In this two-part series, we look at some of the basic processes that occur in brain development beginning at the embryonic state, and how the brain functions in relation to childhood learning and development.
In this series:
The Learning Brain
By Kenneth Wesson
Guest Columnist and Education Consultant, Neuroscience
Albert Einstein said, Learning is experiencing. Everything else is just information, suggesting that we must experience learning by utilizing our twenty or more (not just five) sensory systems. Human beings have an innate need to see, touch, taste, feel, and hear (experience) the features of any new object in order to understand it better.
Over the course of ones early formal education, the brain continues to grow based on the same strategies that are used to build it at the outsetby creating linkages between neurons, that generate the vastly complex neural networks, which represent all acquired knowledge and skills. The emerging capabilities and talents that (1) receive significant amounts of time and attention, (2) have key emotional, personal, and/or survival linkages, and (3) are repeated often, are skills that have the greatest likelihood of developing elaborate neural connections that become almost impervious to destruction short of disease or regional brain trauma. Substantial amounts of nerve growth factor, the neuro-nutrients vital for brain cell growth and survival, are regularly carried to these essential circuits. Additional glial cells, the nursemaids to the neurons, are also produced giving still greater assurance of neuronal survival.
When the brain encodes new concepts through various learning modalities, (1) those concepts are processed and stored in several interconnected neural networks, thus enhancing the power of a specific memory, and (2) the cerebral cortex establishes an abundance of physiological access routes back to that specific concept and other ideas to which it is related. A single neuron can make as many as 50,000 connections with other neurons in their effort to dissect, decipher and encode the outside world.
The more frequently that neurons linked together fire together, the greater is the likelihood that they will fire in unison on a subsequent occasion, which results in permanently hardwiring together, a process we call learning. Since it often takes six exposures (hearing, saying, touching, seeing, etc.) before new information enters into permanent memory for storage, combining multi-sensory experiences with multi-modal teaching approaches will accommodate nearly all learning styles. Additional neural connections are made with the sub-cortical structures lying just beneath the two corrugated cerebral hemispheres, when multi-sensory experiences are available to developing learners.
Well-entrenched (practiced) behaviors later become centered in the sub-cortical and cerebellar regions freeing up the conscious cerebral cortex for new learning, as deep-rooted skills no longer demand a learners full attention for their execution. The more entrenched skills no longer demand a learners full attention for their execution. A right-handed individual is able to take notes and listen to a lecture simultaneously. However, listening and taking notes using his left-hand is dramatically more difficult, if not impossible. Subsequent learning opportunities are made possible based on what Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to as zones of proximal development. There are more neural networks representing ones strengths than there are for deficiencies or weaknesses. Unfortunately, schools spend inordinate amounts of time ferreting out and correcting deficiencies, rather focusing on enhancing ones strengths. There is a greater amount of cortical real estate and complex learning networks invested in ones strengths, which provides considerably more resources to work with in performance improvements and advancements in skills.
Processing Preferences in the Brain
Most human beings find learning easiest when they begin a learning experience with a hands-on, minds-on activity coupled with whole-body integrative movements. Tourists are interested in experiencing Spain not just reading about it. If that were not so, purchasing the brochure on Spain would satisfy the curious interests of all tourists. However, it is the sights, the smell, the foods, etc. that we wish to experience, all of which can only come by way of a first-hand excursion to Spain.
Our brain and skin are initially part of the same primitive formation during prenatal development, but they are separated during neurogenesis. Thus, in a sense, our skin is the other half of our brain. This, perhaps, explains why at nearly all stages of life, one learns a great deal about his environment (objects, another person, etc.) via our universal human preference to touch to learn more about an object. While touching an object, most higher order mammals will also turn it, twist it, view it from a number of other positions, etc., as a means of drawing out the most meaningful clues, cues, and relevant information needed for arriving at conclusions concerning the object. (My 2-year old son, Tyler, provides me daily evidence of this important mammalian information-gathering technique, as he walks past a picket fence and feels compelled to touch each picket as he passes by. Similarly, school children are admonished for touching the hallway walls, schools should install paneled or burlap walls that children are permitted or encouraged to touch whenever passing. This tactile activity helps to turn on the brain).
Sustained immobility in the classroom is as incompatible with life as it is incongruous with human growth and human learning. Suppressing the natural excitement of human learning by preventing, ignoring, and even punishing the brain’s natural inclinations obstructs our mission for learners of all ages. While mobility separates plants from animals, the inherent need to communicate with others in various elaborate and complex ways serves as another significant characteristic that puts human beings into a category of our own. Combining mobility with hands-on learning in a cooperative learning setting, where learners communicate their ideas with one another appears to be the best equation for yielding the greatest learning results. It is the means by which most young children and adults deem the most comfortable and the most productive learning arrangement. All complex learning and consistent stimulation serve as the serious business of learning and the brains dynamic development.
Recognizing that early exposure to a wide range of learning experiences has a tremendous impact on the brain, we are taking a closer look at the critical role that early cognitive development should play in pre-school and child-care programs, as well as a truly foundation-building primary educational setting. These years are not just the developmental years. They constitute the most advantageous incubation periods for developing the fundamental skills vitally necessary for successful Kindergarten through college-level (and life-long) learning. No longer do we consider the first five years of life to be a vast cognitive wasteland, during which brain undergoes an arrested development. The neural networks by which all future complex learning will be based are forged during this crucial early period and by a specific series of vitally important brain processes.
The human brain is more than capable of creating trillions of interrelated neural networks rendering our capacity to learn virtually limitless and endless, if we choose to continue stimulating and challenging the mind on a steady basis. The human brain is the quintessential example of the use-it-or-lose-it principle.
Return to Part One: The Developing Brain
Kenneth Wesson works as a keynote speaker and educational consultant for pre-school through university-level institutions and organizations. He speaks throughout the world on the neuroscience of learning and methods for creating classrooms and learning environments that are “brain-considerate.” This series is posted with his permission.