The celebration of Teachers’ Day in Taiwan on Wednesday, the assumed birthday of Confucius (孔子), indicates the important role teachers have for asserting a positive influence on the minds and hearts of people, especially the young. Teachers are expected to know what is good for young learners, but do they? What and how can we learn best from teachers? What is learning?
These are questions we have struggled to answer for millennia. One important answer to what learning means comes from brain research in past decades. Brains are people’s thinking hardware: Learning only happens according to their biological potential. Therefore, teachers need to better understand the “learning brain,” and governments should ensure that this happens, but is this the case in Taiwan? I wonder.
It is not that there could not be good teachers without knowledge of the brain — we have had those for millennia, but an important function of neuroscience today is to provide evidence of what does not work in classrooms. A look at common teaching and learning practices in Taiwan confirms this importance. What do we so far know about learning brains?
Brains store knowledge as circuits, that is as neural networks connecting brain cells via synapses in certain ways. They are like footprints in snow, capable of being modified, deepened and expanded, depending on both frequency of usage and personal attitude. Learning, from a brain’s point of view, is a modification of the circuits.
The brain can only absorb incoming data if it is somehow relevant to it. It must “recognize” what it is to absorb in order to expand or rearrange its circuits. The more the brain “knows” the better it processes increasingly complex information.
Therefore learning is an accumulative process, gradually changing not only the structure of neural connections, but also the person who learns.
These parallel processes are significantly enhanced if indexed with positive emotions. At the brain’s level, this means that cells in charge of emotions discharge transmitters, thereby inducing, like fertilizer, the production of proteins needed to expand and deepen neural connections.
From the learner’s perspective this means that incoming new information associated with positive feelings motivates the learner: the learner likes to learn, thereby enhancing the production of new circuits, and so on. Only in this circular way can the learner learn sustainably.
Learning never begins from ground zero.
Neurologically, learning is of course more complex and only brain specialists can follow the details. However, the consequences recent neuroscientific insights could have on teaching professions are obvious.
Pedagogues should be more aware that certain methods and styles of teaching work, others do not. Image-producing scanners visualizing relevant neural activities under certain learning conditions can provide such information. When only few electrochemical processes are detected in designated areas of the brain, learning just does not really happen — despite the efforts of the person being tested.
This is the case for instance when students learn under stress or fear; passively follow teachers reading from PowerPoint slides; memorize without understanding; or are unable to relate what they learn to their lives and so on.
Unfortunately, these are typical situations in Taiwan’s classrooms, the main culprit being the prevailing culture of permanent exams and tests. Thousands of them pave a student’s educational trail, seeking to extract information which often remains alien to the examinees once the test is over. It is so because students are not given enough time to mentally digest what they have learned. Instead, they need to hastily forget memorized materials, because the next exam is already around the corner. Too often for Taiwanese students it is all about passing exams, not about understanding.
Learning in Taiwan has therefore become a copy-paste-delete exercise. Apparently, most high-school students have virtuously used the delete-button on their mental keyboards. They enter universities literally as a blank slate, endowed with a modestly trained cerebral fundament that has difficulties meeting academic challenges.
This is because no sustainable traces in the form of strengthened circuits have been created in the brains as young learners; they have been cheated by their educators. That so many students nevertheless successfully pass exams leading to graduation from universities should not be a reason for contentment, but rather a reason for politicians to worry.
The only new circuits, researchers found, which have recently evolved at a significant rate in young people are those related to thumb dexterity.
Young people are not trained in skills needed for jobs. In the future we are likely to be less concerned with remembering facts acquired in useless exams, but more with so-called meta-competences or intellectual and social abilities such as anticipating consequences, target-focusing, perspective-taking, self-motivation, self-confidence, perseverance and teamwork. Data and facts only make sense for learners when embedded in a mental environment.
Memorizing facts becomes less important — a mouse click gets us there in no time. Entrance exams, therefore, should be designed to test general intellectual abilities — meta-competences — instead of focusing on the mindless reproduction of sometimes dubious facts.
Meta-competences are coordinated in the prefrontal cortex, evolutionarily the youngest part of the brain which is best developed in humans. There, the creation of new circuits during childhood is particularly vital. How do we stimulate such processes? Not through direct teaching, but rather through good practices which optimize self-stimulation. This, by the way, often happens when children are left alone with tasks. Too much teaching kills the mind.
To optimize the development of such competencies, schools and parents must increase opportunities for children to have new experiences; provide space and time for trial and error; offer encouragement; consider new, unusual solutions; use dialogue and encourage discussion; and cultivate analytical and self-critical thinking. Fascinating students while teaching a subject is the over all magic formula for effective teaching and learning.
The more younger learners are exposed to such an education, the better it is. The more circuits are created and used at a young age, the more the world becomes relevant and interesting. What the world ‘“is” lies in the eye of the beholder: A curious mind wishes to intellectually conquer the world; a trained mind can only regurgitate.
Herbert Hanreich is assistant professor at I-Shou University in Kaohsiung.>
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