|Mind, Brain, and Education: Research Highlights||SHARE|
In the “Conditions of Learning” research highlights, we underscored the importance of direct experience, focus, and intrinsic motivation in the learning process. We affirmed that learning is most effective when it is social, and that young people can be and want to be fully engaged learners.
The latest neuroscience and cognitive research tells us why these conditions are so. Powerful brain imaging tools make it possible for us to see the learning brain in action. Paired with new genetics technology and a score of other advances, they have produced a new field: mind, brain, and education.
What are some of the most important insights in this new interdisciplinary field?
Arguably the most critical insight is that the brain is highly adaptive, a property called plasticity (Singer, 1995; Squire & Kandel, 2009). Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. Long-lasting functional changes in the brain occur as we adapt to the environments where we live and work and when we learn new things or memorize new information.
The brain’s architecture includes networks of interconnecting nerve cells called neurons and supportive glial cells. Learning experiences are translated into electrical and chemical signals that gradually modify connections among neurons in certain areas of the brain. Marvin L. Minsky, one of the pioneers and most creative thinkers of artificial intelligence research, once quipped: “The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves” (The Society of Mind, 1986).
Changes in neural connections, which are fundamental for learning to take place in the brain, do not seem to occur when learning experiences are passive. Many research studies suggest that active engagement is a prerequisite for changes in the brain: it strengthens the neuronal connections in the cortex that are thought to underlie learning (Ahissar et al. 1992; Recanzone et al. 1993; Recanzone & Wurtz 2000). Passively sitting in a classroom hearing a teacher lecture (even when combined with PowerPoint!) works against substantive or long-lasting learning.
All learning has an emotional base, as Christina Hinton, Kurt L. Fischer, and Catherine Glennon point out in their recent summary of recent neuroscience research, "Mind, Brain, and Education" (2012, Students at the Center). They write:
“Why do some students whiz through chemistry while others struggle?” ask Hinton and her colleagues. “Why do certain students show an uncommon resilience in the face of adversity? Why are some students passionate about literature and others drawn to mathematics?” Their answer: these variations are grounded in individual differences in the brain. These researchers explain:
Use it or lose it
The plasticity of the brain, as noted earlier, means that our brain lays down new neural connections—synapses—as we learn. But only those connections and synapses that are frequently activated are retained. Connections that are not consistently used will be pruned or discarded so that the active connections become stronger. Neurons, in short, must have a purpose to survive. Without a purpose, neurons wither, through a process called apoptosis in which neurons that do not receive or transmit information naturally die. In infancy and early adolescence, when the brain produces many more synapses than it can possibly use, this pruning produces a stronger and more complex brain. When valued connections are pruned as a result of disuse, however, they can be hard to restore.