Educational Neuroscience: Episode 1 in a short series… USE YOUR BRAIN

By Nigel Armitstead

Read time: 9 mins

A craftsman turns up not only with a set of tools neatly organised in a toolkit, but also an understanding of how they work best and sometimes even some personal modifications of the equipment to get a ‘just so’ utility out of it.

The toolkit for learning is the brain. Sometimes we say, ‘use your brain’ in the form of a frustrated exhortation to think in what seems to us the obvious way. We want students to use their brains, despite the apparent reluctance of many: brain work does after all require a lot of energy. It follows that we should know the equipment in their toolkit and help them to understand how it works best; even possibly encourage efforts to get a ‘just so’ bespoke element to their thinking.

Early theories of intellectual development arose from scientific observation, but not from awareness of the brain and its organic tools. Indeed Jean Piaget drew his fundamental insights regarding child intellectual development from his own childhood studies of an entirely different kind of creature. Without Googling can you say what it was?

Meanwhile I propose that it might be fruitful to re-establish our understanding of the nature and maturation of human thinking and learning by connecting up with the growing understanding of how the brain works. But, we should do this little by little, since it is complex and full of jargon. To start us off, here is a quick guide to the brain, and a particular part of it, followed by some fairly basic ideas that might have classroom use…

Quick Guide to the Brain

The cortex of the brain is a jelly-like mass of billions of connected up neurons (brain cells) all scrunched up and wrapped around the more basic parts of the brain. Following a universal genetic code (providing there is no unfortunate mutation) the building of a brain delivers, at birth, essentially the same thing for all of us.

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In the picture above you are looking at the left hemisphere of your brain. The right hemisphere is over the other side, and matches it. They are both connected up with the more basic parts of the brain in the middle, and also have a thick band of electric fibres which make a direct connection. Both hemispheres are organised into four lobes, which are the coloured areas you can see above. The one we are concerned with for the present is called the frontal lobe and is the largest, coloured blue above. The frontal lobe is associated with all our thinking and reasoning.

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This is the best view of the prefrontal cortex that I could find which has usage rights. Thank you to the originators, who I presume are French. It shows in the darker blue area the dorsal (upper) lateral (to the side) part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Collectively this is the ‘dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex’ (DLPFC). It would be the same if you were looking at the right hemisphere.

The DLPFC is hugely important to learning. In various ways, more complex than we want to trouble with as yet, it works with other parts of the prefrontal cortex to balance conflicting ideas and information. The evidence suggests that it has a bias towards conserving existing ideas, especially those which are concrete and visible. However, as its systems mature it develops the ability to use conflicting information fruitfully: to deepen the understanding and reconstruct naïve views. In other words, it is a core brain resource for reasoning. Have a good look at the diagram above: get to know and love your DLPFC!

How we as teachers can apply this knowledge in the classroom setting:

1] Causal Reasoning.

When we recognise that two things appear to go ‘hand in hand’ then we naturally seek to find a causal explanation. However life is a messy thing, and sometimes the possibility of a causal relation is buried in a noise of information. Enter the DLPFC to help us sort it out.

Some classroom exercises to stimulate this might include…

· In English suggest that a character in a novel is generally regarded as mean (or some relevant quality) and set up an evidence based debate.

· In history suggest Guy Fawkes (or another historical figure) was an evil man, and ask the class what evidence supports that view. Then ask if he might actually have been a noble believer in something he was willing to die for.

· In ICT, can artificial intelligence (AI) ever achieve the status of a sentient being. If it does, what are the dangers for us humans that we might want to ponder before we create AI?

Be creative, and alert for opportunities! With this, and also the ideas below, please give us feedback and pointers for other readers.

2] Deductive Reasoning

This is the kind of reasoning where one says, ‘if this is true then it follows that…’ in order to derive from an existing rule about things a new one which may also be helpful. The DLPFC is sensitive to quality of fit between standing rules and their logical extension.

Some classroom exercises to stimulate this might include…

· In maths, deducing the rule that governs a sequence of numbers.

· In geography, deducing the former presence of glaciers from the physical evidence.

· In science, deducing a hypothesis from a general theory, and checking it.

3] Analogical Reasoning

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Analogies are an important part of explaining things, and an excellent thinking tool. An analogy might ask the question: ‘Speaking is to singing as walking is to what?’ Once again there is a subtle issue of sameness and difference to balance, and thus the DLPFC is involved, along with other areas of the prefrontal cortex. Within the classroom we can use analogies as part of explanation, and then ask the class to unpick the nature of the analogy and make sure they have been able to transfer the right ideas from the source concept to the target concept. Some examples…

· ‘Life is like a box of chocolates!’ How is that true?

· How are the causes of the French revolution like dry wood to a fire?

· Sawing wood should be like cutting a slice of bread.

A few final points…

In general, challenge students with counter evidence to what seems obvious, and get them sifting through ideas to achieve balanced rather than one sided views. Point at your own DLPFC whenever you say ‘use your brain’.

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And finally, it was molluscs that Piaget studied as a lad, observing the ways in which they had adapted themselves to different lake micro-environments. He considered that every child lived in their own experience micro-environment; each a scientist building their intellect from conceptual adaptations

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Learnus, a community of academics and professionals working to embed neuroscience research in the evolution of teaching. Specifically the article above was informed by Mareschal, Butterworth and Tolmie (Ed.): ‘Educational Neuroscience’ – a Wiley Blackwell publication (2013).

Why it’s OK to FAIL sometimes

Why it’s ok to FAIL sometimes …

By Alex More

Read time: 7 mins

Nigel’s blog last month on valuing ideas in the classroom prompted a thought that failure is actually ok, it’s ok to fail occasionally and ok to get things wrong.  Even the great wise Yoda in the latest Star Wars movie in his advice to Luke Skywalker suggests that ‘failure is the best teacher’ 

As controversial as it may sound failure in the classroom could actually make our students more resilient, and even more employable when they leave school.

There was a time when Einstein couldn’t count to ten, a time when Shakespeare couldn’t write but human beings are born to learn and learn we do. Failing is a key part of that process and we as educators should embrace failure at all costs. There are actually very few times in a child’s school life when it’s not ok to fail. In the UK, this is generally viewed as Year 2 & 6 SATS, GCSE’s, mocks and A Levels.

If you add up time spent in the classroom compared to time spent in exams, it’s the classroom where students should be encouraged to get things wrong, as there are no huge consequences. Let’s view failing as another word for growing. That changes the emphasis.

The F Word

At Primary level, kids are mostly fearless when it comes to getting things wrong in the classroom. Here are some examples below to set the scene.

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My daughters 5th birthday cards

It’s hard to see from the picture but Fifi has been spelt Fife, Sophi and Fify in this shot. She was not the slightest bit bothered, just happy her friends gave her a card on her birthday.

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My Newphew’s home work

Easiest home work ever he said! But sometimes kids just say it as it is. They are not fearful of conforming to norms or getting things wrong.

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In response to SATS

This one is great, quite a famous picture that did the rounds on education blogs recently but again spoke without fear of consequence.

In Sir Ken Robinson’s awesome ‘Do Schools kill creativity?’, he alludes to the fact that we have created a culture where failure is seen as a negative thing. Perhaps then we should view the word FAIL as First Attempt In Learning. Robinson tells an inspiring story of a young girl at the back of an Art class who is normally not engaged in learning. When the teacher asks what it is she is drawing she simply replies with I am drawing a picture of God. In that moment, she had forgotten or not taken the time to think that none of us knows what God looks like. Absorbed in the moment, she took a punt and went with instinct. Surely we should be embracing this type of risk-free thinking in the classroom.

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Should we encourage young people to take risks?

If our students are losing the desire to try out ideas due to the fear of getting things wrong, how can we change that?

Well, one idea is that we should look at ways to embrace risk within the context of our lessons. The timing here is key. I am not advocating that it’s ok to risk not revising for a test, or fail a mock exam. At a grassroots, day-to-day level I am suggesting we create a platform for young people to get things wrong, and be comfortable doing so.

As a child progresses from the Primary phase of their schooling (4-10 yrs) into adolescence they display a tendancy towards sensation seeking. In an interesting experiment, researchers Margo Gardner & Laurence Steinberg asked people from three different age groups (14, 19 & 24 yrs) to participate in a driving simulator game. When participants were taking the test/game on their own they were observed to take far fewer risks than when the researchers allowed their peers to sit in the back of the simulator. In fact, a 50% increase in risk-taking behaviour was noted with younger adolescents taking twice as many risks (speeding, running a red light, over-taking) in the presence of their peers. Does this then translate to the classroom setting? Are 14-year-olds happy to take risks in the presence of their peers? Yes, research would suggest this is the case. But why?

Could this be the reason?

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The dramatic growth of educational neuroscience in the last decade has produced remarkable findings regarding brain development during childhood and adolescence (Giedd, Blumenthal, Jeffries, Castellanos, Liu, Zijdenbos, et al., 1999Sowell, Thompson, Tessner, & Toga, 2001). The  most impressive findings concern the protracted maturation of the (PFC) and parietal regions. It appears that around age 11, the PFC and parietal lobes begin a period of prolonged pruning of neuronal axons resulting in thinning of cortical grey matter. At the same time, there appears to be an increase in neuronal myelination. The significance of these maturational changes has yet to be established. However, many researchers have argued that the protracted pruning of the PFC represents growing frontal control over behaviour, the absence of which is associated with impulsivity and poor decision-making (Romer, 2010).

How can we manage risk and encourage SAFE failure in the classroom? 

Whilst not conclusive, here are a few ideas that might help us encourage risk, perhaps even reward it and create an open, non-hostile environment for our students.

Build in It’s OK to be wrong a section within lessons

Plan to have an ‘any idea works’ forum to explore ideas and possibilities. This concept is similar to some Nigel presented in his recent blog post. Build in 5 mins where the teacher asks questions, challenges content. For Flipped Learning fans, this could be during the Flipped 101 stage. Great for new learning where knowledge is not quite there yet. Piaget (1954) proposed that children construct their own meaning through experiences. If teachers can create a platform to explore ideas openly without fear of failing or being laughed at, then this will surely help scaffold healthy learning habits going forward.

This could actually be beneficial for their growth mindset

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Teach students how to get over being stuck … a little resilliance

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I have tried a STUCK MENU which is basically a series of steps students go through before they approach the teacher for help. It’s not for every child but works well in large class situations where teacher face-to-face time is paramount. It really helps identify which students need the most support and encourages social peer interaction. Try it!

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Bet on and Back your answers 

At a recent TeachMeet, a colleague Josh who teaches MFL gave an inspiring talk on taking risks in the classroom. He uses gambling as a way to engage students in taking risks.

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An interesting approach but it has proved very popular, particularly amongst boys. Could it be that this appeals to the pre-frontal cortex as alluded to earlier?

Fake money is used and the dangers of gambling and addiction are discussed. Students are engaged and it works for him! The students in his class speak very highly of this method and seem to enjoy the risk vs reward methodology.

Anyway, some ideas to challenge the perception that it’s not ok to fail. If done correctly, failure could be viewed as a crucial part of a child’s learning.