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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

ACER research findings: how the brain learns

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 7, 2013

Every year the ACER (the Australian Council for Education Research) holds a research conference to showcase the latest findings that impact on teaching and learning, and they make the papers available online to people who subscribe to their newsletter. (Here’s the email address if you want to join up).

ACER confThese conferences are often rather dry, but some of the current papers are worth reading, up to a point.

I downloaded these ones from their Research Repository:

There were two more that interested me but only the abstract is available as of today’s date:

What did I glean from these papers?

Professor Westwell’s paper talks about how the proficiencies of Understanding, Problem-solving and Reasoning demanded by Australian Curriculum go beyond knowledge and know-how.  He’s right:  In history, for example, the inclusion of empathy, significance and contestability in the primary curriculum is new.  In the topic of Explorers (Year 4) , for example, students are expected to consider the impact of exploration in the context of First Contact, and to develop an empathetic response by imagining what Europeans and Aborigines thought of each other at that time.  When studying Australia’s military history, primary students can explore contestability by using a resource such as the DVA Indigenous Service to learn about the war service of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders and consider why their service has had so little recognition despite Australia’s obsession with military history.  The point about this, is that brain research shows that to do this students need three ‘core executive function abilities’ which are impulse inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility.  Teachers have to help students develop these functions.  Depressingly, Professor Westwell’s research also shows that low SES students ‘have less cognitive capacity to support their day-to-day decision–making processes’ but he reckons that with support better outcomes can be expected for these children.   This optimism sent me off to the papers which appeared to offer practical strategies. 

‘Minds, Brains and Learning Games’ begins by sniping at the ‘parallel world’ of pseudo-neuroscience found in many schools’.  On the basis of a UK survey which showed that graduate trainees held unscientific beliefs about effective teaching, Dr Howard-Jones concludes that these ideas persist when these graduates confront the real world of the school.   This assumption strikes me as a failure of logic, not to mention a failure of university teacher-training in the UK.  So I hope that the rest of what he had to say had more validity.  The paper goes on to tackle the neuroscience of video games.  Research (the details of which you can read for yourself if you’re keen) explains why they’re so engaging, and that ‘the same neural and cognitive processes appear to underlie both the hazard and the educational potential of video games’.   What appears to be relevant to teaching and learning is that students are attracted to games offering reward-uncertainty, that is, they have an element of chance.  So as it turns out, the teachers at my school whose annual action research project is to learn a gaming program called Scratch are exploring how creating learning games of this type may be very effective in the classroom.

More than one of these papers talked about the need for neuroscience to connect with the work of classroom teachers.  Donna Nitschke listed factors which inhibit the dissemination of relevant information:

  • the speed of change in neuroscience
  • ‘professional discipline barriers’ [especially techno-speak in the discipline]
  • neuro-myths caused by over-extrapolation of research findings [a.k.a. ‘don’t mess with my findings’]
  • commercial misapplication of research findings e.g. so-called ‘brain-based education’
  • lack of training for teachers for them to deal with the above, and [as usual]
  • time and financial constraints on teachers.  [She also mentions ‘attitudinal’ constraints on teachers, without indicating what these might be].

Nitschke goes on to mention a program called ‘Being the Best Learner You Can Be’ which uses a games-based format to improve attention, memory, emotional literacy and higher order thinking skills.  It’s learning focussed rather than teaching or curriculum focussed, and is targeted on the executive function skills mentioned above.   Of course it includes improving ‘framing and delivery of curriculum by teachers.’  Google and I couldn’t find out anything about it.

Professor John Pegg’s paper considered the ‘reality of working memory and neural functioning’.   Working memory is what we use for temporary storage of information but it’s more than just short-term memory.   It’s ‘the brain’s ability to hold information in the mind while transforming it or other information.’  The size of working memory doesn’t increase as we improve expertise in a task, but our brains ‘chunk’ information enabling better efficiency. On the other hand the amount of stuff we can store in long-term memory seems unlimited.  Alas, the capacity to retrieve it can decline, as those of us with ageing brains can testify… 

Human intelligence is about ‘stored knowledge in long-term memory’ which we form into neural networks, not ‘long chains of reasoning in working memory’.   We can engage higher-order processing when there’s enough space in working memory to retrieve those networks of info from long-term memory.   The brain is actually designed to forget most data that comes through the senses – what makes data stay put in the brain is practice and rehearsal, and understanding whatever it is in some meaningful way.  So the context of learning is important, and Pegg went on to talk about some ideas that are very familiar to teachers i.e. the need to consider the complexity of the material when planning, how it’s to be presented and what prior learning the child already has.  He also talked about the development of automaticity, focussed practice and rehearsal, and the importance of errors in learning.  While the language in which these findings is expressed is somewhat unfamiliar, not much of this seemed new to me. 

What I did find useful in this paper was the research that shows that it’s better to praise effort than ‘innate intelligence’, [i.e. ‘good effort!’ not ‘clever girl!’]  What happens if we praise cleverness is that students tend to choose more straightforward tasks, and are more stressed by anything that’s a bit hard.  These students tend to downplay the importance of effort and won’t take risks.  But when we encourage students to develop the habit of trying hard on problem-solving tasks, they tend to do better.   There were also two programs mentioned, QuickSmart Numeracy and Literacy, which apparently achieve significant and sustained results.  [All you need is a staffing ratio to facilitate the small group lessons, eh? According to Wikipedia, it involves two students, for three 30 minute lessons a week, over thirty weeks].

John Munro’s paper was very dense with neurological terms about how gifted students learn, and so perhaps I have missed some insights.  What I took from this paper was what I already knew: that gifted learners think differently and (obviously) what’s going on in the brain is different too.   In this conclusion I am conforming to the accusation that ‘it is not clear that the education community is ready or prepared to listen’.  Mea culpa, I fail to see anything new about the statements that gifted students are better at managing and directing their own learning, that they have greater working memory and can process more information, that they can integrate understanding across multiple ‘codes’, and that they can generate intuitive theories about what they’re learning.  We see this every day in our classrooms, and while I know that teachers are not always as good as they should be at identifying gifted students, I don’t think that knowing that these students have ‘enhanced bilateral parietal activation’  is going to improve the situation.  The only interesting information in this paper for me was that people who are gifted in spatial activities tend to have more problems with language-related disorders e.g. dyslexia. 

Maybe I am a little hyper-sensitive, but I detect a lack of respect for teachers in some of the them-and-us language of these papers, and I don’t think that’s helpful at all.

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