Teaching & Learning

Neuroscience…FIGHT!

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I’m going to do something I try very hard not to do.  I’m going to play Neuroscientist.

Ok, ok, I don’t mean that I’m going to shove an electrode in someone’s brain.  Nor will I read an fMRI machine (which is easy as I don’t have one).  I mean that I’m going to weigh in on a debate in the neuroscience community and make my own proclamation!

Quick caveat about caveatsI have found that ANY time I write about neuroscience, I have to state that it’s controversial.  It seems, more than almost any other group I’ve ever studied, that neuroscientists agree about relatively little.  Obviously that doesn’t help their cause, nor the world’s.  So, I take the stance that if a majority of neuroscientists seem to agree, that’s strong enough for me…read on!
Fight2Let’s start with the sides.  Ready…FIGHT!

Side 1: The brain can remove bad information and replace it with better information.  This is the ‘learn, unlearn, relearn’ mantra at its core.  The metaphor here is a computer hard drive.  You put a file in the “trash” and then empty it – voila!  File gone!

There is some interesting work done in this space.  Cognitive scientists say you can “unlearn” pain.  Let me overly simplify the explanation of an experiment which showcases this.

Ramachandran (Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California–San Diego) has done some interesting work with mirror neurons (also controversial to some degree).  He and his researchers found that if you are having, say, finger pain, that you can help it through the use of unlearning techniques.  Place a mirror down half of your body and close the eye not seeing the mirrored side.  Make sure the mirrored side faces the hand with no pain associated with its fingers.  Then, have someone start touching the non-pain finger, but make sure the patient looks in the mirror as it is touched.  They will start to see it as their other hand, and will start to “learn” that the finger isn’t actually causing them pain.  This will lead to a reduction in pain the actual finger once the mirror is removed.

Side 2: The brain never removes anything.  This is the notion of mastery, meaning one likely never knows a “best” way, but instead always seeks out new, better ways.  The metaphor here is an ice berg.  A river (idea) is formed only to be covered by a bigger, deeper, or stronger river at some point.  The first river doesn’t go away, it’s just no longer used or needed.

Huang reported in 2009 that we retain older motor patterns in anticipation of using them again.  Those who study and report on the Forgetting Curve note that the rate of decay for any piece of information is different per situation, per person, etc.  In other words, it’s almost impossible to anticipate 100% of the time how long a person takes to “forget” something.

WinLoseSo who is right?  Can we indeed “unlearn” something?  Or do we simply create better patterns, better pathways to connect the old to the new? 

I’m going to use my power as the only voice on this blog (yes, I know it’s my blog) to suggest the latter (Side 2) is the winner!  (Fanfare – trumpets – confetti)  Or, more accurately let me say that if using the second paradigm, students will be the winners.

The idea that learning is indeed a connection of facts that can be replaced like a plug-n-play system seems to have yielded many of the problems we now face in education.  That students are “vessels” of knowledge, just waiting to be filled by brilliant teachers doesn’t seem to work.  Yet this represents much of what we know as education, or more appropriately – “school.”

The second concept appeals to me in terms of logic as well as strategy.  From my (albeit limited) understanding of brain science, our neurons might indeed weaken.  They may even die if the neurites never connect with other neurites therefore never completing a neural pathway.  But do they go away?  I don’t think so.  And I haven’t seen any research showing that a neuron is ever re-used, like writing over an old disc, with new information.

So, it becomes a very important distinction for educators to realize that learning is often about picking a “better” choice, rather than replacing information.  Yes, choices can become “defaults” or preferences for certain.  The more we employ a line of thinking, the deeper those neural networks become!  But often I’m still dealing with other patterns that have to be pushed aside (mentally).   This neurology seems more accurate to me, but at the same time, it’s definitely not easier.

The best working example I can think of is teaching itself.  95% of my teachers, K-20, lectured.  That is my known paradigm.  It’s been modeled and pushed at me throughout my career as a student.  So, when I find solutions that lead to BETTER learning by students which are NOT lecture, I now have a choice.  In fact, for many years, the new understanding will be harder to employ, because those neural paths are SO deep with regard to my lifelong education and its process.  I will have to force the other way of thinking to overtake the old way of knowing.

And so it goes.  Every time you teach something in your college classrooms, students are over-riding and over-lapping previous things.  Those overlaps give connection.  Those overrides give better ways of doing or thinking.  But to me, that’s what learning is about anyway.

Good luck and good teaching!

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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