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  • This blog is written by specialists from the Education Division of the Inter-American Development Bank. Its objective is to provide arguments and ideas that will spark debate about how to transform education in Latin America and the Caribbean. This blog is a call to action for the reader. An idea, a project, or a question can make a difference.

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    Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son las del autor y no necesariamente reflejan las opiniones del Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, sus directivas, la Asamblea de Gobernadores o sus países miembros.

    The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inter-American Development Bank, its Management, its Board of Executive Directors or its member Governments.

    Unlocking the mystery of the brain and how we learn

    By - 1 Jun 2011

    Over the past 10 years, neuroscientists have been able to unlock some of the mysteries of the brain and learn a tremendous amount about brain development, mainly due to brain imaging abilities, which allow neuroscientists to see the brain in action (literally). These advances may offer insights for strengthening positive child/youth development, especially for vulnerable youth.

    Insights that I find quite fascinating and relevant are:

    • The brain takes about 25 years to fully develop and continues to change and adjust (or rewire itselt) during our lifetime based on our environment and behavior, which is then influenced by our brain. It is an interactive process.
    • The last part of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex (just behind our forehead) and is the area that allows us to plan ahead, regulate emotions, problem-solve and understand the long-term consequences of our actions. Until the pre-frontal cortex is developed, youth tend to tap into the emotional part of the brain, which could explain higher risk taking or impulsive behavior.
    • Negative experiences before the age of 3 can have long-term negative impacts in our behavior, ability to learn, and interactions with others, stressing the need for positive parental nurturing and early childhood education.
    • We learn best (long-term memory) when we are motivated and emotionally involved, which increases the importance of ensuring that what is taught in school is relevant for students, and that students be motivated and engaged in the learning process.
    • Chronic or traumatic stress can shut down the part of the brain related to language and learning. The more stress we experience, the more likely it is that we will perform poorly in school. Creating a safe space and strengthening teacher-student relationships can reduce stress and lead to a positive learning experience. For those living in high crime areas or in chronic stress, this becomes more important. Some have turned to meditation to help students reduce stress, which is seeing some positive results:

    • Maintaining a healthy level of stress can increase learning. Challenging students, encouraging them to take risks and engaging them in the learning process (all within a safe and supportive space) are examples of ways to use moderate stress to improve learning.

    For a good overview of brain development and practical examples for the classroom check out Dr. David Sousa’s book on How the Brain Learns.

    This blog is primarily informed by Dr. Louis Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain, which offers a more technical understanding of brain development and how to work with those experiencing greater stress and trauma.

    One Response to “Unlocking the mystery of the brain and how we learn”

    • Helen Abadzi :

      Hello, this blog came to my attention somewhat belatedly.

      Neuroscience is fashionable, and everyone is interested. But as the blog shows, brain research is not very specific and has limited use for improving the quaity or delivery of instruction. (One exception is the visual word form activation for reading.)

      The domain of knowledge that does have instructional relevance, particularly for low-income countries is the cognitive psychology research of the 1950s-90s. Topics that help donors and governments on making education more efficient are the structure of memory (working memory in particular), the classification and network features of long-term memory, and the “rules” that facilitate encoding, consolidation, retrieval, forgetting, encoding specificity. In particular chunking and automaticity which result from the nature of working memory imply that we all operate within very narrow timeframes and need therefore to acquire fluency in basic skills. This needs to take place in the early grades. Related topics are the need for remediation for those falling behind, classroom time use for instruction and practice, textbooks to enable practice and automaticity acquisition, teacher training partly through observational learning research. This topics must turn into development priorities and objectives of lending for multilateral institutions. They apply to all levels of education.

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