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Brain Based Learning

There is a quiet transformation taking place in many schools in Maharashtra. The most visible signs of the changes are that the children are enjoying school and learning better. In addition, there teachers also appear more relaxed and are not distracted by such issues as absenteeism, indiscipline and dropouts. The reason: a large number of schools have adopted the ‘constructivist’ approach to education. Many more are in various stages of implementation.

This is an important development in the field of pre-school and elementary education, particularly because of its potential to improve the quality of education nation-wide. But we must understand why these developments are significant.

Constructivist teaching practices are based on brain-based learning and reflect a paradigm shift in approach – from teaching to learning. Adoption They reflect a belated recognition of the need to promote brain-based learning. To appreciate what brain-based learning is and its importance in classroom practices, we need to go back a few decades to understand the evolution of the concept and its implications for classroom practices

Our understanding of the biological processes that take place in the human brain improved with the application of various techniques to its study – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Functional MRI (FMRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) greatly aided the study of the human brain and neural processes. Studies showed that the brain is much more than an organ – it is constantly ‘learning’ and seeking experiences that help it to learn.

Here, at last, was the physical evidence that educators, sociologists and psychologists were seeking to support their reservations over the quality of education in schools as reflected in the poor learning levels of the students. In increasingly louder voices, they questioned the traditional wisdom of categorizing students as bright or poor based on their grades.

In 1969, Leslie Hart published ‘The classroom Disaster’, a criticism of the classroom system and the unhealthy emphasis on exam-based assessment of student learning. Students are being forced to fit into the system, Heart said, or suffer failure, a stigma that would remain with them all their lives. He called for a system that allowed children to learn at their pace without the fear of failure hanging like a Damocles’ Sword.

Hart followed up with another book, ‘How the Brain Works’, in 1975 in which he surveyed the evolution and development of the human brain and its central importance to human emotion, thought and activity. More importantly, Hart explained how the brain learns and makes meaning through diverse experiences. He observed that our education system does not take cognizance of how the brain works.

In 1983, Hart published yet another book on the subject, ‘Human Brain and Human Learning’ in which he proposed a learning method that is both body and brain-compatible, which must be the foundation for what goes on in the classroom. Hart brilliantly explains the biology of learning related to classroom practice and allows the reader to "see" what is necessary for real reform efforts to succeed. The reader comes to appreciate how the brain makes meaning through pattern recognition, prepares to act through mental programs, and responds to emotion.

Geoffrey and Renate Nummela Caine joined the debate in 1991 with the publication of their book, ‘Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain’. The husband-wife duo discussed how the human brain functions in favourable and stressful conditions and how the environment, health and teaching approaches affect learning. They used evidence from contemporary studies in neuroscience and cognitive development to suggest changes in classroom practices to “teach the human brain based on a real understanding of how the human brain works”. In effect, they had laid the foundations for brain-based learning systems.

Brain-based learning may be broadly defined as the teaching methods, lesson designs, and classroom practices that are based on the latest scientific research about how the brain learns, including such factors as cognitive development—how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Brain-based learning recognizes that

  • the brain has a virtually inexhaustible capacity to learn irrespective of a person's age, sex, nationality, or cultural background,
  • it has the ability to detect patterns and to make approximations,
  • it has phenomenal capacity for various types of memory,
  • it has the ability to self-correct and learn from experience by way of analysis of external data and self-reflection, and an inexhaustible capacity to create.

Obviously, this finding—that learning effectively improves brain functioning and resiliency, and working intelligence—has potentially far-reaching implications for how schools can design their academic programs and how teachers could structure educational experiences in the classroom.

How are the principles of brain-based learning applied in classroom practices? Here are a few ways of doing so:

  • Teachers must make use of the classroom space to arouse all senses. To begin with, they could do away with chairs and tables to allow children to move around freely as they learn through activities
  • Provide a Stress-free learning environment. Children learn best when they are relaxed. The teacher tell stories or encourage her students to narrate a few of their own.
  • Stimulate social skills by working in groups. Children retain better understanding of a concept when they utilize their social skills.
  • Displays on the classroom walls must reflect the children’s learning.
  • Make study challenging by making it hands-on. The more hands-on an assignment is, the better the cognitive stimulation.
  • Introduce art and music into lessons. Art reinforces images in the brain and strengthens learning.

In brief, brain-based education is about eliminating barriers and allowing the mind to work without distractions. Learning is not a foreign concept – it comes naturally. This is change that is taking place in Maharashtra’s schools today