Equity, Neuroscience and Cognitive Capacity

Perspective
By: 
Betsy Hill & Roger Stark

Editor’s Note: This is part four of a five-part series.

 

In the fourth article in our series, we turn to the contribution that neuroscience research can make to address equity in education by solving the problem of students’ cognitive capacity. This is the third of the three steps we identified in the first article:

  1. Understand each student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses
  2. Remediate, build and strengthen both weaker cognitive processes and those that are already strong
  3. Construct learning environments (technology, instruction, curriculum, etc.) incorporating science rather than folklore.

While many educators we speak with are eager to learn about the brain and what that implies for instructional practice, many do not.  One post on our social media pages even triggered this retort from a teacher, “Leave the neuroscience to the neuroscientists.” 

Leaving the neuroscience to the neuroscientists turns out not to be a very good idea.  When we do that, we fall prey to neuromyths and folklore and condemn our students to learning experiences that discourage them, fail them, and even alienate them.  Of course, that is not always the case.  There are great teachers who encourage and inspire students on the way to success.  But we know that only about a third of students are performing at grade level, so there is something missing.  Most educators do not, according to multiple research studies and our own experience, have a solid understanding of the organ that actually learns – the brain. 

In the absence of a solid grounding in how the brain learns, many educators still believe that we use only 10 percent of our brains, that learning styles determine the best way to teach individual students, that some people are right-brain dominant and others are left-brain dominant, that intelligence is fixed, that growth mindset and grit are the same thing, that we remember everything we experience and that remembering it is just a matter of retrieval, that executive functions serve their primary role in self-regulation and only an indirect role in academics and that listening to Mozart enhances learning. 

There is not enough space in this article to debunk even those neuromyths (there are many others that are accepted as truth by most educators as well as most of the general population). What may be more helpful anyway is to discuss three things that teachers are often surprised and/or excited to know about the brain and what they might do differently, as a result. We hope this engenders many more questions than it answers.

1. What is learning?  Education is supposed to be all about learning, but what is it exactly?  Most teachers are puzzled by the question because they take it for granted that everyone understands what learning is supposed to be – the result of all that activity in our classrooms (physical and virtual).  Educators who understand how the brain learns are far more likely to define learning this way: “The making and strengthening of connections among neurons in the brain into neural networks.”

Remembering is not pulling information out of a storage vault in the same form it was experienced.  Remembering involves reactivating the networks that were involved in the learning process (and whatever has been integrated into them since). Why does this matter? One reason is the principle called Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that the brain changes physically with every learning experience. What teachers do physically changes the brains of their students; it’s a pretty awesome responsibility.  Understanding what helps build strong, networked brains that allows memories to be easily retrieved has implications for instructional strategies, for engagement, for building connections across the curriculum, for trauma-informed care, for the use of technology, for assessment, for professional development (teachers’ brains learn too, of course), and pretty much everything that happens in education.

2. Another way neuroscience has contributed to our understanding of learning and is not intuitive or understood by most teachers is that memory is processed in different ways.  Having a memory, that is, being able to remember something, is a necessary part of learning.  If we can’t remember something, we can’t really be said to have learned it.  We might have known a piece of information at one point, but if we can’t recall it, it wasn’t really learned.  If we can’t use it, apply it or combine it with new learning, it really doesn’t exist.  The connections among neurons in the brain are called synapses.  It is the synapses that are destroyed in diseases like Alzheimer’s.  Once a synapse is destroyed, that memory is lost, even if it was once important.  Healthy brains prune unused synapses too, even if they might have been important at some earlier point in time.  Something unlearned is almost like something that was once learned but has been deleted by the degenerative processes of Alzheimer’s – it’s just no longer there to be retrieved (although, unlike in Alzheimer’s, relearning may be possible).

Information and skills become built into neural networks in different ways depending on the nature of the information or skills.  Neuroscience research has revealed a difference between two types of long-term memory called “declarative” and “procedural.”  Declarative memory is memory for information that can be stated and would include things like historical events, the names of the presidents, what happened in class yesterday and when your mother’s birthday is.  Procedural memory is memory for doing something, usually a skill like riding a bike, playing an instrument, decoding words and adding or subtracting.  While these skills may require significant conscious effort at the beginning, they become automatic with practice.  These two types of memory imply different processes for learning them – with rote practice needed for encoding procedural memory and elaborative practice required for declarative memory.

Once again, understanding what is needed to encode different types of information has implications for instructional strategies, for study routines, for building connections across the curriculum, for the use of technology, for assessment, for professional development (teachers’ brains learn too, of course), and pretty much everything that happens in education. 

3. The first two points are broadly applicable to all students’ brains and all learning.  However, while every brain is plastic, each brain constructs its own unique understanding of the world in its own way.  And while every brain can learn both declarative and procedural memory, each unique brain must still change itself, physically, in response to the learning experiences it undergoes, using a variety of cognitive processes or skills.

 

The second and third articles in this series discussed those cognitive skills – how individual students’ cognitive strengths and weaknesses define their ability to learn – how understanding an individual student’s cognitive profile (not learning style) is vital to helping them learn -- and how cognitive skills can be strengthened to build learning capacity.

Most educators know little about cognitive skills, the very processes that enable our brains to take in, organize, understand, store, retrieve and apply what we are supposed to be learning.In other words, they really know very little about how learning happens. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t good teachers.There are many great teachers.But even great teachers can’t get learning to happen efficiently and accurately if cognitive processes aren’t working well, any more than they can pour 10 ounces of water into a 4-ounce glass.

Most teachers know who the more capable learners are in their classes and which students struggle.But most can’t explain what cognitive processes are standing in the way of their struggling students.Neither do they know what to do other than to help them work around the areas that seem to be problems or, unfortunately, simply lower their expectations.

The result is that students with weaker attention have gaps in their knowledge, students with weaker working memory are unable to demonstrate their understanding and reasoning skills, and students with less well-developed cognitive flexibility get stuck in rote application of procedures and can’t adapt their knowledge to new situations and problems.In other words, they don’t have access to the same educational experiences as their classmates with stronger skills, not because they don’t have the ability to develop those skills, but because they haven’t been given the opportunity.

The reason that educators need to understand the science of learning, particularly the neuroscience of learning, is so that they can construct learning environments and experiences that give the brains of all their students an equitable opportunity to learn and to demonstrate what they can do with that learning.

In the fifth and final article in our series, we will set forth the rationale for urgent action to address cognitive capacity as a matter of educational equity.

 

About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world.

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