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Educational Neuroscience

Educational neuroscience is the intersection between neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy. Neuroscience is a field of natural science that studies the brain and its functioning.

Since the 1990’s, advances in neuroimaging techniques have enabled researchers to examine more closely what is happening in the brain while it is functioning: which areas of the brain “light up” and connect with each other when different tasks are being performed, how neural pathways are established, how memory works, and how different parts of the brain develop at different stages of our lives.

Much of this confirms or complements research in the field of psychology, and education theory, and some findings of neuroscience challenge the conventional wisdom of these two fields.

New Insights
Neuroscience has also brought new insights on activity in brain regions relating to mathematics, reading, scientific knowledge, music, and creativity. This offers insights in how to teach these skills more effectively, and new possibilities in helping students overcome difficulties in any of those areas.

The Teen Years
In addition, neuroscience has helped us understand brain development at different ages and stages of life. Particularly relevant to us at HDCH is the knowledge that the frontal lobes and parietal regions (areas associated with higher-level processing, managing attention, planning, controlling and inhibiting certain behaviours, and assessing risk and reward in decision-making) are sites of major growth and structural change throughout adolescence and into the late teens.

Building Character
While this is a period of particular vulnerability and susceptibility to poor decisions, the teen years are equally the most important time for developing these faculties: periods of rapid growth in particular areas of the brain mean neuroplasticity (the “wiring and rewiring” of the brain) is at its peak during that time and therefore optimally set for learning. This is the prime time for establishing neural pathways (patterns of thinking and behaving) for adult life, for establishing habits, good or bad, that solidify into character.

Adolescence is a critical time where we need to come alongside our youth as they develop their higher-level processing, risk-assessment, decision-making skills, not by making decisions for them or imposing decisions on them, but by making decisions with them, by engaging in discussion, listening, hearing their thoughts, and asking critical questions.

Having said this, although neuroplasticity (the “wiring and rewiring” of the brain) is easiest during childhood and adolescence, both neuroscience and cognitive psychology have shown us that it continues throughout life: it’s never too late to learn; it’s never too late to change.

Contributions, Confirmations & Conflicts

  • Some of the early contributions of neuroscience to the field of psychology and education have been to give scientific credence to the following:
  • Movement/exercise enhances learning and memory
  • Emotions impact learning – stress and distress impact learning negatively, whilst physical and emotional security enhance learning
  • Related to the above, there is a connection between positive school climate (social & cultural) and learning
  • A sense of relevance and meaningfulness promotes the encoding of long-term memory – our brains constantly sift the relentless stream of incoming information, selecting for attention and retention what it sees as needed, important, relevant, purposeful.
  • There is a connection between sufficient sleep and learning (especially memory)

By Duncan Todd, Vice Principal
Hamilton District Chritian High