Studies show how the brain responds to different types of learning

Studies show how the brain responds to different types of learning


Greeted with images that inspired questions, like a giant egg broken in half to reveal a sunrise on a beach, attendees of a neuroscience session at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s annual conference March 15 realized their brains were in for some stimulation.

“I’m going to talk about the brain and what we are learning about how the mind learns information. This isn’t a handout-type session, it’s one where your brain can wander and be inspired!” said presenter Judy Willis, an author and researcher who has a medical degree and a master’s degree in education.

To help attendees stay refreshed, and keep their brains in “RAD” mode—or in a continued state of attention with the help of visuals and different types of media—Willis showed a clip of The Graduate. “Like Dustin Hoffman, today’s students feel alienated from the values of society they’re about to enter. Also, educators are adrift in new technologies being discovered every day, with structure being replaced by creativity and open walls,” she said.

Willis said educators must consider neurological strategies in their teaching to help students become more engaged in the classroom, and she stressed the importance of individualized instruction.

“What we’re learning about the brain is that everyone learns differently, and just because one way of learning works for this half, doesn’t mean that it works for the other half; just because everyone learns one way, doesn’t mean this girl or that boy learns like the rest of the class,” she explained.

In more technical terms, Willis said that as brain imaging studies continue to give a clearer picture of how individuals respond to sensory stimuli and perform cognitive tasks, knowledge has been accumulating about the brain’s neural systems. Researchers have proposed teaching strategies to correlate with interpretations about how the scanned brain responds to interventions. As more cognitive and classroom testing evaluates these interventions and strategies outside the scanners, Willis asks the question: What can we bring to students to enhance their educational experiences?

She explained that when the brain is going through cognitive learning, it has peaks and plateaus—meaning that at peaks, the brain is learning something new, but at plateaus it puts the new learning into practice. Just because the brain is in a plateau doesn’t mean it can’t learn new things, it just means it might take a bit longer.

Said Willis, “It’s just like the quote by William James in 1892: ‘We learn to swim in winter and skate in summer.’”

Other new studies have shown that the brain is not fully “pruned” until around 25 years of age, meaning that the brain, through young adulthood, gets rid of unused networks and increases the myelination (or strength) of used networks. Therefore, in order for students to learn well, repeated practice of newly learned skills and thought is imperative.

Another fascinating study shows that a dopamine-7 allele, an allele (a genetic coding sequence) that is linked to the cause of ADHD in children, is more sensitive to high- or low-quality parenting.

Explained Willis, “…This is not to say that all children with this allele have ADHD. But many ADHD children have this allele. Those who do have this allele exhibit increased or diminished signs of ADHD as related to the quality of parenting and support more than those children who do not have this allele.”

She continued: “Eventually, we will be able to identify the predispositions and strengths of all children based on brain activity, and we as educators must understand what this implies for the future—that the future will require us to teach to the individual, not to the whole or the differentiated.”

Willis recommends giving students information about how their brain works, so they can better advance their own learning style; practicing multisensory teaching to aid in individualization; and using formative assessments to provide corrective feedback.

“Every brain is unique, and every brain knows what it wants to do and what it can do best. Since every brain is different, we must teach to the individual learner so that every student can master 21st century skills,” concluded Willis.




For more on Judy Willis’ research