Learning and the Brain
"Research shows that you begin learning in the womb and go right on learning until the moment you pass on. Your brain has a capacity for learning that is virtually limitless, which makes every human a potential genius."
~ Michael J. Gelb
here are dozens of learning theories, each of which views learning from a particular point of view—a single perspective. As such, each contains useful insights. It's interesting, however, that most of these theories fail to address the process of learning. How, specifically, does learning occur?
"[In] typical learning research…the continuing process of learning is never directly assessed. Usually, some hypothetical construct located inside the head, such as a schema or a trace is said to be built up or strengthened as a result of the learning process. Learning, in this somewhat impotent view, is a covert process forever inaccessible to observation: only the effects of practice may be seen…."(1)
Some early theories attributed an individual's ability to learn to his or her genetic inheritance. Others perceived the brain/mind as a blank slate—John Locke's tabula rasa(2)—upon which everything required to become a functioning human had to be "written." Edward Thorndike, one of the most influential figures in the early days of compulsory public education in America, proposed that some children were born with the ability to "learn fast," while others were born slow learners. He also claimed that the faster one learned, the more one retained and the "smarter" they were.
Although Thorndike's ideas have been thoroughly disproven through research, there are still many today who believe that the earlier a child reads, the smarter sh/e is. Desite ample evidence that infants in the womb are already learning and that intelligence is far from fixed, more than a few persist in believing that some children are "born smart" and others are "born dumb." Rather than a lengthy comparison of learning theories, let's just look at two aspects of learning found in many of today's schools.
Education and the Brain
earning theories that ignore the substrate in which learning occurs—the brain/mind—run a risk similar to an architect who designs a building that is impossible to construct with available building materials and techniques. Theorizing about learning without considering the 'wetware' that supports it can result in elegant, but completely meaningless theories.
"Brain-based learning" has become a familiar battle cry for bringing education in line with current knowledge of the brain. Like "back to basics," it is a phrase used with little thought as to its actual meaning. All learning is "brain-based" so the term is relatively meaningless.
Making sure that schooling is brain-compatible is the real issue. What possible excuse can educators give for continuing to teach in ways that are not compatible with the brain's natural processes? With the information available from the "brain revolution" of the past several decades, continuing to teach in ways that actually inhibit learning by discouraging, ignoring, or punishing the brain's natural learning processes is reprehensible.
"We don't have to make human beings smart. They are born smart.
All we have to do is stop doing the things that make them stupid."
~ John Holt
Despite the lip service paid to individual differences, traditional education has failed to move away from the group mentality that has driven it for so many years. The very language of education, which separates students into grades, classes, honors, average, remedial, LD, BD, ADHD, even learning 'styles,' forces the mind into perceiving groups, not individuals.
"[In education]…the individual is just a statistic. Everybody is treated the same. Any differences due to experience, maturation, ancestry, or what the subject had for breakfast are canceled out. The organism, to put it bluntly, is treated like a machine whose task is to associate inputs and outputs. Any autonomously active, intrinsic organization within the organism or between organisms and their environment, although present, is swept under the rug."(3)
There is a distressing blind spot in traditional education that permits time-honored group-think to continue. Consider the following four facts:
- People look different. In fact, humans are surprised when they see two individuals who look alike. The difference in people's appearance is an accepted fact of life. Most of us would consider as ridiculous the suggestion that all people should strive to look alike. Would any rational person suggest that all fourteen-year-old humans should be five-feet six-inches tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and able to bench press seventy pounds?
- According to the latest findings of the Human Genome Project, a human has fewer than 20,000 critical genes that carry out protein synthesis. Only a portion of those genes are responsible for a person's appearance and physical abilities. While these genes can be damaged, they remain relatively unchanged in their operation over the life of the individual. While it's possible to change one's physical appearance through exercise, surgery, or cosmetic methods, physical appearance remains relatively constant throughout life. That is the premise on which age-progression software works.
- The human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons, each of which may have 10,000 connections to other neurons. This results in approximately 1,000 trillion connections in the brain.(4) Unlike genes, each of these connections, from the moment of formation, is subject to change by interactions with the environment—through experience. In other words, each person's brain is constantly changing in response to experience.
- No two people—even identical twins—have the same experiences as they grow and develop.
Taken together, what do these four statements suggest? The number of genes and genetic variations that produce differences in physical appearance and ability is minuscule compared to the possible permutations in the way individual brains process information.
Given that no two individuals have lived through the same experiences—experiences that modify both the neurons and their connections—the potential cognitive differences among human individuals is staggering. Yet few people balk when today's standards are built on the assumption that all students should be responsible for learning the same things at the same age. This statement flies in the face of reason, science, and experience. It is infinitely more irrational than insisting that all fourteen-year-olds be five-feet six-inches tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and able to bench press seventy pounds!
Although many traditional educators accept the above four statements as true, they fail to draw the obvious conclusions. They are somehow able to put that information in a corner and forget it when it comes to designing educational programs. Perhaps they are hoping that, like so many reform efforts, it will eventually go away if they ignore it. This is simply not going to happen. The brains of students are not going to miraculously become alike for the convenience of education and the efficiency of assembly line transmission of knowledge.
Attempts to introduce brain-compatible teaching in schools often result in teachers adding a few activities for different learning "modalities," giving students a "choice" of supplemental projects, or an occasional"maker space" project or "genius hour." These are apparently sufficient to salve the conscience and quiet that little voice that reminds us what really needs to happen. These tweaks make little or no difference in the fundamental metaphor that drives education—filling mental containers with knowledge objects.
As long as this remains the primary purpose of education, focusing on individual differences is literally "unthinkable" unless there is a teacher for every student. Schools will continue to operate in ways that are, at best, only marginally compatible with the brain's natural processes.
What the Brain Does Naturally
"The problem is fundamental. Put twenty or more children of roughly the same age in a little room, confine them to desks, make them wait in lines, make them behave. It is as if a secret commission, now lost in history, had made a study of children and, having figured out what the greatest number were least disposed to do, declared that all of them should do it."
~ Tracy Kidder
sn't it amazing how well-suited humans are to the world in which they live? No, not really! If humans had evolved on a different planet—in a different environment—they would have taken a much different form. The environment determines the behaviors necessary for survival and those behaviors influence the structure of the organism.
Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby(5) explain that the brain consists of a vast and complex collection of circuits. Each of those circuits evolved in response to one or more problems within the environment. The brain adapted to its environment. Originally, those adaptations had little to do with intellectual issues and everything to do with survival of both the individual and the species. Over time, as the environment demanded more complex functions, these circuits have combined and been further "tuned" to do cognitive work.
What we do know is that these circuits did not evolve to be repositories for isolated facts or a "body of knowledge" that have been externally assembled and deemed "basic concepts." They evolved in response to actual situations that arose in the environment of the organism. The organism learned to detect certain patterns and to respond to those patterns appropriately.
It wasn't necessary for early man (and woman) to be able to name a saber-toothed tiger and identify its genus and species. It was necessary for them to recognize a pattern against the background of the jungle, associate that pattern with danger (large teeth and claws), and engage in the appropriate behavior to ensure their survival! The "natural" functions of the brain rest on the ability to detect patterns in a complex environment and to associate the patterns with appropriate behaviors.
After many years of trying to make computers learn like humans, researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) realized that learning is not the result of amassing huge quantities of information and related rules of processing. The successes that AI researchers have had in reproducing even the simplest tasks of which the human brain is capable have come when the computer was allowed to interact with the environment and create its own rules—to "tune" its own circuits—in short, to learn.(6)
Yes, schools have managed to stuff human brains full of information (input) and get corresponding output on tests. They've done this with sufficient success that reformers now demand even more information and more tests. What will happen a hundred years from now? With information proliferating at a geometric rate, will students be required to attend forty years of schooling to amass the required "essential knowledge"?
The fact that many students have successfully adapted to this form of schooling is hardly a defense of the present system. It is, instead, an endorsement of the tremendous ability of the human brain to adapt to unnatural conditions. For example, a human can survive and function on a marginal diet of foods, but that cannot be used as evidence the diet is appropriate.
What more might be achieved if students were permitted to interact with various rich environments in a "real world" context; to "turn on" and "tune" their innate abilities; in other words, to learn in ways that the brain does naturally?
The human brain has evolved and adapted to:
- interact with a complex environment;
- abstract patterns from the complexity in that environment;
- modify itself so that it functions more effectively in that environment;
- solve "real" problems it perceives in that environment; and
- attend to that which it finds personally relevant or interesting.(7) The adaptive value of that tendency is obvious. Noticing aspects of the environment that were a potential threat to self—or that might become a potential mate—ensured not only a creature's personal survival, but also that of the species.
One might assume that education would work with these natural processes to design learing environments. Instead, we see:
- brains that require complexity being bombarded with simplified and predigested facts and concepts;
- brains that require interaction with the environment to activate their innate processes receiving their "experience" passively and second hand through the words (and perceptions) of a teacher;
- brains that have adapted to solve complex problems relevant to self being denied the opportunity to identify those problems and forced to solve predefined problems with predefined answers; and
- brains that have evolved to their present capacities by actively interacting with and adapting to their environments being confined to desks and told what, when, and how to "learn" throughout their formative years.
Reforms typically address how educators can make the brains of students conform to what education already is rather than asking the question that would truly transform schools. How can schools be made more compatible with the way humans learn?
The answers we get are a function of the questions we ask. It's long past time to change the fundamental question of reform. In the words of Albert Einstein, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."
As you check the references for this article, note that most of them were written in the 1990s! This is NOT new information. Yet in the 20+ years since, public education has moved farther and farther away from supporting "authentic, natural learning." Why have educators who should know better allowed this to happen? Is it because they, too, have "adapted" to the impoverished diet of compulsory education?
For a continuation of this discussion, see the article on authentic learning.
- Kelso, J.A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior. Cambridge and London: A Bradford Book, MIT Press, 161.
- Many assume that Locke's "blank slate" meant that it's up to adults to "give" the child whatever information/knowledge he or she will ever need. Locke meant nothing of the sort! He argued that "the human mind at birth is a complete, but receptive 'blank slate' UPON WHICH EXPERIENCE IMPRINTS KNOWLEDGE. Locke argued that people acquire knowledge from the information about objects in the world THAT OUR SENSES BRING." http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/philosophy/john_locke_tabula_rasa.html
- Kelso, 1995
- Cosmides, L. & J. Tooby. (1992) From Function to Structure: The Role of Evolutionary Biology and Computational Theories. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.). Cognitive Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1199
- Rao, V. & R. Hayagriva. (1995). C++ Neural networks and Fuzzy Logic, 2nd ed. New York: MIS Press, 1-20.
- Edelman, G. (1992). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. New York: Basic Books, 143 and Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes' Error. New York: Avon Books, 165.
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