What does research tell us that we can directly apply in school? What does education tell us that can influence research? The educational interest in the brain reflects an increasing belief amongst scientists as well as educators that education and neuroscience can benefit from combining insights into how we develop and learn. This topic will uncover some of the current neuro-scientific evidence and discuss how together, neuroscience and education can influence each other.
The adult brain contains around 100 billion brain cells - or ‘neurons’. Different neurons serve different roles. For example, a sensory neuron is sensitive to physical events in the environment, whereas motor neurons serve to change the state of contraction of muscles. All neurons however, consist of three basic features: a ‘cell body’ to which are connected ‘dentrites’ that receive information and an ‘axon’ that sends information. ‘Terminals’ at the end of the ‘axon’ make contact with the ‘dentrites’ of other neurons and allow connections - or ‘synapses’, to form between neurons. The signal passing down the ‘axon’ is electrical and its progress is accelerated by insulation around the ‘axon’ known as ‘myelin’. At a ‘synapse’, if an ‘action potential’ is generated, it will trigger the release of a chemical from the neuron called a ‘neurotransmitter’. The ‘neurotransmitter’ migrates across the ‘synaptic gap’ between the neurons and influences the second neuron’s activity. It is in this way that complex neural networks are created, enabling neurons to communicate with each other.
Explore part of the BBC website which maps the structures and functions of the human brain.
The brain is typically described in terms of two hemispheres, left and right, and as being divided into four lobes: ‘frontal’, ‘parietal’, ‘occipital’ and ‘temporal’. Each of these lobes has been associated with a different set of cognitive functions:
- ‘Frontal lobe’ contains many dopamine sensitive neurons which are associated with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning and motivation. It is also involved with many different aspects of reasoning as well as movement.
- ‘Temporal lobe’ contains the primary auditory cortex involved in auditory perception. It is also important for the processing of semantics (or meaning) in both speech and vision. The temporal lobe contains the hippocampus which plays a critical role in forming long-term memories.
- ‘Parietal lobes’ are located above the occipital lobe and behind the frontal lobe; this region is involved in integrating information from different sources and has also been associated with some types of mathematical skill (see for example, Price, Holloway, Räsänen, Vesterinen, & Ansari, 2007).
- ‘Occipital lobes’ are critical regions for visual processing.
Although these functional and anatomical distinctions between lobes are commonly made, it is not appropriate to consider any one part of the brain as being solely sufficient for any one task. All everyday tasks involve a large and broadly distributed set of neural networks that communicate with each other in a highly complex way. Therefore, when neuroscientists talk about studying the ‘brain’, there really is no such thing as the brain; there are lots of different human brains, each of which are unique – the implications of this within education will be considered in the following sections.
Watch this 2011 lecture by the University of Montana College of Arts and Sciences Dean and Professor Chris Comer, followed by a panel discussion and reflect on the statement below.
"Neuroscience, the Science of Learning, Educational Reform"
The brain’s continuing plasticity suggests it is well designed for lifelong learning and adaptations to new situations and experiences, and there is clear evidence that such adaptation can bring about significant changes in its structure.