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Can the brain change by learning?

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Blog - Can the brain change by learning?

Sunday 27 November 2011

By chance last week I caught the start of a fascinating programme on Radio 4 on “Brain Plasticity”.  As usual, I heard only a few minutes of it in the car, but have just listened to the whole thing on iPlayer, and it seems to me that it is so important and exciting for anyone involved or interested in education that I am going to try to summarise the key points of it in what follows.

A definition first of all: ‘plasticity’ means the ability to change: change shape, structure, size. Brain science has shown us in recent years that the brains of people who learn demanding new skills, such as playing a musical instrument, can actually be shown to change in shape, as the areas of the brain responsible for the complex movements required actually grow in size in relation to the rest of the brain.  Children doing football training undertake many drills and exercises which may not seem directly relevant to scoring goals, but taken together improve the brain, reactions, skills levels and make the body more supple and better prepared for the end task, scoring goals.

Scientists have shown that children’s brains alter when they play video games. The relevant feature of these games is the uncertainty of winning or losing, which, although related to the player’s skill level, also has an element of chance.  This exposure to ‘risk’ causes the release of dopamine in the brain, which makes the brain more receptive to new learning in the period the dopamine is active, and makes the player very engrossed and engaged in the activity.

Teaching experiments are now taking place which attempt to combine acquisition of new knowledge and understanding with an element of ‘uncertain reward’, or risk.  Put simply, instead of teaching children something, then questioning them about it, and rewarding them if they get it right, these experiments only sometimes reward them for getting it right, and determine the ‘sometimes’ by chance, so there is an element of chance involved.  This seems to result in them being more alert and engaged in the process, explained scientifically by higher levels of dopamine in the brain because of the risk or uncertainty.

There is of course a risk that this simple insight can lead to all sorts of ‘brain games’ and techniques which promise to improve everything but actually lead to over-simplification of the learning process.  We must guard against that, but we must not close our eyes to what neuroscience is gradually discovering about the way the human brain learns.

The basic insight, that the human brain in the teenage years and later life, is much, much more ‘plastic’ (able to change) than we ever thought before, has many implications.  One of these was explored in some depth in the programme. Education policy up to now has worked on the assumption that the early years (0-3) are critical, and that poor learning and development in that phase of life causes irreparable damage to children from educationally or socially disadvantaged backgrounds.  Increasingly, brain science (neuroscience) is showing that this is not necessarily the case.  The tragedy of many Romanian orphans brought to Britain in the 1990s, often with minimal exposure to language or stimulation in their early years, has been used to study how effectively the brain can recover early setbacks such as these.  The results are very clear: there are very many examples of now-adults who had little or no language or ‘normal’ stimulation in their early years who have apparently  completely caught up and are now able to function without difficulty as well as their peers.  All this suggests to policy makers that, rather than concentrating resources only on early years intervention, it is important also to focus on what can be done in the teenage years to help the brains of young people who are ‘behind’ to grow and develop more rapidly.

On the teenage brain specifically, the scientists are now finding that alongside very high levels of general plasticity, the teenage brain changes more markedly and rapidly than we previously thought, especially in areas to do with planning and with social interaction and peer pressure.  This might suggest that more specific teaching in these areas could capitalize on these changes.

A further fascinating insight is the light being cast by brain science on the ‘self-esteem’ and praise agendas.  Some years ago, we were told in education and child-rearing that it was essential to raise children’s self esteem by constant praise, telling them they were very good at everything, and that the self-confidence inspired by constant praise would make them good at everything.  Self esteem was thought to be the key.

We are now understanding that it is not that simple.  Experiments being carried out currently indicate that where children have received this constant praise and affirmation of their ‘cleverness’, when they are given more challenging work, are more likely to give up, and make no progress at all, whereas children who have been praised only for their effort and attitude to work, not for their cleverness as such, are more likely to persevere in difficult work and make better progress ultimately.  So we now realize that praise then needs to be carefully and judiciously given – used carelessly and undiscriminatingly, it can actually cause damage to children’s progress.

Finally the programme looked at the relationship between working hard and innate ability, specifically in mathematics. Neuroscience research in education is finding that ‘innate ability’ is a minor and uncertain factor in comparison with being prepared to work hard.  Progress in mathematics is maximized when children believe that progress can be made if they work hard.  Perhaps mathematics itself, with its emphasis on abstract thinking, is a subject the study of which actually changes the brain, just like learning a musical instrument.  By chance I observed a maths lesson at school this week where a student said, while grappling with a particularly hard question, “my brain hurts” – ‘growing pains’ in the brain, perhaps! Conversely, progress in maths is capped or limited most significantly by the belief amongst learners that their apparent lack of ability in maths is something they are born with.  An informal survey of children in top and bottom sets illustrated this: students in top sets thought they were there because they worked hard, and they thought people were in bottom sets because they didn’t work hard.  On the other hand, people in bottom sets thought they were there because they weren’t very ‘bright’, and that the people in the top sets were there because they were bright.   This latter notion is exactly what the brain science is now proving to be false.  If we could change these ideas, we could perhaps open the door to much higher achievement.

The implications of some of these ideas for the way we go about education are obviously huge, not least the bizarre and indefensible policy of segregating children by supposed ‘ability’ at age 11, but also what we believe about learning and the potential to learn in secondary schools, and how we go about maximizing the potential of the brain which is more open to growth and learning than we ever thought possible.

What would we do without Radio 4?