Cohen’s World of Education (Part 2) — Learning and the Brain

Cohen's World of Education (Part 2) -- Learning and  the Brain

My last article suggests that "learning" is the purpose of schooling. It is the core of what education systems are supposed to be doing. Learning also occurs everywhere else– at home, on the sports field, in the Boy Scouts, in a gang — everywhere. If that is the case, then we need to understand what learning is and how best to stimulate it.

How would you define leaning? Not easy, is it? We think we know what it is until we try to define it. My definition is quite different from that of most people reading this article — parents, teachers and others interested in achieving learning. My definition has two parts. Part one states, "Learning is moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory." My definition focuses on the brain as the mechanism for learning.

The second part is the real purpose of learning, which is recalling long-term memories to solve a problem, engage in creativity and address issues. This is the learning we need to become successful adults.

The storage of information, the first part of the definition, is not really useful by itself except on Jeopardy or in Trivial Pursuits. It is simply the storage of all learning that we access when we need to solve a problem, be creative or address issues. Although this is a very complicated process, I'll provide a very simple explanation.

At birth, babies have about 100 billion brain cells of neurons and the number grows as they grow. Neurons store memories The process slows down as we get older. Beginning in the late teenage years the brain begins to eliminate unused brain cells. I like to think that memory is the same thing as learning, therefore neurons are fundamental to learning.

Briefly, a child watching Sesame Street learns the sound for the letter "a" through hearing and seeing to record a short-term memory. By repeating the letter "a" several times throughout the program, the child's brain moves the memory from short-term to long-term. The child now has the sight and sound of the letter "a" for life. If the sight and sound were not repeated throughout the show, the short-term memory would simply disappear.

When we say we forgot someone's name, what we really mean is that we cannot find it among all the memories stored in our brain — not that we have forgotten it. What is happening in the brain is very complicated. When our senses receive a message, the neuron sends an electrical charge to other brain cells with the assistance of a number of chemicals. A series of brain cells are connected by this electro-chemical process and represent the memory just created. Every time the brain receives the same message, the memory becomes stronger until it is part of long-term memory.

Every single memory we have has a string of brain cells to store those memories. The brain actually looks like a road map where the cells are cities and the connections are roads from one city to another. 

The reason for creating memories is easy to understand. We want as many memories to be created beginning at or even before birth. A number of years ago soon-to-be mothers were encouraged to hold cassette players against their stomach so the child could form memories before birth — kind of a head start.

The types of memories should be varied. As parents we need to begin creating a variety of memories in our children's brains by stimulating all  five senses repeatedly (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch). Repetition is important to moving memories from short-term to long-term. Then we can say that learning has occurred.

Memories can be created through passive or active efforts. Television is a passive way to create memories versus active techniques such as trying to play an instrument, a sport, reading or conducting an experiment. Active is preferred to passive and educators refer to this as learning by doing, a much preferred learning technique.

Children, youth and adults learn or form memories by interacting with people, with information and with things such as tools and computers. When in school, teachers present opportunities for students to form memories. Parents can help by reinforcing this learning at home and others can help in the community. This support helps form long-term memories.

In summary, everyone interacting with pupils can help them learn by offering opportunities to create and store memories. Parents, educators, community members, broadcasters and publishers are part of this web of learning. The messages must be repetitive and learners must play an active role in the learning process.

I encourage everyone to send questions and comments using the "Comments" page in CMC Digest.

Joseph Cohen