Can we really use neuroscience to help us support student learning?
In short, yes. Let me explain!
Before I dive deep into what some might consider the 'new science' of learning, let's take a pause to explain how educational practices evolve (Willis, 2007). Many of the educational principles we have adopted globally (I can speak for the US and Canada here) have been handed down by way of tradition, with a hint of research that supports it. We implement particular instructional strategies because it's what we've always done, and as the traditions are handed down--we get farther away from the way it was originally intended to be used. On top of that, we recognize that what may have been substantiated by research in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, may no longer be substantiated at all. In many ways, aligning with research means contiunually commiting to forgetting everything you once knew. Sounds fun, right?
As we attempt to move the direction of education towards instructional procedures that are backed by science, we are faced with a daunting task...stay current, or get left behind with outdated practices. We have to come to terms with the fact that we weren't doing it wrong before, but we can do it more right (I know, it hurts to write as much as it hurts to read, but stay with me) as new information becomes available to us.
As more research emerges and centers around how neuroscience can positively impact student learning we have two choices...stay current, or get left behind (or perhaps more aptly, leave our students behind). So, what does neuroscience tell us about how students learn? Firstly, neuroscience (in psychology) presumes that the way the brain is wired has some impact on our behaviour as humans; stands to reason that this would be practical information for educators, right? I'll spare you the thesis, and instead highlight some key take aways presented by Willis (2007), citation provided below.
Neuroscience, or what Willis (2007) called brain-based instructional strategies, are appropriate for both general education students, and students identified as exceptional (special needs, disabled). This means that all teachers should be learning about the neuroscience of skill acquisition; it turns out, at least in this case, what's good for the goose is actually good for the gander.
Using principles of neuroscience is less about specific strategies (although you can derive some...I'll get there) and more about rethinking how we conceptualize optimal learning environments, and well-matched instructional strategies on the basis of what we know about brains build new skills (Willis, 2007). This means that we can't ignore brain science when it comes to developing instructional strategies for our students; we have to be willing to accomodate students on the basis of their neurological profile...because science says so!
There is much agreement that emotions impact how, or if, students learn; emotions impact the functioning of our amygdala, which plays a central role in regulating behavioural responses. By extension, considering emotions is critical when it comes to optimizing learning (Willis, 2007). Note: I've spoken a lot (on my podcast, and on social media channels) about finding the sweet spot of optimized stress. Neuroscience doesn't "say" that students can only learn when they are happy, but rather that regulation is positively correlated with learning. The right "dosage" of stress is ok, and often times--actually helpful for learning. This means, if nothing else...emotions impact learning are need to be regulated within the classroom.
The dopamine released in the brain when learning occurs, is beneficial to the learning process; when dopamine is released contingent on that AHA moment associated with enhanced meaning and task completion, learning and learning habits are strengthened (Willis, 2007). This means that intrinsic motivation matters, on a neurological level.
When it comes to harnessing the power of the brain, explicit and systematic instruction in subjects beyond core academics including cognitive skills associated with executive functioning can be game-changing for all students, and not just those with special education needs (Willis, 2007). In fact, according to Willis (2007), even gifted/talented and/or high achievers can benefit immensely from learning to optimize executive functioning. This means, just as we plan to systematically teach units related to core academics, we ought to be systematically teaching critical cognitive skills like those related to executive functioning.
There is much to learn from neurosciece, about cultivating optimal learning conditions for our students; so much so, that I will follow up with a part two (and maybe three, and four) once you've had a chance to digest this. Questions? I would strongly encourage you to check out the book referenced throughout this post, and down below.
Willis, J. (2007). Brain-friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.