Brain-Based Learning

Accelerating Students Along Neural Superhighways

November 6, 2012
Image credit: Veer

In our brains, upwards of one hundred billion neurons form a vast network of information pathways, intersecting at nearly one hundred trillion unique synapses. To put that number into context, consider New York City and its thousands of street crossings: the estimated number of intersections in this U.S. megalopolis still represent less than one millionth of the number of a brain's neural intersections.

As students learn something new, electric or chemical signals move from neuron to neuron, traversing a route between locations in the brain. Like a tourist turning on unfamiliar city streets, these signals cross synapses to form a path that eventually connects the source to its destination. While identifying a route is slow going at first, students' brains eventually make these connections, and learning begins.

Speeding Up Navigation of the Brain's Vast Learning Network

Even after establishing a route, a student's development of an optimal pathway takes time. Aside from leading them along the same path over and over again, how can we speed up our students' navigation of neural pathways? What follows is a proposal for three actions that I believe can have a huge effect on accelerating student learning.

1. Create Cartographers

When navigating a new city, many of us refer to a map to find the best route. Turn your students into mapmakers as they explore the farthest reaches of their own understanding. Encourage them to draw out the maps that describe the relationships they see between disparate ideas.

As tools to describe understanding, Thinking Maps help learners put their mental maps "on paper." By drawing a Thinking Map, learners can identify the relationships between the ideas they are trying to connect. Some maps are more effective than others, depending on the relationship between the ideas -- parts of the whole, cause and effect, similarities and differences. When we force ourselves to record our current thinking of these relationships, we have put our neural pathway on paper.

Modeling Instruction, a moderately recent development in science instruction, also promotes the creation of cerebral cartographers. Students engaged in Modeling Instruction design and apply tests of a model they have developed based on their belief about relationships between concepts. After collecting results, students use this evidence to revise their model of the concept. The practice has increased in popularity in physics classrooms across the world, largely due to its connection to how we learn.

One important facet to remember -- while we are all on a journey together, each of us navigates his or her neural network individually. As such, we all need to draw our own map. In Writing as a Measure and Model for Thinking, John Antonetti highlights the need for all students to articulate their thinking in order to promote personal response for the individual learner. When each learner draws his or her own map, he or she has an opportunity to learn about where we currently stand and where we need to go as a result.

2. Be a Guide

When it comes to our own understanding, we are navigating uncharted territory. It helps to find someone who has undergone a similar journey and learn from her path. Be a guide for your students as they explore the uncharted territory of their own minds.

Shift your role in the classroom, and tell your stories as an "experienced learner" for students who are "novice navigators." To paraphrase Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, stories drive action through simulation. When we hear the stories of those who have traveled a similar path -- when we hear about their successes, their challenges and their actions that led to resolution -- it informs our own path in the future.

The CoderDojo movement embodies this concept of experts acting as guides for young people walking the path. From its inception in Ireland to its spread across the world, these spaces inspire young people who are looking to learn digital creativity -- writing code for websites, apps, programs or games. Adults in these spaces act as guides, using their own technical backgrounds to help the students find the next step in the path.

As many teachers have an expert background in the content area they are helping students to learn, they may have a tendency to approach teaching from the position of "knowledge expert" as opposed to "experienced learner." Keep in mind that if our students do not have questions about their own learning paths, they are not likely going to learn from yours. Instead of starting the path by telling students what you think they should know, let them explore, and let them get lost. Once on the path, students will seek guidance, and your previous experience will take on a new level of importance.

3. Let Them Sleep

I know, this sounds a little crazy: "I should let my students sleep in class?" That seems like a bit of a stretch, like the children in Aldous Huxley's 1962 novel Island who were taught to enter a trance state when completing complex math problems. What we can do, however, is build in time for processing and reflection during class, and use sleep as a tool to promote learning between classes.

Sleep plays various roles in the health of the body. For starters, it acts as a "clean-up" process for the brain. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, sleep weakens all synapses across the entirety of the brain. Those connections that go largely unused are downscaled during sleep, while those involved in learning stay strong. These researchers posit that sleep restores the brain for the next period of learning: "Without sleep, the brain reaches a saturation point that taxes its energy budget, its store of supplies, and its ability to learn further." Learning strengthens the synapses connecting neurons in the brain, and sleep tends to repair damage done to the brain over the course of a learning-filled day.

What this means for us as educators is that we need to plan rich learning experiences, while also purposefully scheduling time between these learning experiences to allow sleep to do its job. Given the pressure that teachers feel to "cover" more and more information in accordance with national, state and local standards, it's easy to forget that the goal is not content taught but content learned. We need to plan for the periods between learning experiences to ensure time for processing if we expect students to deepen neural pathways.

To Make a Deep Mental Path

Henry David Thoreau summarized the development of neural superhighways as well as any neuroscientist I have read:

While creating cartographers, being guides, and promoting sleep can accelerate the learning process, the most important step is that we commit to leading our students to walk the path. As we learn to apply these lessons to our practices, we then commit to walking the path together.

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