We educate our children in order to equip them for a career in their chosen field. But the workplace is changing at an ever-faster rate, as the pace of technological advancement increases. Many teaching professionals have thus argued that education should place greater emphasis on developing skills (creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking) which are at least as important as learning content. After all, it is said that the majority of primary age school children will work in jobs that don’t yet exist.
It is now Education’s turn for a revolution. Banking has moved from the processing of actual money by rows of cashiers, to an app that allows us to pay our friends with the touch of a thumbprint at the restaurant table. Hospital wards have been transformed by advances in laparoscopic technology that were the stuff of science fiction only a few decades ago, and horse and steam power has been replaced by maglev trains and jets.
Traditionally, education was a spoon-feeding process, where children arrived as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. On leaving school, their brains needed to contain enough information to equip them for a career. In the last twenty years there has been an significant shift to making education more learner-centric (the schools I taught in were astonishingly different – better - in many ways to the schools I attended), but there is still more we can do to help education, to prepare the next generation for life beyond school. Indeed, in a 2018 National Education Union survey, 98% of teachers said that for Year 6 pupils non-SATs subjects were squeezed out of the curriculum; others argue that there is no space left to teach critical thinking or creativity .
And then came lockdown. And with it, the huge challenge of transforming education, almost overnight. Lockdown has shone a very strong spotlight on educational technology, yes with teething flaws, but also its far-reaching, transformative prospects. The debates in education are now more likely to be tech-related (whether lessons should be pre-recorded or live - research shows it depends on age - or whether it is right to move education online when many students still do not have access to laptops). The opportunities, such allowing learning to become entirely pupil-led and providing feedback via new ‘learning analytics’ have also been championed for.
But there is also another, albeit quieter, movement that has been gathering evidence-based momentum for the last decade or so. One that has the power to boost the education evolution forward: Educational Neuroscience (or Mind and Brain Education or Cognitive Psychology - as with all things evolutionary young, the differences disperse as the field finds common ground).
In a post-Covid-19 world, the traditional boundaries between school and home, between teacher-led and child-led learning, are more fluid. Isn’t it more important than ever for the three agents (students, parents, teachers) to understand how brains actually learn, and to apply this to teaching and learning? Partnering educational technology with educational neuroscience, weaving the science of learning into the very fabric of the tech, is going to be transformative.
It seems obvious that children should be taught how to learn. As one Head of School said, “it’s bonkers” that it isn’t standard practice. It’s even more important when learning is mediated via a computer-screen. Knowing how their brain learns gives a child agency and autonomy – and with it the skills of how to learn, fostering the pleasures and satisfaction of learning. Children become independent learners (surely a desirable outcome of education?) equipped with a lifelong competence that sees them beyond school into a career that will undoubtedly require a mind that can continuously adapt and learn.
I know it works, because over the past five years I have been in schools doing just this, writing up findings for journals in the process. The student ‘Learning Champions’ spread the message about neuroplasticity, the effects of stress and the importance of movement and self-regulation to their learning. Some of it even makes it home to the dinner table.
Recently heads of their own home-schools and gatekeepers to the flow of digital information, parents can only benefit from understanding how their children’s brains learn. Not least because their last direct experience of school was likely long ago, sitting in rows when asking questions just wasn’t the done thing. For instance, when a parent knows why being calm and curious is the best scenario for building reliable long-term memory, they make it a priority to find a way to reduce stress and worry. Setting the emotional climate is one of the most important jobs for an educator - teacher or parent.
If a parent can encourage metacognition (learning about learning) they are developing a proficiency that will benefit their child for life. They can ask, “have you done this before? Was the approach successful? Where do you start? Is it working? Could you try something else? What would you do next time?”. Challenge is like fertiliser for learning. Better still, if a child seeks challenge by themselves, they drive their own learning journey.
It remains vital that a teacher understands how the brains they are teaching, learn. Over Zoom or in a classroom. Familiarity with how the eight (possibly more) different neural systems interact to create the phenomenon of ‘learning’ shapes lesson delivery, producing the most effective content and activities. Knowing how to interleave learning, and space it out, helps secure memories (we know that being rusty before revisiting a topic helps to reinforce the learning).
Teaching children how to meditate can extend their working memory, help them to focus and resist distractions. Dedicating a few minutes of teaching time to this will reap hours of learning over an academic year. Raising dopamine levels through ‘uncertain rewarding’ (participating in games of chance to score points) enhances learning. Good teachers use these techniques anyway, but why not make the science behind it overt, and thus make what was once belonged purely ‘inspiring teachers’, the norm?
Born to learn
If the new ‘Education’ is a more fluid one that flows between the boundaries of home and school, with more child agency, shouldn’t we all understand how to learn?
We have less DNA than an onion. Amoebas, blobbing around in a murky pond, have a genome about 200 times greater than Hawking or Einstein. Yet humans are capable of expressing extraordinary variation in life. We can become a violin virtuoso, juggle, speak four languages, run marathons, do a degree in neuroscience or catch a mustang on the plains with a lasso. Onions and amoebas are not culturally diverse.
The socio-emotional world we grow up in has an epigenetic effect on how our brains develop – it affects the physical expression of our genes. We are thus biologically cultural. Education is a significant acculturing force. (In fact, the differences in DNA are more about the rate of loss of junk DNA than an intelligence indicator, but the onion helped make a nice point).
Why wouldn’t we provide our teachers with knowledge about how brains learn? Why not tell children how to recognise when their brains need a break, and what it means for each experience to change how their brain is wired? Why shouldn’t parents be aware of the powerful impact of showing an interest in their child’s world? Or why quality sleep, exercise and lots of affection benefit their child’s brain?
Here’s to the learning revolution.
Dr Rebecca Torrence- Jenkins, in addition to several years’ experience as a school science teacher, has a Masters of Research and a PhD in the practical application of educational neuroscience to learning. She regularly reviews and writes for education journals, produces short videos about neuroscience and daily life, and is the co-founder of the NeuroFiles education project, which brings findings from psychology and neuroscience into classrooms and homes to enhance learning. She recently won a SheInspires award for Women in Education in recognition of the project’s success. She is a school governor and parent of three.