A Brain-Friendly Environment for Learning

Thanks to new technologies of brain imaging and major breakthroughs in cognitive research, neuroscientists now know more about the functioning of the human brain than ever. This new knowledge should help us revolutionize our teaching methods, but what about those of us who can’t tell a hippocampus from a hippopotamus? As an English professor whose gray matter has frequently proved more or less impervious to scientific discourse, I decided to tackle this challenge head-on, so to speak. Here are some of my findings, along with their implications for teaching and learning.

  1. 1.What we always suspected has been confirmed by research: students really are incapable of “paying attention” in class—at least for extended periods of time. We now know that the upper limit of the human brain’s capacity to pay focused attention to a lecture is about 20 minutes. After that, students’ brains are wandering, reflecting, consolidating, and resting. We may as well accommodate this tendency by alternating lecture with other modes of learning, such as questioning, talking, and writing, in order to allow students to review and assimilate what they’ve just learned.
  2. 2.The most effective learning is based on prior knowledge. Each neuron in the brain contains treelike structures called dendrites. With the acquisition of new knowledge, neurotransmitters fire across the synapses between neurons, resulting in the branching of new dendrites from old, forming an ever-widening network of learned information. Just as we wouldn’t expect to see a tree suddenly materialize in the sky, with no visible connections to the earth, we shouldn’t expect our students’ brains to form strong new dendrites with no links to existing ones. Here’s one of my own strategies for building on prior knowledge. As the American nuclear family continues to morph into a multiplicity of subforms, most students have become familiar with the resultant proliferation of stepparents and the conflicting loyalties generated by their presence. I let the class discuss these family issues before reading Hamlet.
  3. 3.Thought and feeling are inseparable brain processes. Traditional Western pedagogy encourages students to approach their studies from a purely objective, rational perspective, with their feelings temporarily checked at the classroom door. However, researchers have found that the functions of cognition and emotion are so intertwined in the brain as to be indistinguishable from each other. In fact, a portion of the brain’s emotion system called the hippocampus is in charge of transferring information into memory. This means that information associated with values and feelings will be more readily learned. So even in science disciplines students should be encouraged to develop passionate stances on issues such as cold fusion or stem cell research so that they will retain information more efficiently.
  4. 4.Perceived dangers cause the brain to downshift to its most rudimentary processing mode and bring learning to a halt. A substantial body of research indicates that negative emotions such as stress and fear cause the brain to be flooded with cortisol, a chemical that seriously impedes the ability of the hippocampus to retain new or call up old information. In addition, both stress and fear cause the brain to abandon the complex thought processes of the neocortex and revert to the reflexive behaviors of the limbic system and the reptilian complex, both of which date back to an early stage in the brain’s evolution. These phenomena account for the student who is so overcome with test anxiety that she literally “can’t think.” They also explain why the student who is fearful of the teacher, the subject, or both often takes refuge in primitive slouching and glaring behaviors. Teachers can mitigate some of these effects by using multiple assessments rather than two or three major tests and/or by creating less-threatening learning scenarios, such as small groups or talking partners.
  5. 5.The search for meaning is innate. The old analogy of the human brain as computer has been rendered inadequate by new research; likewise, the left brain/right brain model has largely outlived its usefulness. We now know that unlike the computer, the human brain constantly seeks meaning and pattern in a rich milieu of emotions, facts, associations, memories, and other inputs; moreover, the brain constantly traverses between its two hemispheres in an attempt to reconcile and synthesize information from both realms. We can create a brain-antagonistic environment by presenting isolated, random, one-dimensional information, or we can capitalize on the brain’s hunger for meaning by providing information in relevant contexts that yield both intuitive and logical meaning. For example, in the Colorado School of Mines’ undergraduate engineering program, students apply ideas from Descartes and Shakespeare to engineering problems, complete open-ended design projects, investigate relationships between engineering and social issues, and engage in a continual search for connections between engineering and other aspects of human life.

The above is by no means an exhaustive inventory of the findings of 21st-century brain research. However, for me, these principles have provided a good start toward understanding how to provide a brain-friendly environment for my students and myself.