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Laboratory for Visual Learning

What Does the Brain Have to Do With Learning?

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Submitted by Dr. Matthew H. Schneps

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about "brain-based" learning, and the role neuroscience plays in education. It makes sense to think this way because when we learn cells grow, connect, disconnect, or die. Learning is the process by which the brain rewires itself.

What then can neuroscience tell teachers and students about how to make learning most effective? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. The brain is extraordinarily complex, and neuroscience is only beginning to touch upon questions that relate to what happens in the brain during classroom learning. But the fact that we don't understand this hasn't stopped many from promoting all kinds of myths about how the brain works, often to justify and support methods for teaching that are not really backed by research.

One of the most common myths about the brain in education has to do with the capabilities of its right and left sides. People talk all the time about being "left brained," or "right brained," and use this to explain why they can do some things, and not others. But, if neuroscience can tell us anything at all about learning, it is that the brain is almost fluid in its adaptability (a process called plasticity). The brain can grow cells to direct the burden for learning to whatever regions are able to accommodate the task. In an extreme case, where people with severe epilepsy have had half their brains removed, they are able to recover functions thought resident in the side of the brain no longer there.

Profs. Kurt Fischer, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, and I developed a resource for teachers (funded by the Annenberg Foundation)that has videos about such ideas, including dyslexia. Visit “Neuroscience and the Brain,”www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience.

If you are interested in science and dyslexia, please visit www.LVL.SI.edu, where you can join our community, and voice your ideas.

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Dr. Matthew H. Schneps is the director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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