Researchers studying brain activity back teachers who think lessons can be enjoyable and exams are stultifying, Stephanie Northen discovers
Teachers who think lessons should be fun, that exams are anathema to real learning and that children should be at ease in school can take heart. The neuroscientists are on your side.
Researchers have learned more about how the brain functions in the past 10 years than ever before. The mysteries of memory, the effects of emotion on learning and the nature of conditions such as dyslexia are slowly being revealed. And serious thought is being given to how to get their findings into the classroom.
But forget the brain-gym fad or the learning-styles craze. Both get rather short shrift from those poking around our little grey cells. Even beliefs such as the supreme importance for learning of a child's first three years are being challenged.
"There is as much misinformation out there as there is information," says Professor Usha Goswami, who is setting up Cambridge university's new centre for neuroscience in education. Yet learning could link to science just as medicine does and she hopes to build bridges between the two.
Another bridge-builder is Bruno della-Chiesa, senior analyst in charge of the learning sciences and brain research project run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Findings from his project, which began in 1999, go to the policy-makers of the 30 OECD countries, providing hard scientific fact to back up what many teachers already know.
Take exams. They are a "completely useless" way of ensuring that a child develops a skill, says Mr della-Chiesa. "The exam system is not at all brain- friendly. It doesn't take into account the way the brain works. Yet in every education system I know, the exams dictate how the system, the teachers and the students work."
The brain is a learning machine and its method is to create, reinforce or eliminate synapses that connect neurons or brain cells. When a child embarks on some last-minute panic-stricken revision of, say, the reign of Nero, the brain lays down only short-term memories using temporary connections. Two weeks later, Nero is forgotten.
Contrast this with what happens when children learn a second language by, perhaps, living in another country for a couple of years. Even if they then move, and do not use the language for a decade, it is not gone. The millions of synapses created for that task are still there. They have become "silent connections", weak, but capable of being quickly revived.
To create these silent connections, initial learning must be strong and profound. It must also be meaningful. Children find it easier to lay down and retrieve long-term memories if they have understood what they are learning. Cramming fails on both counts.
Mr della-Chiesa does not relish telling policy-makers that, in brain terms, the basis of their education systems is wrong. "This might be one of the most challenging pieces of information that we are going to give to our policy people and our practitioners. It is a very sensitive issue," he says.
Another sensitive issue is the role of fear in education. "In some countries," he says, "there is a desire to go back to the 1950s when teachers were frightening the kids. But from a brain point of view there is no future in that."
Neuroscientists can explain why. When someone is afraid, their amygdala takes over. This almond-shaped organ is part of the limbic system, the emotional centre of the brain.
"Flight or fight" is its forte, as it generates feelings of fear to ensure survival. It also plays a vital role in routing short-term memories through to the cortex, the thinking bit, to be stored as long-term memory. When a child is scared, the amygdala simply shuts off the cortex and learning stops. So if neuroscientists were designing an education system, fear and cramming would go. In their place would be fun.
As Professor Goswami says: "It is very clear that the emotional context in which learning takes place affects the brain. Neuroscience will show that, for example, teachers' expectations, the school and classroom environment, the active engagement of the learner... all those things improve the way the brain responds." And it responds best of all to understanding, apparently. Of the many triggers that motivate people to learn, such as desire for approval and recognition, the most powerful is understanding.
"It's the 'Aha!' moment," says Bruno della-Chiesa, "when your brain suddenly makes connections, and sees patterns between the facts it has been fed. It seems the most intense pleasure the brain can experience is related to intrinsic, internal problem-solving. It has been described as an intellectual orgasm and once you have that experience, you want to have it again."
Policy-makers will probably have little difficulty accepting that message: after all, they have heard it for years from teachers. Less palatable will be the latest findings from research into adolescents. These show that the pre-frontal cortex - the rational, organising, planning section of the brain - is not mature until the mid-to-late 20s. Yet the process of "sorting" people, of expecting them to make rational choices about their future, begins in adolescence.
Right now, 14-year-olds are choosing their GCSE options while battling with their hormones and immature reasoning systems. "We are sorting kids in a way that will be of extreme importance for their lives at the worst possible stage of life. But what alternative do we have?" asks Mr della-Chiesa.
Neuroscientists admit they are still scratching the surface. A new review from the Scottish Council for Research in Education concludes that hopes of some "grand scheme of brain-based education" to transform learning instantly have faded.
Professor Goswami says: "We can investigate many insights that teachers have, but some of the things you read about are really way in the future.
You cannot study creativity currently with neuroscience. You have to have things you can measure, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. We can look for early markers of these disorders and also compare the effectiveness of interventions.
"Nothing in neuroscience can be applied quickly to education, but the potential is clearly there."
Bruno della-Chiesa sums it up slightly differently. "Any good teacher knows much of this. The little difference we can make is to tell them: 'You were right and we know why!' " A conference to launch Cambridge university's new centre for neuroscience in education will be held on July 25-27. Details on: www.educ.cam.ac.ukptpdneuro_launch.htmlThe OECD's learning sciences and brain research project is on: www.teach-the-brain.org The SCRE review is at www.scre.ac.ukspotlight
ROTE LEARNING VERSUS TRUE UNDERSTANDING
The vexed question of the value of rote learning in maths has been tackled by Margarete Delazer, a clinical neuropsychologist at Innsbruck university.
Using brain scans and behavioural measures, she studied two groups of young people: one set was taught by rote, the other by being given strategies for working out the answers.
She found that reaction times were equally fast with both methods, but the rote-learners made more mistakes.Furthermore, the strategists were able to transfer their methods to enable them to solve new problems.
The two teaching methods caused different brain "activation patterns" - which neural networks fired and in what order. In other words, the method determined the cognitive process used to master new facts.
She suggests that teachers will get more right answers if they use strategy rather than rote, but if they want to use rote they should ensure the children first understand what they are doing.
TAKE YOUR BRAIN FOR A JOG
"You can teach an old dog new tricks," says Bruno della-Chiesa, "and the dog's brain likes it."
Japanese researchers have been working with elderly people suffering the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Shown pictures of 100 known faces, the subjects were able to recognise only about 20 of them. But after a few weeks of reading aloud for half an hour a day, they could remember60 or 70.
"It seems simple," says Mr della-Chiesa, "but if you look at the brain of someone who is reading aloud you will see neurons firing all over the place.
"I'm not pretending we will see the end of Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease, but maybe we can, just by taking our brains for a jog, reduce their effects."