Memory and the Brain
Prior to addressing a conference for educators and administrators in sub-Saharan Africa a year ago, the absolutely profound beauty of non-Western thinking had never been quite so obvious to me. In several regions of Southern Africa, a single word exists for both "teaching" and "learning." In the Western mindset, we have separated the two, as if they were distinct functions unto themselves. We often hear educators lament, "I taught it; they just didn't learn it!" However, within the insightful African context, when learning does not take place, then the instructor has not yet completed the important "teaching component," rendering the learning equation fragmented and unfinished.
From tribal elders to master tradesmen to university professors to kindergarten teachers, all "teachers" have noticed that learning often depends as much on certain attributes of the learner, as it does on the nature of the knowledge at stake. It is also clear that some teachers are very good at tapping into these learner attributes to assure effective understanding, while others struggle despite their own knowledge of a given subject.
The primary function of the human brain is to encode, process, dissect, distribute, store, retrieve, and use information for survival or emotional fulfillment. For most of the mid-20th Century, under the influence of psychologist B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists dominating the field of psychology at the time, we oversimplified these complex brain functions. Whether the spotlight was on pigeons depressing a lever to receive food pellets or on multifaceted issues, such as the elaborate process of language acquisition, the deliberations were commonly forced to fit into Skinner's Stimulus -› Response model. Conversations about teaching were also frequently reduced to this same model. Such oversimplification became almost unavoidable, considering that behaviorists influenced most views on thinking and learning during those decades. However, we now recognize a host of additional factors that undeniably influence the outcome of human learning and/or behavior.
Student history has consistently recorded evidence that learners don't obediently "respond" to new information simply because they have been exposed to it. Formal education, to say nothing about parenting, has never been characterized as such an effortless venture met with instantaneous success implied by the Stimulus -› Response model. According to distinguished educator Art Costa, teaching is considered to be among the most demanding professions in the world because of the innumerable variables that are not captured in a simplistic Stimulus -› Response framework (see "Factors Governing Learning and Behavior" above). Instead, the challenges facing educators are found in the intermittent and sometimes permanent brain-based obstacles that stand firmly between one's dedicated teaching efforts and the sometimes unpredictable student outcomes.
Prior to entering kindergarten, a child's personality and temperament are well established. That child's ability to learn will be a function of the following factors:
- Whether the child is a male or female;
- His/her access to proper nutrition during prenatal development;
- Genetic deficiencies and assets;
- The amount of postnatal care given to the child's health concerns. (This would include, among other things, simple hearing tests to detect early central auditory processing disorders, which can lead to early language problems.); and
- His/her emotional development and current emotional state. Emotions, in many ways, dictate whether the child has any interest in the subject at hand, and is even willing to pay attention. They also determine whether or not a child can remain focused on the subject and not be easily distracted by other personal and emotional intrusions. With the more extreme emotional states, such as living in a highly stressful environment, children are frequently more prone to focus on any perceived threat -- be they physical, emotional, psychological, or intellectual -- rather than on the less significant academic focus of the day. (For a more detailed discussion of emotions and learning, see "Where Is God in the Brain?" Independent School, Winter 2002.)
These considerations extend our understanding (beyond the artificial parameters presented by the simple Stimulus -› Response equation) of the relationship between learning and the myriad factors that affect it -- whether in the classroom, the home, or the workplace.
Biology figures prominently in the final outcome of the human brain and how it processes information. In the gender factor alone, we find numerous gender-specific patterns in learning styles, behavior, information processing, and even in problem solving. When learning-style preferences exist, we often find some of them to be strategies preferred by young girls than by comparably aged boys, and vice versa.
All brains start out as female brains in utero. However, once the TDF (the testosterone determining factor) kicks in, boy brains become distinctly male. We often regard the result as the creation of a "doer" brain because it gets wired for higher levels of activity. The "gray matter" inside the cerebral cortex refers to the densely packed neurons, which are largely responsible for processing thoughts and incoming information. By contrast, the "white matter" refers to the axons, which are the signal-sending portion of brain cells that transmit command signals from the brain to the body. Boys and men have considerably more white matter and typically less gray matter than girls and women.
Normal human brains are lopsided. The left hemisphere is generally larger and more active than its right counterpart. Paula Tallal, of Rutgers University, and others have noted that whenever the two sides more closely approximate symmetry, the left hemisphere is usually somewhat underpowered. This neurophysiological downside is suspected as a leading cause in incidences of language disorders. In females, the left hemisphere is noticeably larger than the right. However, the male brain appears slightly more symmetrical because the average male brain comes equipped with a larger right hemisphere than would be typically found in females. In addition, females average approximately 11 percent more brain cells than males, giving them a distinct neurological advantage in language-related abilities.
It is no coincidence that more than 80 percent of the cases of developmental language delays -- dyslexia, stuttering, and other language-related problems -- afflict boys. Travel anywhere in the United States and one finds that nearly 80 percent or more of the children enrolled in remedial reading classes in the elementary grades are boys. In middle and high schools, the figure climbs to slightly above 90 percent. More than three-quarters of the men in America's prisons have a severe language, reading, learning, or hearing problem, or some combination thereof. Over the course of 12 years of formal education, a 1.7-year gap in language fluency typically separates boys from girls, along with a three-year performance gap in written language.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association of Independent Schools. © 1997-2008. All rights reserved.
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