RESEARCH STARTERS ACADEMIC TOPIC OVERVIEWS

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RESEARCH STARTERS ACADEMIC TOPIC OVERVIEWS

Brain-Based Learning Educational Psychology > Brain-Based Learning

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Abstract

The old notion that brains are fixed, with learning potential already wired in the brain, is being replaced with the theory that the brain is flexible. This article presents information on the con- cept of Brain-Based Learning. Recent technological advances have allowed researchers to identify actual physical changes in the brain when learning occurs. This research has come to be known as brain-based learning, or neuroplasiticity. Understand- ing what is happening in the brain during the learning process can help educators to tailor classroom instruction to facilitate increased learning.

Overview

Since the late twentieth century, learning has most often been studied using a social cognition frame. This frame has three spe- cific dynamics—environmental factors, behavioral factors, and personal perceptions—which have been believed to interrelate with each other in ways that create the context in which learning takes place (see Figure 1).

Although social cognition theory has been instrumental in describing the social construction of knowledge and the very individualized task of learning, it does not seem to go far enough in examining the role of the personal perception dynamic. Learning is not just about the perceptions and attentiveness of each person: it is also affected by physiological changes in the person. The majority of this physiological activity is happen- ing in the brain—learning actually creates physical changes to the brain. Technological gains have allowed scientists to examine the changes that occur in the brain during the learn- ing process and to speculate on improved methods of teaching (Zull, 2004).

Physiological Activity in the Brain Technology has provided the means for researchers to learn what is happening in the brain during the learning process and sup- ports the theories that:

• When a person practices something, the neurons in the related area of the brain fire more frequently and dendrite growth increases—in fact the dendrites may grow enough to begin to interconnect (creating new potential paths for cognitive connections);

• When a person is learning, synapses work to organize neurons into a cohesive network that draws in some of the more isolated neurons—the networks are the physical equivalent of knowledge;

• Changes in the synaptic connections occur when learning is taking place;

• Synaptic activity is greatly enhanced when the brain is flooded with emotion chemicals (i.e., adrenalin, dopa- mine, and serotonin); and

• Exposure to new experiences and complex thinking actu- ally increases synaptic connections and density between neurons in specific parts of the brain and also increases dendrite growth and connections within the brain (Dra- ganski, 2004; Healy, 1990; Trachtenburg, 2002; Zull, 2004).

These findings lead to the conclusion that learning may be enhanced through practice and by engaging emotion into the process.

Abstract

Overview

Physiological Activity in the Brain

New Hypotheses

Applications

Terms & Concepts

Bibliography

Suggested Reading

Table of Contents

 

 

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Brain-Based Learning

Figure 1 Triadic Interplay in Reciprocal Determinism

EnvironmentalPersonal

Behavior

(Pajares, 2002)

Technology has also allowed researchers to refute the notions that the brain is hard-wired for learning and that learning ability decelerates with age (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). It also calls for a reconsideration of how teaching translates into a learning experience for both adults and children in classrooms. An exami- nation of these new advances in neuron-scientific research opens the door for creating new, more effective types of learning expe- riences in the classroom.

New Hypotheses The old notion that brains are fixed, with learning potential already wired in the brain, is being replaced with the theory that the brain is flexible. It is always rewiring itself and will continue to do so as long as there is new information for it to accumulate and store.

However, how educators approach learning (and therefore teach- ing) needs to be critically analyzed in light of the new findings in the area of neuroscience. Caine and Caine (1990) formulated a list of what has been learned from research on brain-based learn- ing. This list includes the following hypotheses:

The brain is a complex adaptive system that builds upon what already exists.

Complex adaptive systems are able to recognize and organize patterns from a given set of complex examples (Leshno, Moller, & Ein-Dor, 2003). The brain will assimilate new knowledge based upon what it has already stored. What a person will learn is moderated by the already existing bank of knowledge pos- sessed by that person and the level of complexity in the learning situation. The brain is not able to make neural connections if the paths do not already exist (Caine & Caine, 1990; Zull, 2004).

People who describe themselves as working from intuition (or a gut-feeling) are often reacting to subtle physiological changes of which they are largely unaware. In these cases, the paths existed and learning has occurred that alters a person’s behavior although the person has yet to find the ability to articulate that which has been learned. (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

The brain is social.

This idea is often referred to as the social brain hypothesis. It sug- gests that, via evolution, humans developed larger, more complex brains (primarily in the neocortex—which constitutes five-sixths of the human brain—and in the limbic system) and this develop- ment is attributed to the complex relationships humans created by living in bonded social groups. The complexities present in successfully navigating such complex social groups required a new need for the development of language (both written and spoken), logical thinking skills, and the ability to plan for the future. These are all social skills that are known to develop in the neocortex. Additionally, people living in social groups are rely- ing on basic memory, emotion charged memories linked to both attachment and tradition, expression of emotions, and love (i.e., a sense of belonging). These are all social skills that are known to develop in the limbic system. Some social group indices that correlate positively with brain size include:

• Social group size, • The frequency of social play, and • The frequency of tactical deception (Caine & Caine,

1990; Dunbar, 2003; Lewis, 2001).

This refutes the long-standing theory that larger human brains were the direct result of early humans learning to craft tools and strategies needed to develop individual hunting skills to survive.

The search for meaning is innate and that search occurs through patterning. Emotions are critical to patterning.

A review of how human brains function suggests the brain is hard-wired to make meaning of one’s external environment. This can be understood using the Triune model, which describes the brain in three layers. The most primitive layer lies buried in the more recently evolved portions of the brain (See Figure 2). First, the reptilian complex is the most primitive portion of the brain. It is comprised of the brain stem and the cerebellum. These portions of the brain are responsible for the automatic body functions that work to maintain homeostasis in the body such as balance, digestion, circulation, sleep regulation, breath- ing, and the fight or flight response to danger. These maintenance activities are primarily performed without conscious control or sensation. It is this area of the brain that encourages territorial and dominant behaviors that were once meant to increase one’s chances for survival.

The limbic system links emotion with behavior and promotes interpersonal attachments. It is comprised of the amygdala, which works to associate events with emotion, and the hippo- campus, which works to create long-term memory and memory recall. The hippocampus uses special nerve networks of neurons and dendrite paths to enhance memory storage from both lived experiences and academic studying. When the brain is flooded

 

 

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with emotion hormones, memory recall (and, thus, learning) is enhanced by the interaction of the hippocampus and the amyg- dala.

Figure 2

Illustration: The Triune Brain (Caine & Caine, 1990)

Cerebrum (Neo Cortex or New Brain)

Limbic System (Mammalian or Mid Brain)

Reptilian Complex (Old Brain)

Corpus Callosum

Cerebellum

Brain Stem

The cerebrum contains all of the centers that receive and interpret external information; it is covered with the neocor- tex. It also analyzes incoming information, invokes logic and reasoning, and experiences the emotions created in concert with the amygdala. These three layers interact with each other with two-way communication as the brain seeks to create meaning to one’s experiences. The functions of the three areas of the brain are automatic and cannot be switched off. The only change one can impose is that of altering the focus of how meaning is be- ing made (Caine & Caine, 1990; Freudenrich, 1997; MacLean, 1997).

The brain has a natural proclivity for identifying patterns as it strives for meaning making. As new experiences are processed, the existing neuronal paths will be utilized and expanded to accommodate complexity and identify information that can be stored and retrieved along similar paths. The brain is constantly comparing information to determine how similar or dissimi- lar new information is in comparison to what has already been learned. It is difficult for the brain to store and retrieve infor- mation that is not related, or contextualized, to already existing knowledge. Again, the flooding of emotion facilitates the identi- fication and storage of knowledge as the brain works to identify patterns. Emotions related to expectancy, biases, humor, self- efficacy, self esteem, and social bonding facilitate the learning process as emotion and thought are physically entwined via the brain’s inherent functions (Caine & Caine, 1990; Eichenbaum, 1997; Zull, 2004).

There are at least two ways of organizing memory: rote memorization and experiential learning. Factual learning will be enhanced if the student is engaged in making connec- tions between the factual information and lived experience.

Cognitive science acknowledges at least two major forms of memory that are navigated by separate and distinct pathways in the brain. The brain retains and stores factual knowledge (such as what a student learns in a traditional school setting where lec- ture and memorization are the primary teaching methods) in the neocortex. Knowledge gained from lectures and rote memori- zation will result in a learning structure that is fairly inflexible when one seeks to transfer that knowledge to a different topic.

The functioning of the hippocampus is critical to the organiza- tion and storage of knowledge gained through lived experiences. The interaction of the hippocampus and the amygdale, coupled with the additional interplay with the cerebrum (in which higher thinking skills reside), result in strong memory-based learning that is contextualized and firmly attached to one’s life experi- ences. Research indicates the acquisition of factual knowledge in a school setting is actually facilitated when the brain uses experiential knowledge to process and recognize patterns within factual information. In other words, academic learning that is contextualized with experiential learning creates a more flexible knowledge structure that allows for better quality integrative thinking and simple transfer to different topics (Eichenbaum, 1997).

Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

As discussed above, the brain uses emotion to facilitate learn- ing and to create the neural connections to enable fact retrieval. Higher thinking skills, located in the cerebrum, are facilitated by processes residing in the limbic system when a person is challenged in a learning situation. Emotions generated from struggling to acquire new skills and knowledge will aid the brain in meaning making, the effective creation of memories, and motivation for future learning success if the learning envi- ronment is perceived to be safe and supportive. Teaching that is punctuated with threats of failure, punishment, or social humili- ation will engage the processes residing in the reptilian complex, resulting in an automatic fight or flight response that will inhibit the functions of the hippocampus and halt effective learning.

Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes and learns from that on which attention is focused while simultaneously learning from what is contained in its “peripheral attention.”

The brain continuously processes information from its external environment. It adds upon its knowledge gleaned from a lesson being presented in the classroom while it simultaneously takes in actions and reactions of the teacher and other students, the physical environment of the classroom (e.g., what posters on the

 

 

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wall say, teacher attitude toward the subject and the class mem- bers, background noise, cleanliness of the environment, etc.). It compiles new knowledge in ways that allows it to check for the most efficient ways to store it while also comparing the new knowledge to what is already known—sometimes integrating old knowledge with new knowledge while sometimes rearrang- ing old knowledge to accommodate new knowledge. It breaks knowledge into smaller pieces to accommodate learning while simultaneously combining it in ways that will provide context and meaning in sometimes surprising and exciting ways. As it performs these mental gymnastics, it will continuously change its own wiring and neural networks—this is what is meant by plasticity of the brain and the developing networks are the physical equivalent of knowledge (Draganski, Gaser, Busch, Schuierer, Bogden, & May, 2004; Zull, 2004).

Every brain is uniquely organized.

All learning entails the gathering of information, making meaning from what has been gathered, creating new ideas and knowledge from these meanings, and testing the knowledge via physical or mental activities (Kolb, 1984). Although brain func- tions and changes work the same in every person, each brain is organized in a unique manner. Some students will learn more easily if mathematics is incorporated into a lesson while others will learn more easily if the language arts are used. All learning depends on the prior connected knowledge each student brings to the classroom (i.e., wiring of the brain) and the student’s cur- rent physical state (e.g., wakeful, threatened, respected, drugged, etc.).

Different students will connect with different teaching meth- ods, some responding to demonstrations, others to complex explanations, and others to simple explanations as they work to understand the course materials. Some educators, when finding their students seem to be struggling with a curriculum topic, will employ the help of students who have newly mastered the mate- rial to re-teach the material. A learner who has recently mastered the material is able to remember where the learning was difficult and may create teaching methods that better help connect the material to the students’ life experience (Zull, 2004).

Applications

Although the neurosciences are relatively new, they tend to con- firm what good teachers have always known intuitively while helping to articulate why good teaching practices actually work. There are many ways to incorporate brain-based learning in the classroom structure.

Educators have known for many years that students who find intrinsic rewards in a learning situation are more motivated in the long term. Current research has also borne this out. Students who are challenged by the curricular material and find their rewards in the mastery of a difficult topic (as opposed to being

rewarded with extrinsic rewards) will experience feelings such as frustration, challenge, mastery, pride, happiness, (and per- haps relief). These emotions will cause the emotional flooding necessary to ensure enhanced synaptic activity and, as a result, enhanced learning. Educators need to ensure course topics create a challenge for the students and should provide the mental space (i.e., adequate time paired with appropriate assistance) in which each student can struggle to master the course material. Educa- tors should take care not to provide an excess of explanations or extrinsic rewards, which may lessen the students’ motivation to learn while detracting from the learning experience itself.

Educators should ensure the classroom is a safe place in which errors can be made as learning occurs. Although there is great benefit from the release of emotion chemicals, an excessive flood of negative emotions (e.g., abject frustration, despair, etc.) will not result in enhanced learning. Threat includes engaging in or allowing social humiliation of students in the classroom. Classroom structures need to create spaces in which struggles over challenges can occur; however, the educator needs be available to provide assistance as needed and create learning situations in which students can make non-fatal mistakes. It is the rare child who can learn to ride a bike without falling off a few times. Brain-based learning suggests a similar approach for classroom instruction. Learning should be approached in a way that:

• Allows the student to learn by doing rather than via lecture;

• Provides the hand on the seat of the bike (i.e., guidance) as the lesson begins;

• Keeps the guidance of the hand to a minimum (e.g., per- ceived independence, practice in a safe environment, and a sense of mastery);

• Creates opportunities for practice rather than punishment in the face of failure (allowing the necessary neural con- nections while providing the teacher feedback that can be used as clues to furthering the lesson); and

• Facilitating the production of emotion chemicals to en- hance the learning experience.

Terms & Concepts

Adrenaline: Also known as epinephrine. This hormone is released from the adrenal gland into the bloodstream when a person perceives danger or threats. When it reaches the liver, it stimulates the release of glucose for rapid energy. Abrupt increases can work to shut down functioning of the hippocam- pus, inhibiting the ability to learn.

Amygdala: An almond-shaped mass of gray matter located in the middle of the brain (anterior temporal lobe) that is connected to the hippocampus, and plays a role in emotionally-laden memo- ries (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

 

 

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Axon: Each neuron has only one axon (and may have several dendrites). This long, thick fiber carries outgoing messages to the dendrites of target cells.

Correlate/Correlation: A statistical tool used to test the strength of a relationship between two variables. It does not prove that one variable causes another; it only indicates the presence and magnitude of existing relationships (Keppel & Wickens, 2003).

Dendrites: These hair-like strands are fairly thick where they emerge from the cell body and branch out in hundreds of direc- tions, becoming thinner and wispier with each division. Their chief function in life is to carry incoming electrochemical mes- sages from other neurons to the cell to which they belong. Each neuron usually has many, many dendrites (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

Dopamine: A powerful and common neurotransmitter primarily involved in producing a positive mood or feeling. Secreted by neurons in several brain areas.

Hippocampus: The area of the brain essential for memory and learning. Half of it is situated in the left half of the brain and half of it is situated in the right half of the brain. All memories must be registered in the hippocampus before being stored in the brain.

Neocortex: Also known as the cerebral cortex. The gray matter that covers the outer surface area of the brain. Gray matter most usually contains the cell bodies of the neurons. The neocortex contains two specialized regions: one for voluntary movement and one for processing sensory information (Caine & Caine, 1990).

Neurons: The grayish or reddish cells of the brain that are the fundamental functional unit of the nervous system (Webster, 2001)

Self-Efficacy: One’s personal belief regarding one’s level of capability and ability to influence situational outcomes (Ban- dura, 1994).

Serotonin: A common neurotransmitter most responsible for promoting relaxation, regulating mood, and inducing sleep. Antidepressants (like Prozac) usually suppress the absorption of serotonin, alerting the body to increase its serotonin production.

Synapse: The actual gap in which a reaction will occur between the axon of one neuron and the dendrites of another neuron cell when they are communicating information back and forth (Schwartz & Begley, 2002).

Bibliography

Caine, R. N. & Caine, G. (1990). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuicrer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427(6972), 311–312. Retrieved October 31, 2007 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=12046926&site=eh ost-live

Dunbar, R. I. M. (2003). The social brain: Mind, language, and society in evolutionary perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 32 (1), 163–181. Retrieved October 31, 2007 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a ph&AN=11275418&site=ehost-live

Eichenbaum, H. (1997). How does the brain organize memo- ries? Science, 277(5324), 330–333. Retrieved October 28, 2006 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tru e&db=aph&AN=9707316187&site=ehost-live

Freeman, G. G., & Wash, P. D. (2013). You can lead students to the classroom, and you can make them think: Ten brain-based strategies for college teaching and learning success. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (3), 99–120. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&A N=90316252&site=ehost-live

Freudenrich, C. C. How Your Brain Works. Retrieved October 17, 2007 from http://health.howstuffworks.com/brain7. htm.

Healy, J. M. (1990). Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Keppel, G. & Wickens, T. D. (2004). Design and Analysis (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Leshno, M., Moller, D., Ein-Dor, P. (2003). Neural nets in group decision process. International Journal of Game Theory, 31(3), 447–478.

 

 

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Lewis, K. P. (2000). A comparative study of primate play behavior: Implications for the study of cognition. Folia Primatologica, 71(6), 417–421.

MacLean, P. D. (1997). The brain and subjective experience: Question of multilevel role of resonance. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 18(2-3), 247–267.

Moghaddam, A., & Araghi, S. (2013). Brain-based aspects of cognitive learning approaches in second language learn- ing. English Language Teaching, 6 (5), 55–61. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http://search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=87664237&sit e=ehost-live

Pajares, F. (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy. Retrieved June 5, 2007 from http://www.des. emory.edu/mfp/eff.html

Schwartz, J. M. & Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and the Brain. New York, NY: Regan Books.

Trachtenberg, J. T., Chen, B. E., Knott, G. W., Feng, G., Sanes, J.R., Welker, E. et al. (2002). Long term in vivo imag- ing of experience-dependent synaptic plasticity in adult cortex. Nature, 420(6917), 788–795. Retrieved October 30, 2007 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tru e&db=eoah&AN=10540902&site=ehost-live

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition. (2001).

Zakrajsek, T. D., & Doyle, T. (2013). Teaching for brain-based learning: A message from the guest editors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (3), 1–6. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http://search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=90316247&sit e=ehost-live

Zull, J. E. (2004). The art of changing the brain. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 68–72. Retrieved October 17, 2007 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a ph&AN=14373157&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading

Caine, R. N. & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a brain- based approach to learning and teaching. Educational Leadership, 48(2), 66–70. Retrieved November 2, 2007 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a ph&AN=9107012293&site=ehost-live

Goleman, D. (1997). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam.

Healy, J. M. (1990). Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Moffett, N., & Fleisher, S. C. (2013). Matching the neuro- biology of learning to teaching principles. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (3), 121–151. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http://search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=90316253&sit e=ehost-live

Pete, B. M., Fogarty, R. J. (2003). Twelve brain principles that make the difference. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Samur, Y., & Duman, B. (2011). How an awareness of the biology of learning may have an effect on performance. Education as Change, 15 (2), 257–270. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http://search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=69870465&sit e=ehost-live

Essay by Sherry Thompson, Ph.D.

Dr. Sherry Thompson is a graduate from the University of Utah. She has written articles on workplace satisfaction, employee turnover, and the impacts of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Her other areas of interest include ethics, agentic shift, and student supports in higher education.

 

 

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Copyright of Brain-Based Learning — Research Starters Education is the property of Great Neck Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

 

 

Copyright of Brain-Based Learning — Research Starters Education is the property of Great Neck Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

 

 

Copyright of Brain-Based Learning — Research Starters Education is the property of Great Neck Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

 

 

Copyright of Brain-Based Learning — Research Starters Education is the property of Great Neck Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

 

 

Copyright of Brain-Based Learning — Research Starters Education is the property of Great Neck Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

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