Kids’ Brains and Learning

Edutopia published a good introductory article about “Brain Science” called: Neuro Myths: Separating Fact and Fiction in Brain-Based Learning.

I have to admit that the term “brain-based learning” has always bothered me, and this article captured my unease well:

This might explain why some academics bemoan the term “brain-based learning,” including Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. “As if it were kidney-based learning last year, and now it’s brain based,” he grumbles.

The article also lists some of the misguided beliefs about neuroscience, including:

  • The brain is static, unchanging, and set before you start school.
  • Some people are left-brained and some are right-brained.
  • We use only 10 percent of our brains.
  • Male and female brains are radically different.
  • The ages 0-3 are more important than any other age for learning.

But what I really liked were these three ideas:

  1. Learning experiences do help the brain grow.
  2. Emotional safety does influence learning.
  3. Making lessons relevant can help information stick.

6 responses to “Kids’ Brains and Learning

  1. Will,

    Nice article. Some good reminders, particularly about plasticity. Helps to keep Dweck in mind.

    Just a reminder to readers not to forget about learning research itself. Learning science results are more directly useful in education. For example, if you want students to learn skills:

    * Deep learning. Cover fewer topics, more real-world application.

    * Fast, frequent, formative feedback. Feedback is for more than just grades.

    A question: how can the average instructor use these results? What do you think?


  2. This is great information Will! I have shared it with my team – very relevant to our field!

  3. Very funny and informative article. I am relieved to know that I do not have only half a brain (although sometimes I wonder!). The “differences between the way men and women think”-I’m not going there!:-)


  4. Jonathan Groves


    Thanks for posting this article. As for the brain being static and unchanging, I don’t believe that for a minute. If that were true, I would be stupid at math because I was stupid at math in my early years. Or at least my classroom performance seemed to indicate that! I don’t think anyone interested in reviewing Jean-Pierre Serre’s book “Local Fields” (which I plan to start reviewing the book soon for MAA Reviews when the book comes in the mail) is stupid at math. Ha!

    As for early ages, those do appear to be the best ages for learning languages–at least that’s what I have always heard. As for general learning, maybe not necessarily so. Maybe it doesn’t have to do with the brain per se; maybe it has to do with habits–not having mind sets or being too used to a language–or willingess to learn (formal education can kill many people’s desires to learn!).

    I have definitely heard of the left brain versus right brain theory. I don’t know enough about neuroscience to say much about its validity or lack of validity, but I see some evidence of something going on here. Some people do favor creativity and spontaneity a lot more than other people. Some people feel a great need to try new things or fall into ruts very easily whereas others are afraid to try something new. There are definitely hard-core traditionalists in math education who hate the thought of us reformers who want to try new ways of teaching mathematics; the old-fashioned ways, which are mind-numbing and dry and mechanical, they and their parents and grandparents had learned in school are good enough for them. I’m surprised they aren’t demanding that we have students chisle out their math assignments on stone tablets.

    One problem I do have with this theory is that mathematics is often labeled as a left-brained subject, but there is a lot of room for creativity in mathematics. And mathematicians desire beautiful proofs and theories, not just any old thing that just happens to be true or just happens to work. For instance, some algebra books give a proof by induction of the binomial theorem, but there is a counting argument that is much more elegant and beautiful. Furthermore, when you understand the counting argument, it becomes 100% obvious why the theorem is true and where it comes from whereas the proof by induction does not. The proof by induction is one of those mathematical proofs that cannot work unless you already know what the theorem says! In other words, it does not discover the theorem for you! The counting argument does discover the theorem for you. Finally, the counting argument can be easily extended to raising any polynomial to a power whereas the proof by induction cannot be so easily extended.

    As for 10 percent of the brain being used, I wonder about that. I have seen many people who simply do not want to think for themselves. As James Beidleman at the University of Kentucky would put it, these people do not want to use their heads for more than anything more than a hat rack. Others might have the potential but don’t know how to use it. I suspect that many students are better at learning math than they realize; math anxiety seems to shut down the mathematical parts of their brains. In some extreme cases, just thinking about math shuts down their brains almost entirely. I have seen students who can understand a course policy for a course in their major, yet when I state a similar course policy, they react with, “Huh? What are you talking about?”

    Jonathan Groves

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  6. Informative article. I’m sharing with parents at my childrens school. I am a born skeptic and this makes perfect sense to me.

    Josette Valtierra

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