Career & Education

The science of learning

Dr Karla Hylton

Sunday, October 27, 2019

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Educators have a justifiable interest in comprehending the mechanisms and nuances of brain development, with particular interest in the process of learning. After all, education is about promoting and enhancing learning.

Knowledge of the mental processes involved in learning should therefore be empowering for teachers and should become an invaluable part of teacher training. It needs to be talked about and integrated in our vocabulary so that we come to appreciate its value in improving teaching strategies and practices.

The field of educational neuroscience is deepening the information base of what constitutes learning, thus creating a new arm called learning science. It is generating valuable data and insight, such as the research overwhelmingly indicating that numerous environmental factors — including stress, sleep, nutrition, music, creative expression, and exercise — are crucial to the learning process and can increase or lower learning ability. This contradicts the long-held notion that we are the products of our genes alone. Both nature and nurture affect the learning brain.

A child with an average learning ability in an enriched and nurturing environment can accomplish more than a so-called bright child in an unsupportive and less-enhanced environment.
Another instance shows that while a bit of stress is essential and necessary to meet the inevitable challenges of life, beyond a certain level it leads to poor cognition and learning. Additionally, research shows that management of one's emotions — that is, self-regulation — is a fundamental skill in the learning process. At the same time, it has been observed that children exposed to prolonged periods of toxic stress can actually suffer impaired brain development. The effects of adverse childhood experiences can potentially stay with that child throughout life.

On average, we are all born with a brain of approximately three quarters of a pound. This increases to an approximate weight of three pounds as an adult. This is approximately two per cent of the average adult weight. Note though, that individual brain size is not an indication of smartness or the lack thereof. Some geniuses have been found to have smaller-than-average brains, while others have larger-than-usual ones.

So, a classroom of students of approximately the same age will have different levels of brain maturity, development and learning readiness. This varying pace of brain development can explain some of the differences seen in their behaviour. This knowledge offers a new lens through which we can appreciate and find solutions to each student's unique issues.

Unfortunately, this becomes increasing difficult if not impossible in a classroom size ranging from 30-45 students.

One of the fascinating facts about our brains is that it is 'plastic', meaning that it adapts; it is not a stagnant entity. The brain is dynamic and this is how we create memories, experience and learn new information. It is important to grasp the idea that what we feed our brains will affect our thoughts and behaviours. This is why it is important for educators to feed the minds of students with positive affirmations and encouragement. It's time to put aside the negative criticism. Instead, use positivity to sculpt the minds of our youngsters so that they feel competent and capable of learning new information.

It is quite possible that many of our educators have not actually thought about the link between the brain, learning, and mainstream education as a whole. But as stakeholders in the education system, it is absolutely critical that the society at large embraces the theory and use the scientific findings to enrich and boost learning in our students.

When we weave neuroscience with teaching strategies, learning outcomes are bound to increase. It remains to be seen how our leaders will plan for and make use of the scientific evidence.

Dr Karla Hylton is a university lecturer and author. Reach her at (876) 564-1347, biochemtutor100@gmail.com or khylton.com.


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