. There are a few people at the forefront of the field that are beginning to deliver some relevant insights but I don’t think it is useful to imply to teachers that some general understanding of neuronal physiology will provide applicable insight into teaching/learning practice. The abstract models/processes that make up basic cognitive psychology (STM/LTM…) are much more applicable.
        Your posts on here are actually quite typical of the type of stuff that I think is unhelpful. I can see your passion and there’s lots of interesting ideas but I finish reading them and feel no wiser about how a teacher might teach.

  2. Pingback: How ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ might help me teach. | mrbunkeredu

  3. Hi Chris, thanks for the mention here, very flattering. I found this post very useful. ‘Covering it once and moving on just won’t cut it’ is a key message I’m trying to hammer home for my year 11 classes. I’m trying to ensure they ‘use’ the information in a variety of ways. e.g. Revising ‘Curley’s Wife’, might include taking notes from the novel / a study guide, then rewriting these notes into an essay plan, then using the information to write an essay / adapting the information in another form.

    Fingers crossed for the exams!

    Dave

  4. The intent of my site is to take cognitive science theory & research ideals and consider ways in which the material can inspire more effective teaching. I’d be curious to know whether you find posts like these useful – comments are always welcome from teachers and others out there in the field!

    1. Labels on the Brain: http://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/
    2. Embracing embodiment: http://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/
    3. Don’t forget to write: http://cognitioneducation.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=647&action=edit

  5. The intent of my site is to take cognitive science theory & research ideals and consider ways in which the material can inspire more effective teaching. I’d be curious to know whether you find posts like these useful – comments are always welcome from teachers and others out there in the field!

    1. Labels on the Brain: http://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/
    2. Embracing embodiment: http://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/
    3. Don’t forget to write: http://cognitioneducation.me/2013/08/21/dont-forget-to-write/

    (thank you!)

  6. Pingback: Becoming a growth mindset school | Teaching: Leading Learning

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