THE BRAIN AS ORGAN OF LEARNING: BRAIN FUNCTIONS
theme: The rationale for wholistic education is based on the understanding of the brain and its functions. The brain is a 'meaning maker', a 'parallel processor' and a 'pattern detector'.
"Enhanced learning depends on the reconceptualization of teaching - one based on a knowledge of brain functioning." (Donna Jean Carter ASCD President, 1990-1991. Caine, Renate Nummela and Geoffrey Caine. "Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain." Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991. page vi)
As a product of millions of years of evolution through natural selection, the specialized brain functions have ensured the survival of the human species. The functions of the human brain are the natural outcome of millions of years of evolutionary process through natural selection. The mental functions of learning and memory are natural outcomes of the human evolutionary process of behavioural adaptation. In the course of human evolution, survival of the human species has depended on behavioural adaptation. Human adaptive behaviour has depended on brain development. The evolution of the human species is concurrent with the evolution of the human brain. This is in contrast to the evolution of other organisms whose survival and adaptation have depended on the development and specialization of various other organs and other forms of instinctive behaviour. (Eric R. Kandel and Robert D. Hawkins "The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality" Scientific American September 1992 79-86)
The brain as a meaning maker The basic function of the brain is to make sense or meaning of the complexity of experience i.e. to 'learn'. Learning from experience or 'experiential learning' is meaningful learning. Experiential learning is a natural physiological function of the brain. The brain's function of experiential learning is a cumulative process of development which engages both thought or 'cognition' and feeling or 'emotion'.
Experiential learning is a function of cognition which engages emotion Emotion and cognition cannot be separated. It is the emotional context in which environmental stimuli are perceived that determines the 'direction of processing' or 'motivation'. Motivation for experiential learning is innate and intrinsic to the organism i.e. 'intrinsic motivation'. Intrinsic motivation involves the response of the brain as a whole i.e. 'holistic perception'. Holistic perception is perception of relationships and the formation of intellectual concepts based on the interaction between parts and wholes.
The brain as pattern detector The conceptual interaction of parts and wholes depends on the brain's ability to search for connections and patterns i.e. 'patterning'. The brain is a 'pattern detector'. It searches for patterns all the time. The direction of patterning is influenced by emotions and mind-sets associated with situations and circumstances. As a pattern detector, the brain detects existing patterns and creates new ones, hence its potential for inventiveness or 'creativity'. Creativity is a function of the brain's ability to perceive connections i.e. 'brain-based learning'. Brain-based learning is the basis for understanding the complexity of environmental stimuli
If the emotions are ignored, the effective functioning of the brain is inhibited. Respect for the emotions leads to optimal brain functioning ... enhanced learning or 'optimalearning'... and complete understanding of 'creative intelligence' of intuition. Creative intelligence is a function of the brain's ability to detect connections and relationships.
Curiosity Motivation for formulation of intellectual concepts results from the brain's instinctive need for novelty, complexity, challenge and discovery or 'curiosity'. Curiosity is the brain's natural capacity for observation and inquiry. Combined with intelligence curiosity produces understanding and evaluation of environmental stimuli.
Evaluation is correct or incorrect depending on the type of motivation.
Survival value of remembered experience Development of intelligence depends on respect for the personal world or 'inner life'. The person's inner life involves a process of comparing novel stimuli of new experience with familiar stimuli of past experience i.e remembered experience or 'memory'. Memory of experience or 'spatial memory' depends on the emotions with which it is associated. Memory of experiential learning is necessary for survival. Human survival depends on the capacity to learn from experience and to make intelligent decisions which will produce adaptive behaviour.
The brain as parallel processor The brain processes all incoming stimuli at the same time or 'in parallel'. The brain is a 'parallel processor'. Familiar stimuli of past experience are automatically processed at the same time as novel stimuli of new experience. The brain processes signals absorbed on all levels of awareness or 'consciousness'.
The learning process involves both conscious and unconscious levels hence the 'complexity of learning'. On the conscious level, the brain processes environmental signals to which it is paying attention and of which it is aware in the field of 'focused attention'. Focused perception occurs on the cognitive level of consciousness and this constitutes the cognitive aspect of learning. At the same time, the brain processes environmental signals to which it is not paying attention and of which it is unaware... signals that lie beyond the field of focused attention... 'peripheral stimuli' in the field of 'peripheral perception'. Peripheral perception occurs on the unconscious level of consciousness or the 'subconscious'. It is the subconscious processing of signals that constitutes the emotional aspect of learning or 'emotional intelligence'.
Teacher attributes for effective learning The natural functions of the brain are activated by specific teacher characteristics or 'attributes'. Teacher attributes are processed as subtle unconscious signals based on the teacher's true inner state of 'personality congruence'. Personality traits of congruence... the congruent teacher expresses genuine feelings and helps the learner to take charge of their own learning, to engage actively in processing their own experience and to develop their own personal meanings through a process of reflection and contemplation or 'meditation'. Meditation is a cognitive process of a higher order which involves the creation of new understanding and brings about change which becomes personally relevant i.e. 'metacognition'. Teachers' attributes are discerned and processed unconsciously by the learner as peripheral stimuli. Pertipheral stimuli have a beneficial impact on learning if they relate appropriately to the importance and value of what is being taught. Beneficial attributes provide an emotional climate which is marked by stability, familiarity and mutual respect. The acceptance of learners' feelings and attitudes encourages them to engage in metacognitive approaches to their learning activities. When teachers become sincerely supportive and enthusiastic they engage learners' interest in their own learning. Teaching becomes multifaceted and increases in effectiveness.
Importance of rich learning environment The effective teacher provides a rich learning environment and orchestrates all the dimensions of parallel processing. The learner is immersed in a multitude of complex and interactive experiences and allowed to engage the various senses - visual, tactile, auditory. Learning activities are designed to reflect the complexity of 'real life' experience. They are made variable enough to attract individual interests. Approaches to learning become cooperative and depend on social interaction. Complex and meaningful activities are incorporated into classroom demonstrations, projects, field trips, visual imagery, performances, stories, drama, discussion, lectures, discussions. They become part of a larger experience. Visual materials in such as charts and illustrations are organized to reflect changes in the learning focus. The effective teacher provides conditions which create a learning environment that is non-threatening but challenging. An effective learning environment facilitates the brain's natural capacity to make connections i.e. the mental state of 'relaxed alertess'. In a state of relaxed alertness, the learner is able to reorganize their learning materials in ways which are meaningful to them
Meaningful learning is personally valuable and becomes the source of motivation for continued learning (see 'problem of motivation
Implications for education: brain-compatible teaching Teaching methods which are based on natural brain functioning are described as 'brain compatible'. Brain compatible teaching methodologies acknowledge the functions of the brain as a complex organ of learning. They operate on the premise that the aim of education is to facilitate optimal brain functioning or 'optimalearning'. Optimalearning results from a design of curriculum which integrates the different areas of human knowledge i.e. the 'sciences', the 'humanities' and the 'arts'. Creative curriculum design facilitates the learner's ability to accept ambiguity, to ask questions, to search for connections, relationships and patterns, and to resolve problems i.e. 'active processing'. Learning as active processing is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. Effective learning depends on the ability to convert threat into challenge... make appropriate decisions for creative or 'adaptive' behaviour...
When threat is converted into challenge, then effective learning takes place. With effective learning, decision-making becomes appropriate for creative or 'adaptive' behaviour. Adaptive behaviour depends on the integration of cognition and emotion to produce effective learning and contentment or 'happiness'. Happiness is a state of mind resulting from learning which is challenging, meaningful and experienced with joy. The joy of learning is a characteristic feature of education for the whole person or 'holistic education'.
The inability to convert threat into challenge results in demotivation and ineffective learning. Decision-making is inappropriate. The result is non-creative or 'non-adaptive' behaviour which creates unhappiness and distress or 'stress'.
Top of page / Introduction / Homepage
"The brain is best understood in terms of three functioning units: 1.'automatic response to the complexity of stimuli in its search for meaning in the complex environment in which it is immersed... 'alertness' , information processing or thinking'... intelligence and action." (Restak The Brain)