Recent research on the human brain is providing a new understanding of how we learn, which is helping us to redefine education and schooling. This new information, which is now being translated into classroom applications with the goal of increasing learning for all students, has broad implications for the design of learning environments and curricula.
As we explore educational designs for the 21st century and beyond, we need to keep abreast of developments in the field of brain research, being mindful that their influence on the teaching/learning relationship will forever change the way we build and renovate school facilities. This knowledge presents a world of exciting opportunities as well as heavy responsibilities for educational facility planners worldwide.
Schooling often inhibits learning by discouraging, or punishing the child, thus ignoring the natural learning processes of the brain. We need both to help students have appropriate experiences and to help them capitalize on the experience. We believe that following elements are essential to this process:
The role of the teacher changes from that of purveyor of information to one akin to a symphony conductor, bringing different elements of the orchestra to the attention of the audience at appropriate times, creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and encouraging the development of students' feelings and emotions.
Using current learning theory, teachers will create events and introduce materials and ideas into the classroom that will encourage the development of neural network connections in their students. When this occurs, the classroom then becomes constructivist, one where students construct individual meaning from the information and activities presented.
Both student and teacher are viewed as knowledge workers in a brain-based environment. The young learner must actively manipulate information and material to grow new connections. Working with educational material for mathematics (for instance the Montessori material), creating stories, growing plants, and examining artifacts are activities now added to hearing and reading about new topics. Sharing ideas through group problem solving exercises and through project work forges connections to existing memories, thus enhancing mental growth. Observing competent peers and elders as they carry out activities is desirable both for learning new skills and for perfecting those already learned.
Apprenticeships, project work, and mentorships are just a few methods for achieving this. Exposure to ever-widening environments will lead older students into the community to learn alongside adults in offices, hospitals, zoos, and other places of work. The work of all students should be rich in technology, although not dominated by it. Technology may be viewed as a tool for acquiring, organizing and processing information to develop new knowledge. It will become an end in itself only for those with special interest in technology.
The demands of society and the findings of science are compelling us to see a new significance in the preschool years. Preschool education is the most crucial and fundamental level for future development. The teacher of preschool children is not merely giving lessons. She is helping to shape a brain and nervous system, and this work which is going to determine all that comes after, requires a finer perception and a wider training and outlook than is needed by any other kind of teacher.
Early care has decisive and long-lasting effects on how people develop and learn, how they cope with stress and how they regulate their own emotions. Warm and responsive early care helps young children thrive and plays a vital role in healthy development. A child's capacity to control its own emotional state appears to hinge on biological systems shaped by its early experiences and attachments. A strong, secure attachment to a nurturing adult can have a protective biological function, helping a growing child withstand the ordinary stress of daily life.
The human brain has a remarkable capacity to change, but timing is crucial. The brain itself can be altered or helped to compensate for problems with appropriately timed, intensive intervention. In the first decade of life, the brain's ability to change and compensate is especially remarkable.
Evidence amassed by neuroscientists and child development experts over the last decade point to the wisdom and efficacy of prevention and early intervention. Well-designed preschool programs created to promote healthy cognitive, emotional and social development can improve the prospects and the quality of life of many children.
Meaningful learning - the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future - occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today's youngsters, at all socio-economic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes. Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, lead to brains unresponsive to traditional modes of academic learning.
In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today's students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally and to attend to complex problems. The result is a growing educational 'crisis' of misfit between children and their schools.
How can we change the existing situation? First we should stop blaming the students and their teachers. Parents, policy makers and the arbiters of popular culture are also part of the problem. If we wish to retain the benefits of literate thought, we must educate parents, encourage more constructive uses of media, and set our priorities in every classroom to show children from the earliest years how to get ideas into words, listen to peers and to adults, follow sequential directions, and reason analytically about such concepts as cause and effect. Deficits in these fundamental 'habits of mind' cause not only academic but also social problems.
Someone must also take time to listen to the children, soften the frenetic scheduling of their lives, read to them, give them some quiet time to play, to ponder, to reflect and to use the inner voice that mediates attention and problem-solving. Without adult models, children cannot shape their own brains around these intellectual habits which, in the long run, will be far more valuable to all concerned than a frantic march through content. The executive or pre-frontal centres of the brain enable planning, follow-through, and controlled attention along with forms of abstract thought. These develop throughout childhood and adolescence. We have a responsibility towards all children to demonstrate the habits of mental discipline and attention necessary to reflect on, utilize, and apply the information they learn.
Since each brain's developmental timetable is different, we must also disabuse ourselves of the notion that children can all learn on a set schedule.
We must also accept the fact that today's children come with new skills for a new century. The changes we observe in our children may, in fact, represent a cusp of change in human intelligence - a progression into more immediate, visual, and three-dimensional forms of thought. Schools will need to accept the fact that lectures and 'teacher-talk', which commonly comprise approximately 90% of classroom discourse, must give way to more effective student involvement. Today's learners must become constructors of knowledge rather than passive recipients of information that even the least intelligent computer can handle more effectively.
Many examples already exist in outstanding literature-based programs that turn students on to reading, writing and oral communication, maths curricula in which product takes a back seat to understanding of process; project-oriented, multidisciplinary social studies units; cooperative learning paradigms, multi-modal teaching, etc.
Particularly exciting are curricular innovations in which the unlimited potential of visual thinking is used to complement language and linear analysis. Courses in critical viewing and effective use of visual media are examples; computer simulations requiring step-by-step progression to three-dimensional reasoning herald development of new skills which may eventually transcend the linear constraints of scientific method and even unite the talents of the two cerebral hemispheres in expanded modes of thought.
Traditional parameters of learning must be broadened, even re-defined, not simply because of the changing priorities of future technologies, but also because of present realities. Our growing crisis in academic learning reflects societal neglect of the neural imperatives of childhood.
The final lesson of neural plasticity is that a human brain, given good foundations, can continue to adapt and expand for a lifetime. Its vast synaptic potential at birth can bend itself around what is important of the 'old' and still have room for new skills demanded by a new century. A well-nourished mind will continue to grow, learn and develop, as long as it responds to the pricking of curiosity. Perhaps this quality, above all, is the one we should strive to preserve in our children. With it, supported by language, thought and imagination, minds of the future will shape themselves around new challenges. But, if we continue to neglect either these foundations or the curiosity that sets them in motion, we will truly all be endangered.
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