Senior Project Research Paper: Teaching and the Brain


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Senior Project Research Paper: Teaching and the Brain

  1. 1. Slater 1Emily SlaterMrs. TilleryAP Literature and Composition18 November 2011 Senior Project Research Paper: Teaching and the Brain It seems that every year, the school district arbitrarily changes how teachers should dotheir jobs. Performance based pay, pre-kindergarten classes, and increasingly computerizedclasses are just a few of the ways schools have tried to increase standardized test scores. Manyof these programs are implemented because of a set of statistics support them, however, little ifany consideration is given to the science behind the student. New studies on the brain and how itlearns have created more effective teaching techniques that will soon take over the world ofeducation, though one must be cautious when implementing them. To understand how humans learn, one must first understand certain parts of the brain. Inthe human brain, most rational thinking is done in the frontal lobe of the brain, or the sectionlocated around the forehead area. Inside the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex is located. Inessence, this section of the brain controls the willpower and personality of the human mind and,if damaged, can cause severe personality and behavior changes (Sousa). However, thehippocampus is, in all probability, the most relevant section of the brain in relation to learning.The hippocampus is responsible for converting the electrical signals it receives into short andlong-term memory while simultaneously comparing these signals to past experiences (Sousa). Ifthis section, located in the lower middle section of the brain, is damaged or degraded by age, itcan cause serious problems for memory. Another important section of the brain is the parietallobe. For the most part, this section of the brain is used in perception and is most concerned with
  2. 2. Slater 2the cognition portion of learning. Damage to the parietal lobe is known to cause difficulties withlanguage and mathematics (Hudmon 5). Surprisingly enough, emotional responses are alsoincredibly important to the learning process. The amygdala, which is connected to thehippocampus, essentially takes the processed information from the parietal lobe and associatesan emotion with it (Wolfe). In addition to this, it is important to see traits in the brain as a whole.The human brain can be divided into two cerebral hemispheres. Generally, the right brain isthought of as the more artistic and creative side, while the left-brain is thought of as logical.However, this fact is a misconception. Humans use both sides of their brain almost equally andwhile there are some slight correlations betweens sides of the brain and certain traits (Jensen),both sides are used in processes such as creating music and formulating sentences. Yetunderstanding these sections of the brain is essentially useless if one does not understand theirpractical applications. Learning is, essentially, the combination of long-term memorization and understanding.However, in order for a student to learn a concept, several things must first occur. Firstly, theinformation must be consistent with previous ideas. It is for this reason that someone who hasnever done basic math will struggle with memorizing complex algebraic formulas. If one is notable to reconcile this, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to memorize concept. Nonetheless,there is a way to circumvent this if they are able to give importance to the information. If aconcept is given meaning, even if it does not necessarily make sense, it is easier to recall (Howthe Brain Learns). According to some researchers, it is this need to associate new informationwith meaning that makes mnemonic devices so effective. By creating an acronym, song, rhyme,or using word associations, the brain give an importance to the information and thus is able to
  3. 3. Slater 3recall ideas more easily (Roediger). However, without both meaning and understanding, onecannot effectively learn and therefore both concepts must be encouraged. Numerous studies on the brain have illuminated actions of adolescents that havepreviously been attributed to apathy or idleness. When a student consistently fails tests, mostteachers assume that the student simply does not apply himself or herself. While that may be thecase, there is also a neurological explanation for this phenomenon. When one is in a stressful orfrightening situation, the amygdala sends a signal throughout the brain that causes the body toreact in a variety of ways. Heart rate increases, the immune system is suspended, and, the mostunfortunate effect in a testing environment, the rational and thinking part of the brain becomessignificantly less efficient (Wolfe). By recognizing this, teachers can make efforts to create aless threatening environment in order to relax their students and consequently improve testscores. One possible way of relaxing students in order for them to perform better on tests iscalled “patterning.” While drawing on past experiences and feelings can definitively increasetest-taking anxieties, it can also do much to negate them. When students are more comfortablewith their teacher and believe that they are learning in a supportive environment, they are able tolearn much more effectively (Caine). Conversely, if there is not a mutual respect between thestudent and teacher, the student will have little motivation to do well in that class. However, notall of the responsibility of teaching a student falls on the shoulders of the educator. Adolescents have sleeping habits that differ from adults and children, which can beexplained by neuroscience. Melatonin is a chemical that is, among other things, essential formemory in the brain that can only be secreted by the brain during sleep (Larson). This restrictedrelease of melatonin is responsible for the circadian rhythms or “biological clock” of humans.
  4. 4. Slater 4When a human progresses from childhood to adolescence, the release of melatonin is shiftedlater in the day. This shift causes teenagers to sleep in later and stay up later. In one study, it wasfound that even when sleep was restricted to a mere five hours a night, adolescents would stayawake later in the evening because it was at that time they would be most awake (NationalResearch Council and Institute of Medicine). Furthermore, by delaying the average school dayonly one hour, it was discovered that test scores and the ability to concentrate could besignificantly increased (Lufi). To a county focused on improving standardized test scores, thisinformation could offer significant benefit to students with relatively little cost. Decreased attention is a problem that many teachers must deal with on a daily basis.However, the solution to this widespread problem is relatively simple. Working memory, orconscious processing of information, can only hold approximately seven items at a time andmaintain maximum focus for ten minutes in most adults (How the Brain Learns). After thesefirst ten minutes, the attention paid to a subject starts to decline. Additionally, because of thetime the brain takes to process information, there is a time gap between when one sees theinformation and when it is actually registered in the consciousness (Caine). By acknowledgingthis gap and planning lessons that switch between lecture and reflection or practice on a certainsubject, teachers can increase the productivity of their allotted class time. However, despite significant progress in brain-based education, there are seriousproblems with implementing its findings. Neuroscience is a relatively new scientific field that israpidly progressing. In spite of this and, perhaps, because of this, there is a lot of falseinformation that is thought of as fact until someone disproves it. Until several years ago, manythought that genius babies were created by listening to classical music and humans only used tenpercent of their brains. While the scientific community has now proved these claims untrue, they
  5. 5. Slater 5are still talked of as if they were facts in the general population. Scientists themselvesacknowledge this deficiency and speculate how much of the research will be disproved in thecoming years (Jossey-Bass). Because of this, any groundbreaking discoveries have to be lookedupon with caution. Even if the scientific community was entirely sure of their findings, there arealso cultural and budget issues to hold back its progress. In the United States, funding foreducation, among other things, has been cut in almost half of the states in the United States(Johnson). Many schools are struggling to get basic text books and maintain an already lowwage for teachers; it would appear to be folly to spend tax dollars on educating teachers ininformation that might completely change in a couple of years. Unfortunately, even if ascientific study is thoroughly proven and tested, it is difficult for most people to change theirways. For example, even though delaying the start of school one hour has been proven toincrease test scores and concentration (Lufi), schools refuse to change their ways. Moreover,many of these studies only confirm knowledge gained from years of teaching experience. Manyteachers have been implementing these techniques years before studies on the mechanics of thebrain were published. Yet despite all the controversy, studying the brain and its components can greatly benefiteducators and students in numerous ways. By discovering which parts of the brain controlfactors of education, one is more completely able to understand what education is in its essence.By studying and testing these findings, strategies such as creating a relaxing test takingenvironment and breaking up lectures into ten to twenty minute sessions are created andimplemented by teachers to help students learn more effectively. Even the school district cancontrol test scores from afar by increasing the amount of sleep its adolescent students get by justone hour. While these findings must be taken with a grain of salt for the time being, it will not
  6. 6. Slater 6be long until it is common for teachers to be trained in rudimentary neuroscience before enteringthe work force.
  7. 7. Slater 7 Works CitedCaine, Renate, and Geoffrey Caine. Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning. N.p.: EBSCO Publishing, 2002. College of Education and Educational Technology. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.How the brain learns. UF and Shands. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Hudmon, Andy. Learning and Memory. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. Print.Jensen, Eric. Brain-based learning: the new paradigm of teaching. Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Jossey-Bass. The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. N.p.: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2008. Google Books. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Larson, J, et al. Impaired hippocampal long-term potentiation in melatonin MT2 receptor- deficient mice. University of Illinois at Chicago, 23 Jan. 2006. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Lufi, Dubi, Orna Tzischinsky, and Stav Hadar. Delaying School Starting Time by One Hour: Some Effects on Attention Levels in Adolescents. National Center for Biotechnology Information, Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Sleep needs, Patterns, and Difficulties of Adolescents. Ed. Mary G. Graham. The National Academies Press, 2000. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Roediger, Henry L., and Mary Susan Weldon. Imagery and Related Mnemonic Processes. Department of Psychology. Washington University in St. Louis, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Publishers, 2011. Google Books. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.
  8. 8. Slater 8Wolfe, Pat. Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria: ASCD, 2010. Google Books. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.- - -. Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria: ASCD, 2010. Google Books. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.- - -. How the Brain Learns. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.