Modern Neuroscience and Cognitive Behaviours

When asked what I do as a profession, I have always been reticent to say I am a teacher. The responses are often prejudicial: simply as everyone has a view as, at some point, they once attended school. I am even less inclined over the last fifteen years to respond that I am, in fact, a Headmaster. Facetiously, I would like to say, I am a brain specialist, and in many ways I am, as I believe it is my role to make people ‘think’.

‘Why did little Johnnie just do that?’ is perhaps the cry of a bemused teacher. This cry now is being answered by modern neuroscience, as it increasingly gives us a better insight into behaviours. Increasingly books on pedagogy relating specifically to teaching include larger sections on such discoveries. It is obvious to most in the profession that a thorough understanding of cognitive behaviour is central to the educational process. And that the electro-chemical combustion occurring between the ears of learner and teacher is paramount to the success of both.

Although it is estimated by some that our knowledge of the human brain has increased by 90% in the past twenty years, many realise we have so much more to learn. However, how we apply what we now know in a classroom setting has become an educational goal. There are all kinds of wonderful descriptions of the brain as man has developed. Basically, the brain has grown over time from the back of the head above the spine, the amygdala, to the pre-frontal cortex behind the forehead. There are many fascinating books explaining how we use this brain, or portions of it, but basically the brain has not grown as quickly as our change in circumstance from hunter-gatherer to the modern day. In fact, we still have powerful urges from our forebears such as the ‘fight or flight’ instincts often interestingly described as based on our ‘reptile brain’. Thinking, is also very ‘hard work’ and most of the time we rely on prior thinking stored in our memories to avoid the process altogether. Therefore what we ask children to do in school, ‘think’ is incredibly taxing and thus finding the optimum method of knowledge transfer and application should rank first in the minds teachers and students. And we must glory in the fact, that although Artificial Intelligence continues to grow, only man can ‘think’ having climbed Everest and our abilities to walk, talk, and fulfil all our daily tasks are truly remarkable in themselves.

Education thinking at the moment holds that the really important issues for learning lie within the work of the pre-frontal cortex and its control over ‘executive function’. In very simple terms, executive function is the high level skills involving organisation and planning. This is especially of interest to those teachers dealing with those children with learning difficulties, who seem to lack developed skills in these areas. Such problems are associated with conditions such as ADHD but again this has not been totally proven.

As Andrew Curran says in his book ‘The Little Book of Big Stuff about the Brain’ (2008),”The core to understanding about all learning is to understand how to get the right neurochemistry in the brain.” The corollary of this is all teachers need to understand more about how to do this if they are to stretch the students in front of them.

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