Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

2020 Future: Deciphering brain science

Brain

In his continuing research into trends that will affect educators of the future, Robert Hill turns his attention to what we know about brain science.

Since the 1980s there has been a huge explosion of research on the brain. The results have fed through into what has been called brain-based education.

Neuroscience is still a young science and almost certainly there is more we don't know than do know. However, the potential for brain research to help educators understand the learning process is enormous. The research is, for example:

  • confirming the importance of acquiring good language skills very early on in a child's development

  • identifying the faulty neural circuitry that causes dyslexia and pointing to interventions that will help correct the problem

  • identifying how different parts of the brain are at work in different aspects of maths

Before brain imaging became widely available it was widely thought that the brain was fully developed by the age of 12. But we now know that several areas of the brain go on maturing well into puberty and beyond.

The first areas of the brain to mature in adolescence are those with the most basic functions that process senses and movement. The parts of the brain associated with evaluating risk and reward also develop early on. Areas involved in spatial orientation and language follow. That leaves the areas controlling more advanced 'executive' functions to mature last.

This pattern of development means that in the teenage years the parts of the brain that fuel sensation-seeking are operating at full throttle and racing away at 'all systems go' while the parts that act as a brake on our urges are still developing.

The research also explains what many teachers experience on a daily basis - that emotions affect cognitive performance. Learning, attention, perception, memory, problem-solving, decision-making and motivation are all affected by the level of emotional well-being and maturity.

This points to the importance of identifying and addressing the needs of students with severe emotional problems, having good counselling and pastoral care services and providing parenting support to help foster stable emotional family lives.

Moderate stress is normal and healthy - it stimulates our response to external events and risks and contributes to effective operation of the memory. But severe stress damages neural connections affecting memory and the decisionmaking part of the brain.

Learning is therefore likely to be disrupted during periods of high stress. That disruption will not necessarily be limited to the particular child or student suffering the stress. The operation of what are called 'mirror neurons' in the brain means that a person observing another's emotional experience can find themselves registering similar feelings.

Again teachers will recognise the syndrome where the behaviour or reactions of one student can affect a whole class.

When the period of excessive stress ends the brain is able to regrow the neural connections that have been disrupted. The brain is resilient. However, where severe stress is not just the result of a specific incident but part of a long-term problem (for example, bullying, a very disrupted home life or severe deprivation) learning is likely to be affected on a prolonged basis. A healthy diet, exercise and sleep can all help with reducing stress and improve the learning environment.

While brain science has much to teach us there are also some neuro myths that need to be dispelled. It's not true that girls are more left brain and boys more right brain. Neither is it the case that listening to Mozart enhances your IQ - though creating and making music does help to develop the brain.

Robert Hill is an ASCL consultant. All these issues and many more are explored in The impact of brain science on education - the latest in the series of briefings on 2020 Futures.

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