Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science

Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science You do not have access to this content

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

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12 June 2007
9789264029132 (PDF) ;9789264029125(print)

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This book provides new insights about learning by synthesising existing and emerging findings from cognitive and brain science and exploring how this new information might impact teaching, parenting, and educational policy making. It shows what the latest brain imaging techniques and other advances in the neurosciences actually reveal about how the brain develops and operates at different stages in life from birth to old age and how the brain is involved in acquiring skills such as reading and counting. It also presents scientific insights into what happens when the brain malfunctions in conditions such as dyslexia or Alzheimer's disease. 

China Education Daily nominated this book as one of the "100 most influential education books for teachers" on December 15, 2011.

Also available in French, Spanish
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  • Executive Summary
    After two decades of pioneering work in brain research, the education community has started to realise that "understanding the brain" can help to open new pathways to improve educational research, policies and practice. This report synthesises progress on the braininformed approach to learning, and uses this to address key issues for the education community. It offers no glib solutions nor does it claim that brain-based learning is a panacea. It does provide an objective assessment of the current state of the research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and learning, and maps research and policy implications for the next decade.
  • Introduction
    Can neuroscience truly improve education? This report suggests a complex, but nonetheless definite answer: "yes, but…" Circumstances have converged to mean that there is now a global emergence of educational neuroscience. Recent advances in the field of neuroscience have significantly increased its relevance to education. Imaging technologies enable the observation of the working brain, providing insights into perceptual, cognitive, and emotional functions of consequence for education. This trend towards the greater applicability of neuroscience for education is paralleled by an increasingly receptive society. This report summarises the state of research at the intersection of neuroscience and learning, and highlights research and policy considerations for the next decade. Scientific research findings can help all stakeholders involved in education – including learners, parents, teachers and policy makers – to better understand the processes of learning and to structure nurturing learning environments. This understanding can help education systems move in evidencebased policy decisions, inform parents about how to create a sound learning environment for their children, and help learners develop their competencies.
  • An "ABC" of the Brain
    Chapter 1 provides an "ABC" of the contents of the report by listing keywords and concepts in alphabetical order covered in the chapters to follow. It begins with Acquistion of knowledge and Brain, and runs through to Variability, Work and XYZ. The reader can choose a particular topic of interest, and the corresponding description points to the relevant chapter(s) which provide more in-depth coverage of the issue. This chapter is relevant for all those who are interested in the issue of "learning sciences and brain research" including learners, parents, teachers, researchers and policy makers.
  • How the brain learns throughout life
    This chapter presents an accessible description of the brain’s architecture. It describes how the brain learns throughout life, giving an introduction to three key life phases: infancy and childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (including old age). It also discusses how cognitive decline and the dysfunctions that come with ageing can be addressed and delayed through learning. It is especially useful for readers who have had no prior exposure to neuro-scientific accounts of the brain, as the basic principles and the subsequent analyses are aimed at the layperson, aided by figures and summary tables.
  • The Impact of Environment on the Learning Brain
    This chapter assesses evidence from brain research to understand how the learning process is mediated by various environmental factors including social environment and interactions, nutrition, physical exercise, and sleep. It also examines the key areas of emotions and motivation, linking what is known through neuroscience to educational issues. Such information is particularly important for parents and teachers who have a prime role in the learning environment of children. It is also of relevance to policy makers who help to shape and maintain a desirable learning environment.
  • Literacy and the Brain
    This chapter describes the state of knowledge on the functioning of the brain in relation to language and reading. It helps us to address questions about when and how literacy might best be acquired and the desirable environment that supports it. Such information will be useful for those responsible for policies to enhance language and literacy education, professional educators, and indeed parents who are thinking how best to read with their children. Special attention is given to differences in languages with "deep" (such as English) and "shallow" orthographies (such as Finnish). Dyslexia is specifically discussed, and what the evidence surveyed in this chapter has to say about possible remedial strategies.
  • Numeracy and the Brain
    This chapter describes the complex functioning of the brain when one develops numeracy, including comprehension of the concept of numbers, simple arithmetic operations, and early explorations in algebra. This is used to draw implications for mathematics instruction. It also describes the barriers to learning mathematics that have a neurological basis (called dyscalculia, the equivalent of dyslexia for mathematics). This chapter is relevant to parents, teachers and policy makers who are interested in understanding and improving numeracy and mathematic education.
  • Dispelling "Neuromyths"
    This chapter addresses some of the pitfalls that arise when erroneous or unfounded bridges get made between neuroscience and education. This is done by outlining and dispelling a number of "neuromyths". They include unfounded ideas concerning left-side and right-side thinking, the determinism of developments in infancy, gender differences, and multilingualism. This chapter is highly relevant for all those concerned about learning, and especially those who are keen to avoid faddish solutions without scientific underpinning.
  • The Ethics and Organisation of Educational Neuroscience
    This chapter addresses the field of educational neuroscience itself. It describes how the emergence of this multi-disciplinary field has been one of the main contributions of the OECD-CERI project on "Learning Sciences and Brain Research". It highlights a variety of exemplary trans-disciplinary projects and institutions which have already been set up and are active in contributing to this new field. The research involved and its applications are also fraught with ethical challenges: these are openly laid out and some of the key choices clarified.
  • Conclusions and Future Prospects
    This chapter concludes Part I of this report by bringing together the key messages and potential policy implications, which show how neuroscientific research is already contributing to education and learning policy and practice. The themes include discussion of lifelong learning; ageing; holistic approaches to education; the nature of adolescence; ages for particular forms of learning and the curriculum; addressing the "3 Ds" (dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia); and assessment and selection issues in which neuroscience might increasingly be involved. The chapter also points to areas needing further educational neuroscientific research that have emerged from the different chapters of the report.
  • The Brain, Development and Learning in Early Childhood
    The emergence of new and non-invasive brain imaging and scanning technologies has informed an unprecedented expansion in brain science, particularly in the area of developmental neurobiology. We have known for decades that brain growth and development is programmed from conception by information contained in our genes. Yet we are only beginning to observe and understand, at the cellular level of the brain, how stimuli from the external environment affect and control the use of that genetic information. Only in recent times has the brain come to the forefront of educational research and ideologies, particularly in regard to development and learning in early childhood. Decades of educational research involving young children give insights about early learning from different standpoints and some results complement ideas emerging through studies in neurology while others have no apparent connection at this time (Ansari, 2005; Slavin, 2002; Bruer, 1997).
  • The Brain and Learning in Adolescence
    The brain consists of a vast amount of cells, or neurons, which constitute the basic operative unit in the brain. During the period of the highest prenatal brain development (10-26 weeks after conception), it is estimated that the brain grows at a rate of 250 000 neurons per minute. At birth the brain contains the majority of the cells it will ever have, with estimates ranging from 15-32 billions. This span does not only reflect that cell counting is imprecise, but also that the number of cells varies considerably from person to person. After birth, new neurons are only produced in limited numbers. By far most conspicuous changes in the brain following birth occur in the connections between neurons; new ones are formed and old ones are either strengthened or eliminated.
  • Brain, Cognition and Learning in Adulthood
    Virtually all societies within the developed world, and an increasing number of the developing countries, are witnessing unprecedented growth in the population of older men and women, and particularly women (Keyfitz, 1990; OECD, 2005). Rapid societal change is also increasingly requiring older adults to acquire and use complex information with new technologies, not just in the workplace but in many aspects of home and everyday life. These requirements can pose considerable challenges to older adults faced with declining sensory, perceptual, and cognitive abilities as they age. Consequently, there are compelling reasons for understanding the effects of aging on adult learning, both from psychological and educational perspectives and from the point of view of the underlying brain mechanisms that support cognition and learning.
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