Who knows how the brain really works

24th November 2006 at 00:00
The days are long gone when I took my brain with me to workshops. I refer to the plastic model which was one of my props. I don't focus on how the brain learns any longer, as it has become a bit "old hat".

The 1990s ("the decade of the brain" in the United States) seems a long time ago and many appear to think we have the implications of the brain in education well sussed. We talk about brain-based learning, brain breaks, brain gym, left and right brains, emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences, and the importance of a "sure start" in the brain's first three years of life.

I am fascinated by our growing understandings of the human brain and the implications for learning and teaching. But I've always been sceptical about some of the claims being made about these implications. Educators need to resist the temptation to use neuroscience as a promotional tool for pet ideas, values and prejudices.

The term "neuromyths" has been coined for some of the grandiose claims that educators have made over the past 10 years about the brain and learning.

So here are some neuromyths and neurofacts. First, the myths. There are no grounds in neurology for believing that certain movements and certain kinds of music cause certain kinds of learning. Music and movement do aid concentration and help the brain achieve the best state for learning, namely relaxed alertness. Other claims about music, movement and learning may be accurate, but are not based on robust science.

Some abilities are more easily developed during "sensitive" (not "critical") periods in our lives. But there are no grounds in neurology for believing in the supremacy of the first three years. The normal development of the growing human brain appears to go on for much longer than had been previously thought - into the teenage years.

We are not left or right brained. We've known for some time that our cortex is divided into two, and that each side has specialised functions. But both sides work together in almost all situations, tasks and processes. Although people may have preferred learning styles, it's too early to link these with left and right brain.

It has been claimed that early disagreements between enthusiasts and sceptics appear to be giving way to a new consensus, with a number of ideas now generally accepted. The most important areas of consensus are to do with the potential of our brains to learn and the role the emotions play in helping us fulfil our potential.

Above all, neuroscience has taught us that our brains are immensely powerful, incredibly flexible and dynamic. They are constantly changing and developing throughout our lives - continually reinventing themselves day by day, hour by hour, as they respond to their environment.

But we also know that our brains and how they develop places limits on our learning, which determines what we can learn, how much we can learn and how fast. Our capacity to use and develop the potential of our brain depends on what is being accurately defined in science as "emotional intelligence"

(not the popular Daniel Goleman model).

This is because, although the brain has a phenomenal capacity for learning, it is designed first and foremost for survival. As a result, in the brain emotions are more important and more powerful than higher-order thinking skills. This has huge implications for learning and teaching, many of which are recognised in A Curriculum for Excellence.

I'll leave the last word to Susan Greenfield, who has possibly done more over the past 10 years to draw attention to the importance of neurology.

When asked to put a percentage on how much she thinks we know about our brains and how they work, her response was "5 per cent".

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited

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