Learning About Learning

How does school work, brain-wise? Do children teach themselves or is it something about the instruction that gets their brains firing and wiring faster? Last fall, a few hundred neuroscientists, teachers, and curriculum-makers met for a weekend to hash out what we know about learning and how we could use it to help every child succeed at school. One early answer: Play. 

The Aspen Brain Forum was sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, which has posted an extensive summary of the event as well as slides and audio from eighteen of the sessions. For an introductory taste of the event, though, try the 18-min podcast (which we sponsored). Science and the City's Nadja Popovich talked with three of the presenters, who sketch the growing field and describe a few surprising results.  

Many of these results are connected to the cognitive properties of executive function, especially attention: inhibiting distraction, focusing on the correct aspect of a task, and maintaining focus. For example, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia describes the "red-pencil technique" for children who are writing their letters or numbers the wrong way (mirrored). Asking them to remind themselves to stop before they have to write a "6" and switch from their regular pencil to another one to write that number slows them down enough that they write the number correctly, a change that seems to last. Diamond also points out that learning programs that include social, emotional, and physical components (such as play) "are better for academic achievement and executive function" than those that focus solely on academics. "Addressing only the cognitive seems to be less beneficial," she says.

On the subject of play, Daphne Bavalier of the University of Rochester offers tantalizing research into the benefits of often-denigrated video games. Studies done on undergraduate non-gamers who played games for the first time for a few dozen hours seem to show they have improved vision acuity and speed as well as attention. How might programmers tweak games to foster improvements that could last?

Bruce McCandliss of Vanderbilt University describes research that suggests that differences in learning abilities and styles may have a grounding in attention, tooor rather, what we focus our attention on. Brain scans of young people focusing on the beginnings and endings of spoken words differ in predictable ways from the scans of those who focus on the melody of the sentences, for example. Might "poor" readers be focusing on a less-helpful aspect of the language, perhaps enjoying the music of the language and missing its meaning? "Different learning styles may rely on different styles of attention," he says, and might benefit from different methods of instruction.

Like most of neuroscience, questions are more plentiful than answers. We do know some things work better than others, though; Diamond cites the Montessori, Tools of the Mind, and Path curriculums; Jump Math also seems to be making mathematicians of entire classrooms, not just a lucky few, according to John Mighton (who was not on the podcast but did attend the meeting).

The main take-away? Everyone learns a little differently, so relax about it. As Diamond says, "stress impairs executive function."

–Nicky Penttila

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