Many scientists and practitioners are combining their ability in the neurosciences with practical applications for education and learning. Teachers don’t have to fully understand the brain (fyi…I took my doctoral coursework (many years ago) in a combination of biopsychology and education and used to do workshop for teachers on the implications of brain research for education — so I definitely share your interest). The neuroscientists who spoke at the Learning and the Brain Conference in February are focusing their research on what happens in the brain during learning. The studies they are doing use research techniques such as fMri, eye tracking and other techniques to SEE what is happening in the brain as children do different types of tasks — ranging from direct instruction to self-direction. They can see what areas of the brain are activated and that’s a huge step forward. There were over 2,000 people at the conference, from scientists to classroom teachers. And there are many educators who are now are working to develop programs based on the scientific findings.
The underlying message of the conference (my own summary) was The greater the amount of self-direction and active involvement in the learning process, the greater the students’ motivation, engagement, understanding, retention, and ability to transfer learning from one context to another. Those are the important factors. Teachers don’t need to understand how the brain works. The neuroscientists have already drawn the conclusions based on brain-science, so now it’s up to teachers to provide the most brain-compatible environments.
Many traditional teachers insist that individualized instruction is impossible…and they are correct…IF teachers continue to believe that their role is to “give” students the same information. It’s easy to see why they feel that way because it is the experience that most of us had in school. But in a time when students can access any information that want or need in seconds, the role of educators must now change. They can still “guide” and “facilitate” learning, and in the case of core concepts, they may actually provide a minimal amount of direct instruction. But we must redefine our idea of “essential knowledge” and pare it down to broad descriptions of behaviors and abilities that every person needs in order to function effectively in the world. And we must get over the idea that every child of a given age must accumulate the same knowledge and skills. Instead, teachers can curate enriched environments that give learners access to information in a wide variety of ways from which they can choose to suit their learning preferences and interests. Then let the students go! We have the research to support this…the biggest mountain to climb will be transforming teacher beliefs about learning and teaching.