Learning

Hi everyone. We’ve recently decided to translate from time to time some of our articles in order to open ourselves to a wider audience, and bring the attention of those who don’t speak French.  English appears to be the best choice. I hope you’ll enjoy it and forgive us for our (broken) English.

(Vous trouverez ici la version française de cet article de Jean-Paul Jacquel).

(French version here)

Learning, in the debate that concerns us, is a central and complex concept. This cornerstone of the educational building is not permanently fixed, however, in terms of its procedures and techniques. What is learning today? What should we learn? Should we make a distinction between assimilating, learning and remembering? Does the state of science allow us to consider other learning methods? What facilitates learning and what harms it?

Three relatively recent articles invite us to reconsider some issues that are not always essential but which remind us that learning is diverse and complex.

Stress is a metabolic phenomenon whose effects are becoming better known. What is commonly called a stressful situation covers different realities of which two at least may interest teachers in the exercise of their profession. Faced with an examination paper, the student is under a “mobilizing stress”. The acceleration of certain metabolic functions will allow him, through a flow of oxygen to the brain, to give the best of himself in tackling the question.
But the same stress can be destructive; it can paralyze the candidate during the examination, denying him access to his memory, blocking his faculties of expression, making him totally lose his understanding of what is asked. If this situation does not last, the victim quickly regains full and complete use of his brain and curses himself for his attack of stage fright. A past article in the magazine Mind (vol 14, No. 5, 2004) focuses on the effects of prolonged stress and notes that due to a substitution of neurotransmitters, memory becomes increasingly difficult.

It is dangerous to apply the findings of neuroscience to education, especially if done in a simplistic way. However, it is clear that prolonged stress damages the memory more than it helps. Some students are subjected to long-term high stress situations: harassment, bullying, common sadism are their daily lot. They are the pet hates or scapegoats of other students but also, sometimes, of teachers who are not necessarily aware of their own attitude. For these pupils learning is definitely more difficult. Can the teacher simply say that it is not within his or her competence to solve that problem and leave it at that?

On the other hand, the work of Barbara Fredrickson promotes the idea that making students happier at school helps them to think. Half of a group of volunteers watched a film comedy while the other half viewed a neutral scientific documentary. Everyone was then asked to individually perform a task requiring a limited but real dose of inventiveness. Those who had seen the comic movie were far more likely to find a solution. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52, P.1122). Other experiments along similar lines showed that feeling happy helps the brain to work better and stimulates creativity and learning.

Should we begin each school day with a funny movie for everyone? Maybe not … However, these studies confirm what we have known since our own school days: that we learn and we understand better when the teacher is pleasant, attentive and caring, and worse when he/she is aggressive, strict and scornful.

The second article was published recently in The New York Times and was called « Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. » For two weeks, it remained among the articles most widely read daily despite its apparently prickly subject: how to improve our teaching methods and those of our children.

Quote: « In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying. »

What we learn in this article is that we need to change place from time to time when working on a topic or jump from one topic to another if we can not move. This is the opposite of what underlay the traditional approach. Along the same lines, we are told that the concept of learning style is unfounded (see also here).

You should also give up studying in a quiet, solitary place with your face to a wall. Go for a clear view instead. This way, your brain will associate the landscape and what you learn and make the transmission easier.

Another good way to remember a lesson is to practise memory retrieval.

The work that the brain invests to regain knowledge leads to a further  memorization that reinforces the information storage and increases the effectiveness of the updating. The text of the New York Times is full of useful advice and assessments that challenge a number of propositions. We see confirmed things that we have known for a long time:

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.”
The issue, as often, is what to do with such knowledge and how to overcome our convictions:

« We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error. Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken. »

Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles

Both anecdotal and at the same time characteristic of how neuroscience is increasingly interested in education, is this other research led by Richard Chi (Harvard Medical School – Boston).

He subjected a group of 36 volunteers to a visual memory task.
The group was divided into three sub-units of whom two received a direct transcranial electrical stimulation (tDCS). For one group the right temporal lobe was stimulated and the left inhibited. The opposite was done for the other group. The third group, the control group, was not subject to any stimulus.

Only the first group saw their storage capacity increased significantly (+ 110%), approaching the performance of some autistics with an exceptional memory. This experiment shows for the first time that it is possible to stimulate the memory by using  simple and non-invasive electro-magnetic equipment.
The research team believes that the mass production of « memory caps” is possible. As a matter of fact, the tDCS is a field of research in full development, as shown in this other article in the Guardian.

Should we expect, given the evolution of knowledge in neuroscience, a growing presence of such equipment in the daily lives of our students?
A key task for the student is learning, and educational research is trying to put us on track towards better ways of helping him/her. The evolution of scientific knowledge enables us to realize the limitations of the traditional perception of the issue. It is not that the achievements of research in educational psychology should be denied: but it is possible to find in recent discoveries an opportunity to enrich our reflection and to reconsider some certainties. There is plenty of room for a meaningful dialogue.

What do you think about it?

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