The human brain is a hugely complex organ and the talk about it is complex and often hotly contested. The fact that it garners a lot of attention in the media as well as in popular literature makes talk of the brain increasingly interesting, and necessary, for educators.
This article sets out to present, from the perspective of an educator, some of the recent research around the changing brain as a way of arguing that educators have a crucial role in their students’ learning. In other words, teachers are not simply facilitators of something that would have ensued anyway.
What is neuroplasticity? A simple definition would be that the brain has shown that it is able to change in ways that previously were not thought possible. This ongoing change is what is meant by plasticity. Accepting that things are not necessarily predetermined by hardwiring of our brains, then we are able to say that teachers have an important, even critical, role to play in their students’ learning.
Seeing as our concern is with language and its role in the development of the brain, it would be opportune to introduce a researcher who does consider language and the brain concurrently – Terrence Deacon, Professor of Anthropology and a member of the Cognitive Science faculty at the University of California Los Angeles. He asserts that language impacts even at the level of the cell (Deacon 2007, 2012) and also says that, in a sense, we inherit the genes of our parents at birth (nature) but from then on it is all our experiences that develop our brains (nurture).
What researchers appear to reinforce is that we are beings seeking and organising our experiences in meaningful patterns. As teachers, we can be alert to the patterns in the meanings embedded in our curricula and, accordingly, this can inform our pedagogy. The beauty of understanding the complex yet patterned ways we live our lives is that we can teach our students how to play with the patterns or when, for whatever reasons, it is inappropriate to play or we, as teachers, can negotiate with our students ways to disrupt the patterns. This notion of playing with the tools we have developed control of lies behind the concept of metaphor. It could also be seen as a definition of creativity — playing with the known to explore the unknown.
Developing students’ brains
The research on neuroplasticity has important implications for us as teachers which I have summarised below:
- the brains of our students are responding to all of the complexities of a classroom as well as the school and beyond
- it is this complexity that can actually work positively for our students’ development
- the complexity manifests itself concurrently and interdependently through all the different senses — through seeing, hearing, touching, and moving (and in some schooling contexts through smelling and tasting)
- the complexity needs to be patterned so that students can see the connections between things in our world
- the complexity also needs to be presented in sequences that are meaningful to the disciplines in schooling and the teachers of those disciplines, and that, in turn, become meaningful to the students as they learn and, in fact, is the learning
- language use and classroom tasks are co-enacted in challenging ways so that neurons are forced to fire to set off each other but not too challenging that the systems are overloaded — this is reflected in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978) and Halliday’s challenge zone (Halliday 1993: 106)
- the firing of neurons is sustained through recycling (not simply repetition) so that neural networks are consolidated and expanded.
An overview of developing a stronger brain
|What researchers say||What it means for pedagogical practices|
|The stronger brain is the one that has developed through activities that are (1) patterned, (2) repeated and done with (3) moderate stress.||(1) Understand and frame teaching according to the patterns in the knowledge, which are construed through the patterns in language (text, lexis and grammar), and predominantly visuals (still and animated).|
Make these patterns explicit to students.
|(2) Provide opportunities for encountering and then consolidating through the various interactions in the classroom and interactions with the texts — don’t focus on drilling but instead on recycling.|
Recycling is carried out through the myriad interactions, between students, and teachers using the various meaning-making resources that are available to the participants in the dynamic classroom.
|(3) Moderate stress ‘forces’ our bodies to use energy to fire neurons and so neural networks expand. Staying in our comfort zones causes networks to reduce in size.|
Maintain a suitable challenge for students but provide the support that allows them to meet the challenge — this is the meaning of scaffolding.
‘How’ we teach should resonate with ‘what’ we teach — pedagogical resonance
When we talk about making meaning in multiple ways, it is not a matter of quantity only but of quality as well. Using a range of meaning-making resources may not necessarily result in effective and efficient learning; we need to consider the patterns in what we are teaching and the patterns in how we are teaching. There are recognisable and, therefore, predictable patterns that construct knowledge, which teachers of that knowledge need to be intimately acquainted with. These are the generic patterns that construe discipline knowledge and the patterns of texts that are construed predominantly through language are covered comprehensively in our courses (eg How Language Works and Teaching ESL Students in Mainstream Classrooms). The more teachers use these patterns as framing tools for how they teach, the more likely it is that students are not encountering hurdles in their learning. This interplay between the patterns in the meaning-making resources themselves and how we use them in our teaching so as to ensure they resonate with each other has been termed ‘pedagogical resonance’ (Polias 2010). With the right kind of support, we can and should maintain a high challenge for the students in what they need to learn.
Preparing for success rather than repairing failure
One of the insights from the research into neuroplasticity is that it is difficult to unlearn the learned. Doidge (2007) states that “when you learn something, those parts of the brain that are involved get very efficient and fast at doing their job. However, they become so good, they resist doing the same thing in a different way.” That is probably why it is difficult to unlearn bad habits or to get your brain to do in a new language what it can already do in your dominant primary language.
However, it is also why the learning pathways for students ought not to get so far down the wrong route that it is then burdensome to unlearn the “wrong learning”. This appears to fly in the face of adages such as learning from your mistakes and activities such as error analysis. It also alerts us as teachers to being mindful of what students are doing in inquiry-based learning and why many educators are tending to frame this kind of learning as directed (or structured) inquiry and guided inquiry.
So, it seems that preparing students with learning pathways that set them up for success and mitigating the need for repairing is necessary so that both students and teachers are not de-motivated in their attempts to learn.
In this article, I have introduced some of the findings of recent research into the brain which shows that the brain is plastic and is shaped by our experiences. Since children spend an enormous amount of time in educational situations of varying formality, then I claim that an efficient pedagogy is an effective pedagogy, and that we can both support and challenge our students concurrently. I have presented several examples of the kind of support I believe works in the classroom and that is part of an efficient pedagogy. This kind of pedagogy provides the students with the meaning-making resources needed to venture further, independently or collaboratively, and to interrogate their worlds and inquire and explore their unknown. Importantly, the exploration and taking, say, critical perspectives on their worlds is from a point of being equipped with the resources needed for taking a challenging approach and being ‘successful’ in that endeavour. The efficient pedagogy is now an effective pedagogy.
©John Polias, 2019
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