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An intellectual orgasm

Effective leadership leads to effective teaching. Neil Munro and Elizabeth Buie report on the Scottish Learning Festival

The good news from the latest brain research is that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

According to Bruno della Chiesa, a senior analyst with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, research in Japan had shown that a group of elderly people scored only 35 per cent in a test of face recognition; but when they were made to read aloud for half-an-hour a day, their cognitive vitality and ability to recognise faces rose to 75-80 per cent.

Mr della Chiesa, who runs an international project on learning sciences and brain research, told delegates at last week's festival that research had shown that the brain had far greater "plasticity" and learning power than was realised even 10 years ago. This meant that the remediation of learning disorders was possible - even if they had not been diagnosed at a very early age.

But he also revealed that, while human beings are born with an innate sense of number, the same was not true of literacy skills: "Reading and writing are collateral constructs that are relatively recent to the brain - we are not configured to read and write."

The OECD's new research agenda, he revealed, was likely to focus on how better to define sensitive periods for learning and relating that to school; further exploring the role of emotions in the learning process; a comparison of the acquisition of different languages; the study of reading acquisition; and an exploration of the connections between learning and motivation.

Work was also being done on what is described as the "aha" experience - the moment when one piece of learning makes everything else fit into place. Mr della Chiesa described that experience as "intellectually orgasmic" and an intrinsic motivation for learning. Like the sexual orgasm, once experienced, it left the person wanting to "have it again", he said. It was also stronger than the external motivation for learning - such as a teacher telling a pupil that if you learn X you will be rewarded with Y.

The jury was still out, Mr della Chiesa said, on whether girls' and boys'

brains worked differently. "Individual differences seem to be more important than gender differences. So far, we can't say that the differences are brain-based. The answer is likely to be sociological."

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