For the past decade or so, educators and neuroscientists have been working together to examine the implications of recent findings about the brain. In fact, a sub-specialty called ‘educational neuroscience’ has emerged in universities. However, many so-called commercially available ‘brain based methods’ make claims that are not grounded in evidence. So we need to be very cautious. Neuroscience is really in its infancy – given that 90% of what we know about the brain was discovered post 1990. And, educational neuroscience is even younger. Nevertheless, their discoveries, I believe, have enormous implications for psychology, education, and social science itself (including aid and development).
In Nepal, we have a chance to leapfrog from an 18th century model of education into the modern age of educational neuroscience. My article is based on the writings of neuroscientists and educators in this field. In this essay, I’ll highlight a few important implications for education in Nepal.
THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN
Emotions and thinking are deeply connected and occur in the same brain, unlike the old thinking which kept them separate. So, for example, perception of threat, punishment, embarrassment, anxiety, etc reduces brain’s capacity for higher level cognitive functions such as attention, focus, reasoning, emotional self-regulation, analysis, planning and decision making. This means that a school/college’s culture of creating a safer environment from these negative perceptions can help increase the brain’s capacity to become more curious, try out new things, seek out novelty, and focus its attention.
Positive emotions increase production of certain neurochemicals such as dopamine which help to increase focus, memory, motivation and warmth toward other students. So, for students, humor, play, structured positive peer group interactions, frequent feedback and corrective assessments, reflection of both academic content and one’s emotional states, and physical movement in/outside the classroom – all increase positive emotions and thus help in keeping students engaged, curious, thinking and learning.
The recent scientific theory is that cognition is embodied and thus involves physical movement, emotions and reflection of one’s experiences. Memorization of information and passing tests involve very limited cognitive skills. In this new thinking, ‘embodied cognition’ is a biological phenomenon, not just mental or intellectual. It requires application, testing it out in real world situations, constant feedback and practice.
Another implication is ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) where you differentiate learning challenges and hence instructions to suit different potential of students. In popular computer games, each player can start at their own level of skill, and with practice and persistence, the player moves on to the next level of challenge. S/he’s not under any threat of punishment, or embarrassment for learning at a certain pace. Each level of challenge is designed to engage the player, without boring or frustrating or overwhelming them – while moving them toward a long-term achievable goal.
THE BRAIN CHANGES OR NEUROPLASTICITY
Contrary to the scientific belief that brain cells didn’t regenerate and that the brain couldn’t change, more recent findings of ‘neurogenesis’ show that neuron cells do regenerate and thus form new connections. In addition, the emerging specialty called ‘Neuroplasticity’ tells us that the brain can and will grow, adapt and change through new experiences and learning. Neuroplasticity continues throughout our lifetime. Thus, even old people can learn, adapt and change their habits of mind, emotions and behavior.
Another finding is that short-term memory has two aspects, one of which is called ‘working memory’. Working memory lasts for several weeks and is the more critical one – because it’s most useful for tests. To encode working memory, however, requires the student makes sense and understand the underlying meaning and relevance of the topic.
The latest research is showing that the brain develops from the lower to higher parts till the age of 24 or so. In other words, the limbic brain, which regulates reward seeking behavior, peer influence, new experiences and pleasure and is dominated by emotions, grows faster than the cortex, particularly the pre-frontal cortex or ‘executive brain’ that regulates rational thinking, judging of consequences, decision making and control of emotions. The cortex continues to grow and develop in later years till about age of 24. So, this explains how young adolescents engage in more risky behavior, seek out new experiences, and are driven by their emotions which they find hard to control. On the positive side, they’re more open and willing to explore; they’re passionate and have a lot of energy; they’re willing to learn and experiment; they question the status quo and established ideas and traditions.
One innovation that can be adopted by Nepali schools is the teaching of what is called ‘social and emotional learning’ or SEL. Research of its effectiveness among nearly 300,000 students in the US, across race, income and academic levels has shown that SEL improves student behavior and relationships, reduces disciplinary problems, strengthens their capacity to regulate their emotions, and enhances self-image and confidence while also improving their academic performance.
The writer is the founder of Karuna Management and has over two decades of experience as an international consultant and trainer in management and organizational effectiveness. His current focus is on bringing a set of soft skills, including emotional intelligence and mindfulness to Nepali college students and youth.