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Key Insights From Neuroscientists About the Learning Brain

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“What We Know (and Think We Know) About the Learning Brain: An Interview with Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa” by Rafael Heller in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2018/January 2019 (Vol. 100, #4, p. 24–30),; the author’s book is Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain (Norton 2018).
In this interview with Rafael Heller in Kappan, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (Latin American Social Science Research Faculty, Ecuador) shares recent findings of the Delphi panel—a group of experts in neuroscience, psychology, and education that was formed more than a decade ago to build and support teachers’ pedagogical knowledge.
Tokuhama-Espinosa begins by debunking some “mistaken beliefs” harbored by many educators and parents:
• That students have differing learning styles;
• That it’s possible to do more than one cognitively demanding task at the same time;
• That specific abilities (for example, math, reading, etc.) are localized in specific parts of the brain;
• That there are significant differences between male and female brains (there are small differences, but there’s far more brain variation among men and among women).
Getting adults to let go of these and other misconceptions is hard—we cling to our erroneous beliefs—but it’s an important professional development mission, especially with novice teachers.
Many commercial programs are selling products to schools based on bogus claims, says Tokuhama-Espinosa.
“It’s always good to be skeptical about commercial products based on brain research,” she says. “Don’t be fooled by how many scientists a company has on its advisory board, or what they’ve been able to teach rats in the lab, or even what they’ve been able to teach some kids under controlled conditions. It’s just not that straightforward to turn research findings into effective programs and apps. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
The Delphi panel has reached agreement on six core principles about how all brains work, across contexts or cultures:
• Human brains are as unique as human faces; the basic structure is similar, but each person’s unique genetic makeup combines with life experiences (and free will) to shape neural pathways.
• Each individual’s brain is differently prepared to learn different tasks; the variables are the person’s biology and genetic makeup, prenatal and perinatal events, environmental exposures, the learning context, prior learning experiences, and personal choices.
• New learning is influenced by prior experiences; the brain is highly efficient in decoding external experiences and comparing them with existing memories.
• The brain is constantly changing based on individual experiences; these changes, part of a complex, dynamic, integrated system, occur at the molecular level, even before they are visible in behavior.
• The brain is plastic; that’s true throughout the lifespan, though there are important developmental differences by age.
• No new learning takes place without some form of memory and some form of attention; most school learning requires that working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory are functioning, as well as conscious attention.
“Free will has its limits,” says Tokuhama-Espinosa. “It’s just not true that we can rewire our brains to become whoever we want. The My Fair Lady story has to go out the window.”
What are the implications of all this for schools?
Tokuhama-Espinosa says many teachers are already acting on the findings, but good PD helps them understand why the practices they’re using are important.
For example, teachers may be making connections with students’ background knowledge when introducing a new topic, or getting students to think metacognitively about how they go about solving math problems, but cognitive research can help them understand how and why these and other practices are so important.
“I think this is the best way to empower teachers,” she says. “If they know the science, then that allows them to be better researchers in the classroom. And, you know, teachers do more experiments in a day than a neuroscientist does in a lifetime. They may not document it or present it at conferences, but they are always experimenting, constantly asking themselves, What do I plan to do? What did I actually do? Did it work? Why or why not? And the science gives them the background knowledge they need to make those judgments.”

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03/30/2019 - Michael D Griffin
“It’s just not true that we can rewire our brains"

I'd like to know more about why Marshall says this. It seems to be inconsistent with brain plasticity based on experience.

I'd also like the evidence to be presented for the genetic component of intelligence.