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Effects of the Environment on the Brain and Learning

Updated on December 31, 2015

Educating is a complex, ever-changing art that incorporates many different disciplines. By definition, to teach means to cause one to learn or understand; to impart knowledge of or skill in; to give instruction (Teach, 2013). As educators, if we are intending to impart knowledge, shouldn’t we be educated on how and where this knowledge will be stored. I think so.

The brain is a highly sophisticated organ. Over the last few decades, scientists have been gathering hordes of information about the brain (Jensen, 2005). While much still remains a mystery, and there are some limitations and misunderstanding, the information that is available enough to positively affect how we educate our children (McCall, 2012).

Teachers Affect The Brain's Development

Most youth attend school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. This means that roughly 13,000 hours of the brain’s development time is spent in the classroom with teachers (Jensen, 2005, p. 1). Laura Erlauer put it best when she said, “Educators can and must become learning experts” (2003, p. 1). To do that we need to have a basic comprehension of how the brain learns and the physiology of how it functions. This information can help teachers understand their students’ emotional and biological needs and to help guide them in making educational decisions and determining best practices (Erlauer, 2003, p.7).

Thanks to the work of scientists we know that our brains are affected by our environment and our experiences. We know that nutrition, exercise, water intake, oxygen, sleep and stress can affect learning (Colburn, 2009; Erlauer, 2003; Jensen, 2005). While these statements may not be ground-breaking, knowledge of why these things affect learning is revolutionary. Knowledge of the why can help us to create better educational strategies and to improve current teaching approaches (Erlauer, 2003; Jensen, 2005).

While of school age, children’s brains undergo many significant changes. From age 5 to 10 the brain will grow to reach 90% of its adult weight. Additionally, youth experience two growth spurts, one at age 6 or 7 and the other at age 11 or 12, and during the teen years the brain goes through a substantial structural change (Jensen, 2005). To ignore what we know about the brain and how it develops and learns would be a significant ethical error. Our students’ brains are literally changing and we are impacting that change. This type of influence mustn’t be taken lightly.

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How the Brain Learns

Let’s take a quick look at how the brain learns. Information comes into the brain via our five senses or it is produced by thoughts or reflection. The information simultaneously is sent to the thalamus for initial processing, and to the appropriate lobe for further processing (Jensen, 2005; Erlaur, 2003). The thalamus quickly processes the information to decide if there is a threat. If so, the amygdala activates the rest of the sympathetic nervous system to deal with the emergency. If the thalamus determines that the information is not a threat, more normal brain processing will occur (Jensen, 2005, p. 16; Erlaur, 2003, 13).

Most of what we intake is dismissed from the frontal lobes within 20 seconds; the brain deems it irrelevant (Jensen, 2005, p. 16). If the information is worth further examination it is sent to hippocampus. This is the part of the brain responsible for the immediate past (Erlaur, 2003, p. 13). In the hippocampus the information is processed and if it’s considered important it will be organized and later stored long term in the cortex.

Neurons and glia are the core components (cells) of the brain where processing and storage occurs (Jensen, 2005, p 17). Pierce Howard defines learning as “the establishment of new neural networks composed of synaptic connections” (Howard, 2000, p. 44). What this means is that essentially, learning occurs when neurons “connect” to other neurons. These “connections”, called synapses, are created or strengthened when new information is processed and stored (Erlaur, 2003, p. 13; Jensen, 2005. p. 18).

The Mechanics of Learning

The basic mechanics of learning may seem irrelevant to some at first glance, but this is not the case. The connectivity of the brain is so complex rarely does something happen in the brain without affecting or engaging another part of the brain (Jensen, 2005, p.13; Willis, 2008). Everything from what we eat to our emotional state can affect how or if learning is occurring. Understanding this can help educators to make informed decisions to maximize learning.

Consider the hippocampus for a moment. This structure is responsible for organizing information and sending it on for storage. It is affected by the hormones and proteins that are released when our emotional state is altered (Erlaur, 2003, p. 13). What does this mean for teachers? If a student is stressed about something, a situation at home, bullying at lunchtime, or work that is far too challenging, the student’s brain will not be functioning at full capacity, and the information you are teaching may not be stored.

Emotions Affect Memory

Emotions can also affect memory storage in a positive way. When positive emotions stimulate the production of proteins and hormones they settle around the synapses to strengthen the positive connects to learning. Negative emotions strengthen the negative bonds. “If we know the structures in the brain that produce emotion and we know a little bit about how they work, we may be able to see ways to nudge our student toward learning,” (Zull, 2002, p. 55).

Additionally, thanks to scientists, we know that choice, collaboration, problem solving and relevant content driven by student interests are all linked to elevated dopamine levels (Willis, 2008). “Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them” (Psychology Today, n.d). Studies have shown that higher dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex are associated with the desire to work harder (Salisbury, 2102). We all want our students to work hard. Armed with this knowledge we can create learning environments that incorporate techniques that elevate dopamine levels.

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Nutrition is Key

Nutrition plays another key role in many brain functions. There are many nutrients that are required for our brain to function correctly. Recent findings show that the body’s glucose levels affect learning and memory, and can even impair it. (Jensen, 2008). Calpain, found in dairy and vegetables, aids in strengthening and building synapses (Erlaur, 2003, p. 42). Additionally, the brain has a higher percentage of water that any other organ and therefore dehydration can have a significant effect on learning. Many of our schools’ current policies don’t allow students to drink in the classroom (Erlauer, 2003). By knowing what foods can combat brain fatigue, we can offer better lunch choices and make snacks and water available in the classroom.

Neurological Research to Strengthen Teaching

These are just some of the ways that understanding brain functions can benefit our students. Shifting to brain-based educational strategies does not mean throwing everything out and starting from scratch. Rather, it means to utilize current neurological research to strengthen our teaching practices. Many current practices are consistent with brain research, and now we have a greater understanding of why these practices work. Many critics, such as Dan Willingham (2008) argue that understanding why strategies work isn’t necessary; we will still use them because they work. I disagree with this sentiment. Understanding why allows us to create better strategies, improve on what we have and to understand our students’ reactions to different strategies.

In the age of information and scientific discovery, we cannot call ourselves informed educators if we ignore the breakthroughs that neuroscientists are making. Using methods that align with the way our students’ bodies are designed to learn can only benefit them. Taking the information that neuroscience has given us and using it to create better, brain-friendly teaching techniques will only help to improve our educational system and, in turn, our society.

Resources

Colbun, A. (2009). Brain-based education. The Science Teacher, 76(2), 10-11.

Erlauer, L. (2003) The brain-compatible classroom: Using what we know about learning to improve teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Howard, P. J. (2000). The owner’s manual for the brain (2nd ed.). Marietta, GA: Bard Press.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jensen, E. (2008). Exciting time call for collaboration. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(6), 428-431.

McCall, L. H. (2012). Brain-based pedagogy in today’s diverse classrooms: A perfect fit–but be careful! Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78(3), 42-47.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/dopamine.

Salisbury, D. (2012, May 1). Dopamine impacts your willingness to work. [web log]. http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2012/05/dopamine-impacts-your-willingness-to-work/

Teach. (2013). Random House Dictionary. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/teaching?s=t

Willingham, D. (2008). When and how neuroscience applies to education. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(6), 421-423.

Willis, J. (2008). Building a bridge from neuroscience to the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(6), 424-427.

Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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