brain-based learningEducators are always looking for ways to help students learn. As new ideas crop up, one educational trend follows another. The latest trend is brain-based learning, which is supposedly based on research on neuroplasticity. However, neuroplasticity really isn’t what many people seem to think it is. It does provide us with some insight into how emotions can change brain structure, but knowing about the physical changes in the brain doesn’t tell us anything about how to teach. Also, much of what is being promoted as brain-based learning isn’t actually based on research on the physical changes of the brain. It’s based on cognitive and behavioral science. And little of it is new.

Effect of Stress on the Brain

We have known for a long time that stress affects performance and attitude. It can lead to anxiety, depression, or both. Studies in neuroplasticity help us understand what happens in the brain when we experience stress and anxiety, but knowing what changes in the brain doesn’t really give us any new information that can help us better teach our students. However, the information interesting. What’s especially interesting is the relationship between stress and boredom.

Basically, stress causes, among other things, changes in the dendrites in the pre frontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. The pre-frontal cortex is the place where decision making takes place, and the hippocampus is responsible for the formation of memories. The amygdala is responsible for a rapid emotional assessment of a situation. It’s where the flight or fight response is initiated. During a stressful event, dendrites in the amygdala grow while they shrink in both the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. The timing and duration also has an effect, but for purposes of discussion of stress in education, let’s just consider the effect of chronic stress, stress that occurs repeatedly over a long period of time.

In general, when a stressful event ends, the changes in the dendrites revert back to what they were before. That is, they will shrink in the amygdala and grow in the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex. However, the changes in the dendrites in the amygdala become more permanent as a result of chronic stress. The effect of these long-lasting changes in the dendrites of the amygdala is that the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex have a decreased ability to inhibit the fear response created by the amygdala. That in turn means that the amygdala will be more likely to perceive stress, which grows more dendrites in the amygdala and shrinks more in the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Chronic stress will create this kind of feedback loop, which makes it difficult for learning to take place. After all, the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex are necessary for the formation of memories and for cognition.

Here is a short video showing the growth of dendrites on a neuron. The reverse happens with dendrite shrinking. Do you know any more about classroom practices after watching it?

Boredom and Stress

What’s of particular interest for education is that boredom has the same effects on the brain as stress. In other words, as far as the brain is concerned, boredom is stressful. Any parent of a gifted child can see that in action – without any knowledge of dendrites. Boredom itself is a complex concept, but the significant part of it to understand is that it is based on the perception that one has no control over one’s environment. Children don’t have much control over their classroom environment. They can feel trapped; after all, they can’t leave. That feeling causes stress and anxiety.

We all experience events like that and we can overcome that feeling by changing the way we think about them. For example, if you have a doctor’s appointment and have been waiting over an hour in the office, you can begin to feel stressed and anxious. But if you adjust your thinking to accept the wait as part of seeing a doctor, you can eliminate the stress. That is neuroplasticity in action. Your thinking can change what’s going on physically in your brain. But how does that work for a 7-year-old, who hasn’t yet reached a point where he or she has control over emotions and who may be bored in class for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 8 months? How would you respond to a stressful situation lasting that long?

Learned Helplessness

A small amount of stress is necessary since it keeps the brain alert. That kind of stress is known as “good stress.” It’s the kind of stress we feel when we are engaged in some creative endeavor or we are trying to solve a problem. It is the way we feel when we feel challenged – but not overwhelmed. What happens when we get overwhelmed by stress? When we experience chronic stress that we have no control over? We develop what is called “learned helplessness.” We give up. Studies first done with dogs in 1968 have expanded to include rats and humans, all with the same results. When exposed to chronic stress, those with no control over the environment simply stopped trying to escape the stress. In the first experiment with dogs, the dogs that were shocked and unable to escape the shocks eventually would just lie in the cage and whimper when a shock was applied. They no longer tried to escape. This can explain why after years of being bored in school, some gifted kids just give up.

Expectations and a Growth Mindset

Students deal with expectations from two sources: those others, such as parents, teachers, and friends, have of them and those they have of themselves. We have known for decades about the effect the expectations of teachers have on students. The first study to provide evidence that teacher expectations affected student performance was done in 1968. In that study, teachers were told that some students had high IQs and would be experiencing rapid intellectual growth. Those students ended up performing better than the other students in their classes. But the information the teachers were given was not true. Several studies since then have also found that teacher expectations can affect student performance.

The idea that the expectations students have of themselves can have an effect on them seems to be based on a new idea by Carol Dweck – the growth mindset. Basically, the idea is that one can have a fixed or growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which one believes his abilities are set, unchangeable. That means that if a student has trouble in math, he’ll always have trouble in math. No amount of effort will matter. If a student excels in math, then it’s due to a fixed ability and no effort is required. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which a person believes he can improve with effort.

Believing that we have room for improvement if we are dedicated and put in effort is not new, though. Talk to anyone who went to school in the 1950s, and you’ll hear stories about how they were told that success comes from effort and hard work. They were encouraged to persevere and not give up. If you consider the studies that suggest student performance is influenced by teacher expectations and effort being a focus decades ago, perhaps the idea of the growth mindset is as important – if not more important – for teachers as it is for students.

In any case, the connection between a growth mindset and neuroplasticity is questionable as there is no evidence of physical changes in the brain as a result of a change in attitude.

Metacognition

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. There is considerable evidence to support the idea that being aware of how we think can affect our thinking and our behavior. (We can see this in the idea of the growth mindset.) Of all the strategies supposedly based on new information on nueroplasticity, teaching students about neuroplasticity is probably the most useful and meaningful – for both the students and the teachers. Why? Because it helps students understand that there is a scientific basis for believing that effort can make a difference. We can tell students that if they try hard, they can succeed, but just telling them isn’t always enough. They have to believe it. And teaching them about neuroplasticity gives them a reason to believe.

Another aspect of metacognition is to help students become aware of the way they think about themselves and their world. We know that stress leads to negativity and negative thinking leads to stress. We also know that positive thinking can reverse that negativity. This idea isn’t new either. What is fairly new, though, is that we now have numerous studies supporting the “power of positive thinking.” We even have a new theory based on the concept – the broaden and build theory of positive emotions. In terms of neuroplasticity, though, there is almost no evidence that there are physical changes in the brain as a result of positive thinking. It is really just assumed that because positive thinking does have an effect on behavior, and even on health, it must be reversing the changes in the brain that were created as a result of stress and negativity.

How Does Research on Neuroplasticity Help in the Classroom?

It really doesn’t tell us any more than we already knew. We know that students need “good stress” in order to learn. Too much and they are overwhelmed. Too little and they are bored. Both lead students to give up. They need to be in the “Goldilock’s Zone,” or as Lev Vygotsky calls it, the Zone of Proximal Development. While research on neuroplasticity has helped us understand what’s happening in the brain with too much stress, we’ve known for a long time about the importance of providing challenging material for ALL children. We’ve also known that positive thinking and effort can help children succeed. Teachers need to help students think more positively by encouraging a growth mindset, by providing a scientific basis for believing in it, and by providing the appropriately challenging material to all students, including the gifted ones. This is the real value of brain-based learning.

Readings

If you want to read more about neuroplasticity, stress, metacognition, or any of the other concepts discussed in this article, here is a nice, long list of readings and resources. Those marked with * are written for those familiar with the research and terminology rather than for the general reader. Enjoy!

Readings on Stress

Readings on Boredom and Learned Helplessness

Readings on Expectations, Growth Mindset, Metacognition, and Positive Thinking

Readings on Implications for Education

Carol BainbridgeEducationbrain-based learning,neuroplasticity
Educators are always looking for ways to help students learn. As new ideas crop up, one educational trend follows another. The latest trend is brain-based learning, which is supposedly based on research on neuroplasticity. However, neuroplasticity really isn't what many people seem to think it is. It does provide...