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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Correlates between the Science of Learning and the Practice of Teaching by Saad Nagi, PhD

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Saad Nagi, PhD, Research Fellow in Neuroscience at the University of Western Sydney writes, "The phenomenon of human learning is not a unitary construct, rather it comprises a gamut of cognitive traits including memory, attention, decision making and social functioning. According to David Ausubel, an eminent educational psychologist: “The single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly”."

What we already know and can retrieve is underpinned by the neural system of memory, and the use of pre-existing neural networks can form the basis of further learning. Retrospective evaluations of events in the “long term” (in behavioural neuroscience, this refers to a period longer than a day) have found memory processing to be a high fidelity system. However, the transient storage of information, i.e., working memory, appears to be less resilient and prone to rapid deterioration.
“Consolidation” is the term attributed to the hypothetical transformation of a memory trace from an unstable, short-term form to a stable, long-term form. Recent research has focused on a rather enigmatic aspect of memory processing, dubbed “reconsolidation” – it is a special state brought about by the retrieval of items in the long-term memory, which makes them prone to alterations.

Learning is not simply based on enhanced neural activity, but also structural modifications that can be determined by changes in synaptic density (synaptogenesis). In a study involving rats, this question was explored by training a test group for a low-intensity but challenging motor skill, compared to the other groups that were exposed to high-intensity physical exercise but with relatively little learning involved. Notably, a higher density of blood vessels was found in the latter (angiogenesis, a compensatory response to increased/repetitive synaptic activity), but a significant increase in synaptic density was only found in the former, thereby demonstrating that learning is underpinned by neuro-structural changes in the brain.
The cortical-hippocampal system – comprising complex, bi-directional flow of information between the neocortex, the parahippocampal region and the hippocampus – underpins the neural coding mechanisms of conscious memory. The latter is particularly important in the organisation of memories in space and time.

Consistent with the recent advances in the neurobiology of learning, a list of potential correlates will be discussed from the literature that either inform the basis of accepted teaching practices or provide ideas for further exploration with the aim of improving the current design of learning environments. It must be acknowledged, however, that cognitive neuroscience has not advanced to a point yet where it could translate into guidelines for effective teaching practices (nor would such a circumscribed approach necessarily provide the desired outcomes), but drawing parallels between the two fields illustrate the neural underpinnings of the pedagogy of education, and highlight some of the pervasive ‘neuromyths’ that have taken root in the education sector and the society at large by courtesy of the so-called ‘brain-based learning’ industry.

Source: Brain Blogger (blog) 

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