According to a number of brain researchers, the current problems with education result from ignoring the mechanisms of learning. Many people think that pupils learn mainly at school – by listening to their teachers, reading texts from textbooks, or by working with their workbooks. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Human brain learns all the time – but in a totally different manner than schools expect. A brain is not an organ adapted to reproduce information but to process it and to formulate general rules. If the brain is forced to memorise mechanically, it works inefficiently and unwillingly. It needs many examples to learn effectively. The brain fully releases its potential only when it does what it has been created for. It is interesting that pupils learn most intensively when they learn unconsciously or when they completely forget about learning. This is the case when the subject evokes fascination, when learners enter the roles of explorers or experimenters who can independently formulate and prove research hypotheses. The lesson at which the teacher gives information (and pupils are to reproduce it) is perceived in a totally different manner than classes during which pupils discover the rules governing the world and look for answers to intriguing questions. Different neural structures are active in the brain of a pupil-listener and in the brain of a pupil-experimenter.
The questions that arouse curiosity put pupils into a state of readiness to learn and lead to the release of neurotransmitters, and without them the learning process is not possible. According to Professor Manfred Spitzer, a brain researcher from Germany, everything that has already been explained is not very attractive to the brain – it does not stimulate imagination and it does not attract attention. The situation is different with problems that you need to explore or explain. It is those issues that initiate the process of intensive learning as they put neurons into a state of readiness for work and allow full concentration. Knowing this particular property of the brain, it is easy to understand why children who are motivated to learn and willing to work lose their enthusiasm at school so quickly. There are also many indications that simple reproduction of the provided information is too easy and thus too boring, and for this reason it does not initiate the learning process.
In order to develop, young brains constantly need new challenges, which means the right tasks. The creation or selection of such tasks is not simple. Firstly, these tasks should neither be too difficult nor too easy. Secondly, they must be intriguing enough for the brain to decide that it is worth getting involved in solving them. Teachers should keep in mind that things that are typical, banal, predictable or already explained do not activate the so-called novelty and significance detector.
Authors of textbook tasks pay little attention to the type of narrative, while for the brain it is the key issue. If math classes do not leave pupils with conviction that mathematics is useful, their neurons do not release the necessary neurotransmitters. Before making an effort to learn something new, the brain, guided by its own subjective criteria, always “asks” if it is meaningful and useful. Such decisions are made beyond our consciousness. When neurons do not find any convincing arguments for learning, they do not engage their potential.
We all have about 100 billion specialized neurons in our brains. Some of them code places, others are responsible for planning movements, and still others – for the execution of movements. Certain neural structures are activated when we play football ourselves, others – when we watch a football match on a TV screen, and still others – when we read a newspaper report about a match. This seems obvious but our schools function as if the “second-hand” learning about the world was the only possible way.
In contemporary educational system, pupils learn about the world mainly through the verbal channel. It is not difficult to imagine that other structures are active when reading the definition of the azimuth, and still others – when children follow the azimuth with a compass in their hands. Listening or reading is something else for the brain than watching, touching, or building structures. Even the best definition or description cannot be substituted for one’s own experience that activates various senses. Last but not least, learning through experience is the only way to watch processes in their specific situational context. That context plays a crucial role because it shows the relationship between concepts and eliminates the risk of misunderstanding. By checking how a magnet works on different materials, pupils experience what magnetism is. If they just read the definition, they may have difficulties to understand such a new concept, or they may misunderstand it. Problems with the sciences prove that many pupils do not understand the matters discussed at school. It is not surprising as pure verbal communication supplemented with few illustrations is, for the brain, the most difficult form of learning. Neurons can only process the information to which they can attach a meaning. Dealing in abstractions without physical objects makes this process considerably more difficult.
In 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson were working on solving the mystery of DNA, they created a structure of wires and metal plaques in their laboratory. Over the period of a year and a half, newer and newer versions of the structure of plaques corresponding to the four nucleotides forming nucleic acid were created on Watson’s desk. Although both researchers knew that to build their model they needed as much adenine as thymine as well as cytosine and guanine, the correct shape of the helix came to their minds only after seeing an X-ray image taken by Rosalind Franklin. The path to understanding the DNA structure led through using physical objects, creating models, further attempts to combine the known elements and endless discussions. Before the researchers managed to find the correct formula, they kept going astray and made many mistakes. Although the discoverers of the DNA structure were undoubtedly brilliant, they had to find support in physical objects when creating the helix model. When learning at school about what Crick and Watson discovered, pupils are only provided with texts with a large number of difficult abstract concepts and several accompanying illustrations. They learn about what has already been discovered and are required to assimilate this knowledge. It is not an attractive task for their brains. They would be much more stimulated to work by information on what still needs to be explained and what problems are waiting to be solved.
It is easy to imagine that a class on the DNA structure could be completely different. Pupils could get coloured elements corresponding to the four nucleic acids to construct the helix model. In this way they could follow the path of Crick and Watson and see how difficult it was what they achieved. Such kits could include a list of tips to help pupils to create the model.
The quoted story of the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA may be an example of the rivalry between two teams. Crick and Watson worked at Cambridge, while Maurice Wilkinson and Rosalind Franklin tried to solve the mystery of DNA at their London laboratory. They all wanted to be the winners; they all worked with commitment, are were accompanied by strong emotions. Textbooks do not mention it. Pupils get a description and an illustration of the twisted double helix. Only specific concepts, facts and figures are provided. There are no stories of people, no emotions. Instead of juicy, aromatic dishes pupils are served dry sawdust. While the greatest minds needed to deal in physical objects in order to make their discoveries, pupils at school – both the best and the poor ones – have to settle for an abstract concentrate of words and illustrations. Is it easy to understand concepts such as nucleotides, complementarity or ribozymes? When pupils read that transcription means writing information onto the RNA strand – is it really enough for them to get to know what the process is about? Can anyone expect that mere words are enough to understand such difficult concepts? Brain researchers emphasize that for the correct representation to be created in the neural network it is necessary that the discussed concepts are understood, which requires active dealing in them. This means that pupils at school must have time to process the information provided; they must use it in a number of different contexts. Mere listening to the lecture and reading a text in the textbook are far from being enough for the necessary changes to occur in the neural network.
Even the most outstanding researchers have physical objects at their disposal, observe real phenomena, and carry out experiments. Should we believe that words and abstractions are enough for pupils? When asked about the helix, Watson answered that it was beautiful. If textbooks contained some of that fascination, different neural structures would be active in pupils’ brains while reading. Today we know that emotions are markers of memory so it is hard to understand why knowledge is still taught at school in the most difficult form for the brain.
Marzena Żylińska, PhD
Marzena deals with the methodology and neuropedagogy, and has a doctorate in teaching foreign languages. She works as a lecturer at the Foreign Language Teacher Training College in Toruń and at the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław. Marzena promotes a creative usage of new technologies in teaching. She co-organized the European project "School undergoing change". She is the author of teaching materials with the use of findings of brain research. Marzena is also the author the books Postkomunikatywna dydaktyka języków obcych w dobie technologii informacyjnych [Post-Communicative Didactics of Foreign Language Teaching in an Era of Information Technology] (Warsaw 2007) and Neurodydaktyka. Nauczanie i uczenie się przyjazne mózgowi [Neurodidactics. Brain-friendly teaching and learning]. Marzena’s blog is "Neurodidactics or neurons in the school bench".
publishing date: 8 September 2014