Learning and the Brain

By Ruth Manna on November 24, 2010

This weekend I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in Cambridge, MA, a three day conference that brings together neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators to explore the intersection of the mind (psychology), the brain (neuroscience), and the teaching-learning process. As teachers, we can use the results of the latest brain research and integrate information from neuroscience and psychology into our teaching practice.

Read on to discover just a little of what I learned at one presentation.


From "The Scientifically Substantiated Art of Teaching"

Presented by Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

Professor of Education and Neuropsychology

University of San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador


PLASTICITY — The brain changes constantly in response to new experiences. The brain can fix itself, or grow in different ways if certain routes are blocked. Ability is not set in stone. Brain plasticity gives us reason to hope, rather than give up on students.

SLEEP AND EXERCISE — Sleep is important for memory and attention. During REM sleep, our brains consolidate what we have learned. Aerobic exercise is equally important for brain health.

NOVELTY — It’s probably true that the human brain seeks novelty, small changes in the environment and new, unfamiliar experiences. As teachers, we need to vary the ways we present lessons, alter the learning environment, and change activities, locations, etc., every ten to 20 minutes.


NEUROMYTHS — Neuromyths are mistaken ideas we might have about the human brain, how it works, and the implications for teaching and learning. A large percentage of information we may have read in books or on the Internet is based on neuromyths.

Here are several common neuromyths:

LEARNING STYLES — You may have read recently that there’s no scientific evidence for the concept of learning styles. While it’s important to teach using different methods and a variety of media, we need to stop basing decisions on the neuromyth of learning styles.

RIGHT AND LEFT BRAIN — The brain is one highly interconnected, complex organism. It is one system with constant communication between the left and right hemispheres. Unless an individual has had brain surgery severing connections between the two hemispheres, there’s no such thing as left brain or right brain thinkers.


BOYS AND GIRLS LEARN DIFFERENTLY — It’s more accurate to say that all individuals learn differently. In fact, there’s more variation across the wide spectrum of boys than between boys and girls.

CRITICAL PERIODS — I’ve heard teachers say about reading, “The window of opportunity for learning to read closes at the end of 3rd grade.” While there are SENSITIVE PERIODS, there are no critical periods for learning academic skills. It may take longer, but humans can acquire skills like reading or speaking a foreign language at any age.

ALL STRESS AFFECTS THE BRAIN NEGATIVELY — Mild stress in which the learning and stress are linked actually heightens attention and promotes learning. However, unrelated stress, like poverty or violence, does affect learning negatively.    

“BRAIN-BASED” PRODUCTS — We need to be cautious consumers when shopping for so-called “brain-based” products because there are currently no standards for these products. Publishers have jumped on the brain-based wagon and may use the label “brain-based” loosely and inaccurately.






Check out this article in today's NY Times: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/how-meditation-may-change-the-brain/?src=me&ref=general Meditation aids the development of memory and empathy, and relieves stress.

Thanks for writing. Many students would benefit from periods of meditation to slow down and become calm enough to focus and learn. Check out Mindful Movements here: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/12/peace-on-earth.html


PLASTICITY New insight about plasticity even for us! This is an outstanding site.

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