Brain goes to school

According to many brain researchers, current problems with education result from ignoring the mechanisms of learning. Many people believe that students learn mainly at school by listening to the teacher, reading textbooks, or completing workbooks. Nothing could be more wrong!

The human brain learns all the time, but quite differently from what the school expects. It is not an organ designed to reproduce information, but to process it and to formulate general rules. When forced to memorise mechanically, it works inefficiently and reluctantly. To learn effectively, it needs many examples. Only when it does what it was created for, it can fulfil its potential. Interestingly, students learn most intensively when they do it unconsciously, or forget about learning at all. It happens when the topic arouses fascination, when the learner takes on the role of an explorer or experimenter who can independently come up with and test research hypotheses. The kind of lesson where the teacher recites information and the students are to reproduce it is perceived differently than the kind where they themselves discover the rules governing the world and answers to intriguing questions. In the brain of a student-listener, different neuronal structures are active than in the brain of a student-experimenter.

Starting with neurones

It is the interesting questions that put students in a state of readiness to learn, and lead to the release of neurotransmitters without which the learning process is impossible. According to the German brain researcher Prof. Manfred Spitzer, whatever has already been explained is unattractive to the brain, does not stir the imagination, and does not attract attention. The opposite is true regarding issues that need to be investigated or clarified. They initiate the process of intensive learning, because they put neurones in a state of readiness to work and allow their involvement. Knowing this property of the brain, it is easy to understand why children who are motivated to learn and willing to work, so quickly lose their enthusiasm in school. There are also many indications that the reproduction of provided information is too simple, and thus too boring, which is why it does not initiate the learning process.

In order to develop, young brains constantly need new challenges, i.e. suitable tasks. Creating or choosing them is not a simple matter, though. First of all, they cannot be neither too complex nor too simple; secondly, they need to be intriguing enough for the brain to deem it worthy to engage in addressing them. Teachers need to remember that everything that is typical, trivial, predictable, or already explained, does not active the so-called novelty and meaning detector.

The authors of textbook exercises do not pay much attention to the narration, but for the brain it is the key issue. If students do not believe in math's usefulness in math lessons, their neurones are not releasing the necessary neurotransmitters. Before making the effort to learn, the brain always "asks" about the meaning and usefulness, guided by its own, subjective criteria. These decisions take place beyond our consciousness. When neurones find no convincing arguments to learn, they fail to use their potential.

Words are not enough

Each one of us has ca. 100 billion specialised neurones in the brain. Some groups code places, other are responsible for movement planning, and other – for movement execution. Different neuronal structures activate when we play football, different – when we watch the game on a TV monitor, and other when we read about it in a newspaper. It seems obvious, but our schools function as if second hand learning was the only way.

In today's educational system, students get to know the world mainly through the verbal channel. It is not difficult to imagine that other structures are active when reading the azimuth definition and different when the child goes to the azimuth with the compass in his hand. Listening or reading is different to the brain than observing, touching, or constructing. Even the best definition or description will not replace your own experience activating various senses. What is no less important, only by learning through experience can one observe the processes taking place in a specific situational context. This context plays a key role because it shows the relationship between concepts and eliminates the risk of misunderstanding them. By checking how a magnet works on different materials, students experience what magnetism is. By reading the definitions, they may not understand the new concept or misunderstand it. Science problems are proof that many students do not understand the covered content. There is nothing strange about it – for the brain, purely verbal communication with a few illustrations is the most difficult form of learning about the world. Neurones can only process information that they can give meaning to. Operating pure abstracts without the help of particulars makes this process considerably more difficult.

Abstraction is not enough

When Francis Crick and James Watson were working on solving the DNA puzzle in 1953, they created a structure of wires and metal plates in their laboratory. For a year and a half, successive versions of a scaffold made of plaques corresponding to the four nucleotides that make up the nucleic acid were created on Watson's desk. Although both researchers knew that they should use the same amount of adenine as thymine, as well as cytosine and guanine, to build their model, they only came up with the correct shape of the helix after viewing an X-ray image made by Rosalind Franklin. The way to understand the structure of DNA led through operating facts, creating models, subsequent attempts to combine already known elements, and endless discussions. Before the researchers could find the correct formula, they went astray for a long time and made many mistakes. Although the discoverers of the DNA structure were undoubtedly brilliant scientists, they had to be backed up by concrete facts when creating the helix model. When learning at school about what Crick and Watson discovered, students only get texts with a large number of difficult, abstract concepts, and a few illustrations. They find out what has already been discovered, and are supposed to absorb this knowledge. This is not an attractive task for their brains. They would be much more motivated to work by information about what still needs to be explained and what problems are waiting to be solved.

It's easy to imagine that a lesson about the DNA structure could look completely differently. Students would get colourful elements corresponding to four nucleonic acids in order to assemble a helix model. This way, they could follow Crick and Watson and see how difficult their accomplishment was. A list of clues could be attached to sets like these, making it easier to create a model.

Impressions and emotions

The cited story about the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA may be an example of competition between two teams. Crick and Watson worked in Cambridge, while Maurice Wilkinson and Rosalind Franklin tried to unravel the DNA mystery in their London lab. Everyone wanted to be the first, everyone approached their work with commitment, and that caused strong emotions. There is no trace of them in the textbooks. Students are only given a description and an illustration of the twisted double helix. Specialised concepts, facts and figures are there, while human stories and emotions are lacking. Instead of juicy, aromatic dishes, students get dry sawdust. To make their discoveries, the most powerful minds needed to manipulate particulars, for students at school – both the best, and the weaker ones – an abstract concentrate of words and illustrations is supposed to be enough. Is it easy to understand such concepts as nucleotides, complementarity, or ribozymes? By reading that transcription means information being written into an RNA strand, will students really learn what the process is? Can you expect words alone to be enough to understand such difficult issues? Brain researchers emphasise that the condition for the creation of correct representations in the neural network is the understanding of the discussed concepts, and this requires their active use. Students in school must be given time to process the information provided, they must use it in many different contexts. Merely listening to the lecture and reading a chapter in the textbook are far from sufficient for the necessary changes to take place in the neural network.

Even the most outstanding researchers have specific facts at their disposal, observe real phenomena, and conduct experiments. Should we believe that words and abstracts are enough for students? When Watson was asked about the helix, he replied that it was beautiful. If any of these fascinations remained in school textbooks, other neural structures would be active in students' brains when reading the texts. Today we know that emotions are markers of memory, which is why it is so difficult to understand why knowledge is still passed on at school in a form that is the most difficult for the brain.


Dr. Marzena Żylińska

Works in methodology and neuropedagogy, has a doctorate in foreign language teaching. Works as a lecturer at the Teacher Training College in Toruń and at the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław. Promotes the creative use of new technologies in teaching. She co-organised the European project "Changing School". She is a author of didactic materials using conclusions drawn from research on the brain, and the books "Post-communicative didactics foreign languages in the age of information technology" (Warsaw 2007) and "Neurodidactics. Brain-friendly teaching and learning”. Runs the blog "Neurodidactics, or neurones at the school desk".

Publication date: September 8, 2014