The development of neuroimaging technology in recent years has allowed the neuroscientists to obtain information on how the organ responsible for learning functions. The latest advances have demonstrated that the human brain is extraordinarily plastic, possessing the ability to adapt its activity and change its structure significantly during its entire life span, and not exclusively in the early years of development as was previously believed.
Many old accepted views have been dismantled after the latest investigations into the functioning of the brain. One of the most famous of these accepted notions was the idea that we have two separate hemispheres in the brain that work independently of each other. In fact, many educational texts and programs urge the teachers to detect which of those hemispheres are predominantly being used by their students with a view to improving their teaching and facilitating learning. In this sense, the more intuitive student is said to be influenced by right brain, while the more analytical by the left hemisphere.
Anna Forés, Phd in Philosophy and Science of Education at the University of Barcelona (UB) –who we interview on the next page–, explains that “the famous colourful images depicted the most active regions during cognitive activity, showing us that the right brain was the creator of special awareness and visual senses, while the left was the analytical, which specialized in language and logic”. But Forés explains that “this does not mean that other regions aren’t involved during the process, and that in fact, all regions of the brain are active and receiving a corresponding blood-flow.” Therefore, the two hemispheres are not isolated but actually operate in parallel and are constantly active.
Jesús Guillén, professor in the Postgraduate of Neuroeducation at UB and coordinator of the blog Escuela con cerebro (brain school), has written, in collaboration with Anna Forés and other authors, a book named Neuromitos en Educación (Neuro-myths in Education), in which they analyse these false beliefs about the brain that are rooted in the educational environment. He insists in the deception that has brought these MRI scans where different parts of the brain are coloured in while carrying out cognitive functions. “What actually happens in reality is that all regions of the brain are activated to carry out a task, but some more than others”, Guillén assures us, insisting that “the brain is multi-sensorial, its activity is continuous for 24 hours and it works using an enormous network of neurons that are all connected”.
We use more than 10%
Very much related to the two hemispheres is also the belief that we only use 10% of the brain. “100% of the brain is used”, affirms Guillén, so that “our survival wouldn’t have been possible if we only used 10% of our brain”. According to professors José Ramón Gamo and Carme Trinidad, also authors o the book, “knowing that we use 100% of our brains should open up the doors of curiosity”. In the book they underline that “the brain is not a driver in a box, inaccessible to us”, and that this idea should help us understand that learning is not confined by a partial use of our brain, but that the possibilities actually multiply because we put into gear all of these mechanisms. “All that needs to happen is to activate the appropriate circuits”.
All of this diversity in the advances in neuroscience is an open door for new understandings on the workings of the brain, and they should be taken advantage of, for the benefit of improving teaching and learning. Assuming that all students can improve, the teacher’s expectations of his/her students should always be positive, and should steer clear of instilling negative old behaviours or attitudes. For José Antonio Marina, philosopher and pedagogue, “neurology is optimistic, as we can already see that the great plasticity of the brain is maintained during its entire lifespan, and we now know that new neurons are being created all the time, regenerating themselves, and thus, its vitality is much greater than that which we previously believed”. According to Marina, “this optimistic vision should be held by the teacher, replacing the mistaken belief that we are born with a genetically-predetermined intelligence, and the students should be made aware that they are the ones in control of their brains, that they can learn to drive it and accordingly modifiy it”.
Jesús Guillén also highlights that “because neuroscience deals with learning disorders, related to emotions and their direct effect on learning for example, or how it is fundamental to awaken the curiosity of the student, most of all during the initial phases of the course, the class, or teaching unit”. Guillén also emphasises the discoveries on attention, the most important of which being executive attention, that which allows us to auto-regulate the student’s behaviour, follow the teacher’s thread in their explanations in the classroom, and to stay concentrated during class time”.
This executive attention has been used during the educational programs of la Universidad de Padres (University of Parents), an online centre directed by José Antonio Marina, who assures us that “these executive functions direct all other functions in the brain, not only attention, but also the managing of emotions, of one’s own memory, metacognition, the capacity to set goals for ourselves and keep our efforts up”. According to Marina, “it’s what we are now calling non-cognitive abilities”, those abilities which ensure scholastic success, the abilities that serve us during our lives”.
Regarding these executive functions, Guillén also highlights “the importance of physical activity on the brain”. Physical activity generates a series of very important neurotransmitters that are very important and which have a direct effect on these executive functions in the brain, the functions which allow us to make appropriate decisions that are fundamental in the classroom, like auto-regulation, self control”, he explains.
Wrote for Adrián Arcos.