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The Brain and Learning: What Works, What Doesn’t

  • April 27th 2018

Just as neuroscience has been revealing plenty of barriers to learning, it can also greatly influence the practice of education in positive ways. A panel of neuroscientists and educators at Spotlight Health 2017 shared some of the latest knowledge about how what happens in the brain relates to learning.

What's Emotion Got to Do With It? 

The idea of keeping academic learning and social-emotional learning separate is impossible for true comprehension, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of psychology and education at University of Southern California. With its limited bandwidth, the brain simply doesn’t deeply process or retain things that don’t have emotion attached to it.

 “You literally biologically have to have emotion … yet we design our schools in such a way that we expect kids to focus on stuff that’s separate from what’s actually relevant, and later build that into a relevant life story,” said Immordino-Yang, who added that it doesn’t work that way. Kids are more likely to remember feeling stupid in class or the grade they received than the thing they were supposed to learn.

The Neurobiology of Stress

While it’s no secret that children who are stressed in their lives outside of school have trouble learning, Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, explained why adverse childhood experiences are such a huge public health issue. A study that discovered how widespread adverse childhood experiences are — two-thirds of adult respondents reported at least one childhood experience with abuse, neglect, domestic violence, substance dependence in the home, or divorced or incarcerated parents — also found that health outcomes are worse among those with more adverse childhood experiences. 

Why? It has to do with the way the brain and the body, including one’s hormones and immune system, respond to experiencing stress.

Noting that asthma and viral infections are the top two reasons for missing school, she added that “the immunological consequences of toxic stress conspire to keep kids out of class, and the neurological impacts make it so when they’re in class, kids have a much more difficult time learning and they’re much more likely to distract kids around them.”

It's All About Relationships

So how to counteract the toxic stress kids experience that interferes with their learning? Aside from preventing or stopping the stress early on, a positive relationship with an adult — a grandparent, teacher or coach if not the parent — is the most protective factor, said Sarah Watamura, a psychology professor and director of the Child Health and Development Lab at University of Denver. And scientists are beginning to understand how positive relationships shape the brain so trajectories can be changed, she added. 

And that’s the positive aspect in all this, the panelists emphasized. While a child may be traumatized by stressful experiences or relationships, positive relationships can generate positive learning experiences to chip away at or even reverse the damage. Rather than being the victim of one’s circumstances, in fact, an individual has a very important role to play to create their own empowering narrative, said Immordino-Yang.

 “It’s really important that we don’t consider people as passive recipients, but that we empower them through strategic initiatives around relationships and healthy circumstances to take control and management of their own lives,” she said.

And that’s where teachers and educators come in. Understanding the neurobiology of learning, teachers can not only create safe spaces and nurture positive relationships for kids, but can co-construct with their students a culture of learning in which students feel engaged and find meaning. 

For more insights into neurobiology and learning, listen to the entire session, Applying Neuroscience to the Classroom.

Written by Catherine Lutz, guest blogger

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