The instructor in my high school English class was rather dry. She would drone on about difference between past and subjunctive verbs, and participles and gerunds. However, she was a well-read and well-traveled person. On the side wall she had tacked up a poster of the London subway system, brought back as a souvenir. It had exotic named stations like Piccadilly Circus and Knights Bridge that seemed far more interesting than dissecting English grammar. So, when my eyes started to glaze over, I would stare at the poster and try to absorb the feeling of what it would be like to travel in London.
The real difficulty with applying education on the latest brain research is knowing exactly how to manipulate the environment outside the student in order to affect what occurs on the inside. Proponents of brain-based learning have done scant studies on what kind of manipulation actually works. Instead they hone in on a few facts about how the brain works and stretch conclusions as far as possible to redesign education. One study I read recently honestly admitted “After a very selective summary of what is known from brain research about how the brain learns, implications were drawn concerning the influence this new knowledge may have…” (1) So we are supposed change the classroom environment based on mere implications and hope it works?
Think about some of the conclusions reiterated in brain based learning schemes… such as brains are unique. In fact some research has found so that what we consider an “average brain” of normal intelligence without any learning disabilities actually exists in less than 20% percent of the population.(2) But how exactly do we implement education in large classrooms if being different is the norm? No one is ready to scrap public education and let everybody get their own tutor. Educators are encouraged to differentiate, a word which basically means students will learn the same objectives by doing different activities. That is not nearly as easy as they make it sound.
Another finding shows how a large portion of learning is done unconsciously. We gather new information when we are not trying and we do not realize it. We pick up peripheral sights and sounds all of the time and tuck these away in our brains. That presents a real challenge as far as developing strategies for brain based learning. If the students do not realize when they are learning how easy will it be for someone on the outside to determine when this unconscious act of learning is occurring?
Finally, we come to the research showing that that brains learn more in sensory rich environments. So educators are encouraged to redecorate the rooms frequently, but they better make sure that these decorations actually reinforce what they want students to learn. Surroundings that are too interesting can distract students from listening to the instructor. I recall the English class with a map of London, including pictures of all the well-known tourist sites. I left knowing more about how to vacation in London than how to apply the rules of English grammar.
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What brain-based learning research really tells us…