Mrs Jones put a raisin in a glass of water. It swelled up and became larger. Mrs Jones said that our brains shrink like the raisin if we don't drink water.
(Primary school student)
Starting with a trickle in the 1980s, there is now a flood of books and articles promoting 'brain-based learning'. In a number of ways, this is not an entirely happy choice of words to describe what is involved as it is difficult to understand how learning could be anywhere else but in the brain. Even ideas of physical capability residing in the muscles 'learning' particular skills do not go against this, as the voluntary movements of muscles are controlled by nerves and nerves connect (mainly) to the brain.
Put simply, what is involved in brain-based learning is an assertion that modern neurological research has results that will guide the way in which we can create circumstances conducive to more effective learning. Something of a 'rear guard' action has been mounted by a number of authors who argue that, for the present, we should look to cognitive psychology for such guides. So what should teachers do?
Teachers want to do the best for their students and are prepared to look for any new methods to help development and learning. So they have been prepared to consider sympathetically suggestions that modern brain research might have the potential to assist learning. Unfortunately, this has been seen as a lucrative commercial opportunity by popular authors and publishers. As a result, many myths about the brain have been promulgated and still have considerable currency.
It is common to find diagrams in both educational and business texts showing a division of brain function between the right and left hemispheres:
There is simply no credible evidence for this particular rigid division of function between the two brain hemispheres. The origin of this myth is often traced back to radical surgery which was used to treat patients with severe epilepsy when the connection between the two sides of the brain was severed. This procedure certainly helped with the occurrence of fits but produced some bizarre side-effects of perception. Leaving aside the technical details of this research (which are still a matter of some controversy), it was not long before these ideas became presented as complete asymmetry in brain function, with language and logic on the left and creative and imagination on the right.
The suggestively coloured diagram above comes from 'The right brain kids' website (2021), where we are told:
The human brain is divided into the right and left hemispheres. Traditional education mainly uses the left brain and tends to produce competition and confrontation. On the other hand, the right brain education is a method that emphasises the nurturing of the mind, love and harmony with others. The right hemisphere acts as a huge archive of information, it keeps everything that we have ever seen or heard, and this information remains there forever, while the left hemisphere has a short memory.
This website has a video showing right brain teaching in action with young children. Observation suggests: engagement, stimulus, enjoyment, diversity – together with no shortage of high-quality aids and very small class sizes. Scottish primary teachers are familiar with much of this – except for plenty of equipment and small class sizes.
Searching 'right brain-left brain' on Google produces a mix of material, some providing a good description of the medical facts, others offering to release the creativity of the right brain – for a price. Readers interested in knowing whether they are (allegedly) right or left brain dominant may like to try the test
There are asymmetries in the way different mental functions are located in the brain, but the simplistic notion that the two hemispheres somehow embody different ways of thinking, with the right hemisphere just waiting to be 'woken up', is simply not true.
Not content with having divided brains, we are also told that we only use 10% of our brains. While I have sometimes wondered if this were true when confronted in discussion with a particular opponent, this is simply a ridiculous notion. Immediate evidence comes unhappily from stroke victims, where damage to even a small part of the brain can produce significant disability. If we had 90% in reserve, recovery would be a simple matter of calling up the unused part. Yet, like notions of a flat earth, this myth persists in the offerings of pop-psychologists and self-help gurus in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Does it matter? As a metaphor for the fact that few of us fully exploit our talents, it could be a spur to development but at the cost of considerable deception.
Where did this myth come from? Unlike the split brain myth, it does not seem possible to find any area of brain research which could act as a starting point. Instead, we have to look to the 'self-help' literature of the early part of the last century, where a recurring theme was the untapped potential of the human mind. That this ridiculous 10% notion has persisted to the present time may be due to the natural human desire to be more talented, more creative and more prosperous. Fertile ground for anyone with a course or manual to sell.
In an article in 2008, Eric Jemsen claims brain research suggests:
Memory, mood and learning can be enhanced by exercise, lower levels of stress and good nutrition.
The brain is effected by social environment, impacting on sense of reward, pain, pleasure, coherence and affinity. Schools should not rely on random social groupings but seek to create prosocial conditions.
The brain has a remarkable capacity to re-wire and re-map. Schools can influence this process by encouraging reading, meditation and the arts.
Gene expression can be regulated by what students do in school and this can enhance or harm long-term change prospects.
The brain changes from experience, therefore experiences in school will change a student's brain in some way.
Jensen's article is typical of many by enthusiastic advocates of brain-based learning, which are often replete with non-specific references to specialist journals and other authors, But we are left with the impression that they have not provided much that is entirely new to help teachers in creating effective student learning.
A more detailed and authoritative review is provided by the Royal Society who ten years ago assembled a working group and review panel consisting of the foremost experts in educational neuroscience. Interested Scottish Review
readers can easily find this by looking online for Brain Waves Module 2. Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning
. This cogent and well-referenced review provides a good overview of the present situation. We have learnt a great deal about the structure and operation of the brain in the last 30 years – but there still a great deal we do not know.
Modern techniques of imaging enable us to see activity in various parts of the brain, and these areas can be related to specific activities. It does not seem that at present we can use activity in a particular brain area to predict, for example, whether an individual is a good or poor reader. However, we can detect differences related to specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, although the natural variation between individuals makes it difficult presently to predict such difficulties from a brain scan. However, such work does provide the neurological basis of these conditions and shows concrete evidence that there are such differences between children with ADHD and others. Perhaps one direct quote from the review is particularly relevant:
Plasticity tends to decrease with age and this is particularly evident when we consider the learning of a second language. Mastery of speech sounds and grammatical structure is generally better in those introduced to a second language before puberty, compared with later in life.
In my previous article
, I argued that the present rank ordering of secondary schools and older students was unlikely to make any significant overall long-term difference to the gap in attainment between students from different socio-economic backgrounds. Providing extra money to secondary schools in deprived areas has the appearance of action to address the problem but are these extra funds directed at the right target?
We know that in the first 10 years of a child's life, the brain undergoes enormous development, forming habits and attitudes which will taken into the teenage years and beyond. Primary schools have for a long time been seen as the 'poor relation' of secondary schools. It is time to recognise that, to a large extent, secondary schools are simply dealing with what has been achieved in the early years. We need to direct considerably more resource in terms of staffing and equipment to primary schools.
Given the likely improvements in effective learning which will be provided by the application of computer and media technologies in subject teaching, there can be a shift of staff from secondary to primary schools. This not to suggest that there should be reduction in staff contact with senior students, only to propose that much whole class teaching can be replaced by technology, leaving the teacher time to deal with students individually to discuss particular difficulties.
It is not unrealistic to want a pupil/teacher ratio of 10/1 in primary schools if we aspire to a well-educated population. If we want to redress (even if only partially) the disadvantage of social class, then we should start as soon as possible.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University