Maximising Learning about the Growing Brain

My abiding memory of GCSE Biology is what seemed like a succession of David Attenborough films and graffiti daubed textbooks. I recall only an ugly collage of rat dissections and bodily functions scrawled upon in fading textbooks by bored pre-pubescent boys! Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t enamoured by the subject. There were no eureka moments, nor was I inspired by the wondrous capacity of the physical world or the human brain. Looking back feels like a missed opportunity. I was always fascinated by human emotions, the workings of the brain and the deft processes of human memory.

Instead of anatomical understanding I veered towards literature and the imaginative explorations of the human mind. Literature, like William Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’, sparked a fascination about memory and the human mind that has only grown year upon year. What I have come to realise is that processes like reading are inextricably linked to the biological processes of the brain and of human memory. The divergent paths of my early study converged once more. I wrote an article here about how such poetry can ‘spark’ the brain.

From teaching and learning about learning, my knowledge of memory systems and the brain feels like it is crucially important (‘Thinking fast and slow‘ by Daniel Kahneman is brilliant in this area of thinking and memory). If we were to unpick the mysteries of how to best secure knowledge and understanding in the long term memory then it would be tantamount to finding the philosophers’ stone of education. Of course, neuroscience and cognitive psychology is ploughing away at this very problem and the research should be better known within schools and we should be a part of such research. Studies of the brain and what constitutes the best conditions for learning should be common knowledge, not some esoteric set of studies observed and shared amongst a small groups of intellectuals.

The latest article I read on such research was by John Hewitt, Neuroscientist from Institute of Behavioural Genetics at the University of Colorado. The article – see here – explains the fertile conditions of growing synapses in the young person’s brain, before cortical ‘pruning’ takes place and learning becomes more difficult (think how young people more adroitly learn a language than adults). Most interestingly, Dr Hewitt explores the period of “sensitive learning” for young people when they learn most effectively. Hewitt has found that for some students who have very high IQs, the brain can stay in this fertile “sensitive learning” state for prolonged periods beyond the norm – effectively proving a sort of learning hyperdrive. Finding more answers in this area would undoubtedly get to the heart of improving learning if we could effectively harness such information and convert it in practical terms.

With events like #ResearchEd2013, we have the small flowerings of fertile ground that could help sows seeds of research that have their roots in the classroom. The reality is however that such events only represent a tiny fraction of teachers – the ‘super geeks’ – or as Ben Goldacre termed them, “the spods of the spods“. The vast bulk of teachers are not engaged in meaningful research. The time, the trust, the investment, the structure and the personal inclination and need are all lacking. We should not be fooled that there is some turning point just around the corner. An understanding of neuroscience for the majority more likely centres around a spattering of left brain, right brain training from a distant INSET day, quickly forgotten like my Biology textbooks!

Of course, we are missing a trick in terms of growing interest in research because a great deal of sound research is already out there. We could harness that knowledge and get teachers trying out new pedagogy and ideas that would reinforce that research, such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology, can make a practical difference in the classroom. Ultimately, the main bulk of teachers are tired of fads, government diktats and shifts in policy so are inherently sceptical, but if you can prove students can behave just a little bit better and learn a little better too just by tweaking your pedagogy then teachers might just learn to like such research.

If such knowledge doesn’t have a tangible and more or less straight-forward impact on the daily lives of teachers at the chalk-face then it will wither on the vine. Teachers need to ‘need‘ to tweak, improve and change their practice. It is just human nature to avoid time-consuming changes to our automatic behaviour – our pesky brain is programmed like that. Like our near-feral forebears in caves, we are all just looking to survive with the least amount of mental effort we can possibly expend.

Research on the importance of metacognition (‘knowing about knowing‘) and ‘executive functions‘ (the ability to self-regulate: make plans, track your own progress and recall prior knowledge etc.) in the human brain tell us a great deal about learning behaviour. That being said, there isn’t a consistent understanding about what this means for our classrooms. Our school is currently focusing upon harnessing the attitude of a ‘growth mindset’ in our students (and, crucially, our teachers!). The most important aspect is the tangible details in practice. Using words like ‘yet‘ are tiny, but they can have a cumulative impact upon how a student approaches their learning – their executive functioning can be strengthened if their attitude is resilient. Adapting written and verbal feedback can make lots of marginal gains in terms of enhancing metacognition and therefore it can improve learning. Helpfully, the cognitive science dovetails well with the research of the like of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, therefore we could adapt our school approach with confidence in the ever-growing evidence.

The complex process of moving knowledge and understanding from the short term working memory to the ultimate destination of the long term memory should be something every teacher considers when planning and teaching. There are lots of studies that outline effective strategies. I have written about effective revision strategies according to research studies here. Also, the impact of testing (not necessarily a formal exam each time – but quizzes or a retrieval task – like creating a visual map of what they have learnt during the week can also constitute ‘testing‘) does make a tangible difference to learning – see here. Our rightly held reservations about external school tests shouldn’t cloud our attitude to utilising testing for learning in the classroom.

Like synapses in the brain, we must make more connections in our learning to improve teaching and learning. One such connection is between teachers and researchers. It will take a systematic shift in our education system, but some of the benefits could be hugely significant. The evidence could be worth the money and effort. Before any change on a grand scale we can go about changing our departments and our school. We can encourage high quality research, engaging with organisations like the Education Endowment Fund for support and their helpful research toolkit (see the talks from two key figures from the EEF at ResearchEd2013 by Kevan Collins here and Jonathan Sharples here).

Imagine if we maximised our approach to memorisation; to enhancing the best attitude towards learning and behaviour; to finding the best approaches for students undertaking practice and the teacher for issuing feedback. If we could connect these answers we would be on the verge of mastering some sort of high powered learning alchemy. The answers may never come, but even the attempted pursuit would provide valuable learning for all teachers. I now wish I had spent a little more time reading those Biology textbooks! Perhaps my redemption can be found in understanding the brilliance of the brain a little better, thereby helping students remember their Biology lessons a little bit more effectively than I ever did!

Alex Quigley

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

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