link: neuroscience                        


                                     IMPLICATIONS FOR LEARNING THEORY

theme: New information about the learning process which is based on the natural functioning of the brain is provided by recent findings in brain research or 'neuroscience'. Recent findings in neuroscience support those learning theories which are based on the principles of natural brain functions i.e 'brain-based learning'.

"One of the most important lessons to derive from brain research is that in a very important sense, all learning is experiential. What we learn depends on the global experience, not just on the manner of presentation. We do not automatically learn enough from our experience. What matters is how experience is used. deliberately teaching for the expansion of natural knowledge, we need both to help students have appropriate experiences and to help them capitalize on the experiences." (Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. 104)

NEUROSCIENCE BEGAN AT THE END OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Modern research of the brain or 'neuroscience' was founded at the end of the nineteenth century with the studies of the great Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal. Cajal set out to understand the functions of the brain by analysing the functional architecture of the nervous system and carried out the first morphological studies with both adult and embryonic nerve tissue using Golgi's silver staining technique. As a result of his findings Cajal formulated his 'neuron doctrine' which stated that the brain is made up of discrete units - the nerve cells or 'neurons' - which are not joined together by 'protoplasmic bridges' as was originally thought. Since the time of Cajal neuroscience has expanded to include neurobiology, psychobiology and other areas of inquiry.

 Neuroscientists, neurobiologists and psychobiologists are concerned with the biological mechanisms of 'brain functions'.

NEUROSCIENCE CHALLENGES THE TRADITIONALLY HELD ASSUMPTION THAT LEARNING DOES NOT INVOLVE EMOTIONS Findings of brain research have significant implications for education because they challenge a number of assumptions about the  which are promoted by the 'worldview' or 'paradigm' of traditional education as 'schooling'. They challenge the notion that the emotional or 'affective' aspect of the learning process is located in different areas of the brain from the processing of information i.e. thinking or 'cognition'. Consequently they challenge the notion that learning does not involve the emotions but is a matter of 'conditioning'. Conditioned learning depends on forced learning of memorization or 'rote learning'... 'unnatural learning'. Emphasis is on 'content' ... in the form of fragmented information or data which must be learned in order to meet given requirements or 'learning outcomes'. Successful retention of learning is rewarded and failure is punished... with the use of an evaluation system of points or 'grades'. The grading system fosters motivation by mechanisms which are external or 'extrinsic' to the individual's capacity for personal decision-making i.e. 'extrinsic motivation'. The traditional methods are formulated within the paradigm of 'behavioural science' or ''behaviourism.

The 'behavioural paradigm' is being seriously questioned today.

NATURAL LEARNING FOR ADAPTATION TO CHANGING SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT OR 'ADAPTABILITY'  Recent findings in neuroscience indicate that in the 'process' of 'natural learning' the brain does not separate the emotions from cognition - neither anatomically nor perceptually.  They support those learning theories which are based on the natural functioning of the brain as the 'organ of learning'. The brain's natural function is to search for meaning in experience - to 'make meaning' of complex environmental stimuli or 'learn'. The learning function of the brain is as natural as the breathing function of the lungs. Learning is a natural function driven by the organism's instinctive need to search for meaning in the complexty of its environment. Human survival depends on learning which is effective because it produces creative or 'adaptive' behaviour i.e. 'adaptability'. Human adaptability depends on a natural process of learning which is meaningful to the individual i.e. 'meaningful learning'. Meaningful learning involves the brain's automatic response as a whole to the complexity of environmental stimuli. The brain's natural 'holistic perception' is based on the interconnectivity between the various parts of the brain resulting in the interconnectedness between the whole and its parts. The result is an interpenetrating or 'holographic' perspective in which each part is related to the whole so that it represents more than the sum of its parts giving rise to 'emergent properties' such as 'consciousness' or 'conscience'.

The holistic response of the brain is a function of the interactivity of the two 'cerebral hemispheres'.

"Recent findings in brain research suggest that it is possible to understand the functioning of the brain once there is sufficient explanation for the specific functions of individual nerve cells and their connections. The resulting patterns of nerve impulses, neural circuits and networks form the basis of the brain's functions. The knowledge gained from findings in brain research forms the basis for theories of brain-based learning and can be applied to educational philosophies and pedagogies. The findings confirm the antagonism between 'traditional' teaching methods and the natural learning function of the brain. Conner, James "Cutting Edge: Mind & Molecules" Journal of Developmental Education vol 16, number 3, Spring 1993: page 34

BIOLOGY OF LEARNING  Santiago Ramon y Cajal was the great Spanish neuroanatomist who proposed that the functions of the brain could be understood by analyzing the functional architecture of the nervous system. Cajal described the brain in terms of individual 'nerve cells' or 'neurons'.

New information is available about the biology of learning as a result of recent findings in neuroscience. Learning is a natural physiological function of the brain which involves the propagation of electrochemical signals or 'nerve impulses' along the neurons and their transmission across the contact points between them - the 'synaptic connections' or 'synapses'. Synapses are modified through atrophy or strengthening and new synapses are created. The result is  changes in the structure of 'neural pathways'.  'Synapse modification' is the biological basis of the brain's learning function. The ability of the brain to change with learning is 'brain plasticity' or 'neuroplasticity'. Neuroplasticity is largely influenced by environment.

Stimulating or 'rich' environmental conditions are required for brain development... development of 'intelligence'.

TRADITIONAL TEACHING METHODS ARE 'BRAIN-ANTAGONISTIC' The traditional teaching methods which emphasize facts and outcomes are ineffective in the development of the human potential for intelligence required for social adaptability - rational, spiritual, emotional, aesthetic, creative i.e.  'social intelligence'. Development of social intelligence depends on a learning environment characterised by respect for the individual's 'freedom' and their instinctive capacity for 'self-evaluation'. Since authoritarian methods teach to behavioural objectives, they can actually prevent real understanding of meaningful learning and are described as 'brain-antagonistic'. Brain-antagonistic teaching  ignores the role of the unconscious or 'emotion' in the process of learning. Meaningful learning engages personal initiative based on instinctive motivations or 'emotional drives' i.e. 'intrinsic motivation'. The various types of intrinsic motivation - 'motivational types' - are determined by a range of human motives for learning or 'human needs'. Human needs include the so-called 'higher needs' or 'spiritual needs' i.e. 'metaneeds' for 'ego-transcendance' as well as the basic psychological 'ego needs' for security and self-esteem. The motivational type depends on the individual's level of psychological development or 'sociocognitive stage'. Hence the importance of intrinsic motivated learning which engages personality development to maturity or 'self-actualisation'.

 Inhibition of natural or 'brain-based learning' can lead to thwarting of development and diversion of creative energies towards the destructiveness of human wickedness or 'evil'. 

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATION Human adaptability depends on an education which encourages development of social intelligence. The formulation of effective teaching methods depends on the understanding of the global nature of brain functioning and of the connectedness or 'embeddedness' of 'knowledge' within previously assimilated experience. So-called 'experiential learning' engages the brain's natural holistic functioning which allows for optimal learning or 'optimalearning'. Optimalearning involves structural shifts in the basic premises of thought, feeling and behaviour. The shifts in 'consciousness' permanently alter the individual's point of view or 'perspective'. Such 'transformative learning' takes place when the emphasis is placed on learner interest and the 'process' of learning i.e. 'personalised learning'. Using the method of personalized learning, teacher and learner are co-creators of the 'content' of learning while emphasis is on the 'process'. The teacher's function is to faclitate learning and their role is defined as 'facilitator of learning'.


Some biological terms in the neurosciences:

 ACTION POTENTIAL 'action potential,' the electrical impulse is the result of an electrochemical reaction..

ACTIVE PUMP (active because it requires energy - ATP molecules)

CHARGE REVERSAL involves the movement of electrically charged ions of chlorine (Cl), sodium (Na) and potassium (K) atoms.

EXCITATORY The effect of the binding is excitatory. The binding of neurotransmitter molecules to receptor molecules on the postsynaptic membrane excites the cell if it enhances the movement of electrically charged ions across the membrane. This is the synaptic theory of transmission of nerve impulse.

NERVE CELL AT REST A nerve cell which is not carrying a nerve impulse is said to be 'at rest.

NEURON THEORY nervous system is made up of neurons which are isolated cells, each one independently living its own biological life the brain is made up of discrete units

NEURAL JUNCTION The junctions between neurons - 'neural junctions' - are specialized contact points known as 'synapses.' There are more than a thousand billion synapses in the brain.

 NEUROTRANSMITTERS are SPECIALIZED CHEMICAL TRANSMITTERS packaged in small vesicles located at the specialized neuron contact points called 'synapses.'

POLARIZED electrically charged

 RESTING CELL A neuron which is not carrying a nerve impulse is called a 'resting cell.' NERVE SIGNAL A nerve 'signal' is an elec

SEMIPERMEABLE MEMBRANE Permeable to some substances and not to others

SHERRINGTON English physiologist Charles Sherrington (1861-1952) worked out the details of the reflex arc in the spinal cord of mammals. (See his classic work The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, published 1906) -

SYNAPSE is a junction between two neurons. The synapse consists of the synaptic knob of one neuron, a gap called the synaptic cleft and the point of attachment on the dendrite or soma of the neighboring neuron.

  SYNAPTIC THEORY Sherrington called the specalized contct points between neurons 'synapses' from the Greek word 'synapto' which means to clasp tightly

SYNCITIUM continuous net of nerve tissue

THRESHOLD At a critical point called the 'threshold,' the inside of the cell becomes positive with respect to the outside. Sodium ions cease to move across the membrane and the differential voltage returns to the resting membrane potential value of -70 millivolts