Toward a new science of learning

The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education

Blackwell Publishers, 2005 216 pp, hardcover, $59.95 ISBN 1405106220 | ISBN: 1-405-10622-0

What could be of greater value to society than gaining a practical understanding of how neural, genetic and environmental influences act together to shape children's cognitive capacity and emotional well-being? The decade of the brain substantially augmented our knowledge about the neural mechanisms of development and learning. In its aftermath, it has become a challenging priority to communicate the implications of this complex body of brain research to educators, health-care practitioners and policy makers in ways that enable effective and responsible changes in practice.

In this regard, The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education has struck the right chord. It is rich with facts, yet easily accessible to the general reader. While sending a positive and encouraging message about the relevance of neuroscience to the classroom, its tone is responsible and not exaggerated. The book is packed with details of cutting-edge research, presented in a lively manner with care to avoid excessive detail. Teachers will find descriptions of the educational principles that they have been practicing for years, presented in the framework of brain mechanisms responsible for the success of these methods. Most principles are explained with carefully selected, attention-grabbing experiments or brought to life by the use of entertaining analogies. For example, the authors' gardening metaphor works well to illuminate the need for and purpose of neuronal pruning in feeding and nurturing brain systems and depicts the educator as the brain's 'landscaper'. In addition, Blakemore's own youthful and humorous figures prove that visual aids and imagery strategies facilitate learning and memorization of information. As Blakemore and Frith point out, the 'more ridiculous' an image, the better it may serve to facilitate recollection. The scientific validity of visual imagery is just one of many fascinating examples featured to illustrate the instructional implications of cognitive neuroscience. Others areas discussed in the context of learning include mental exercise, sleep, imitation (mirror neurons), reward and stress.

A teacher might expect that Lessons for Education means a set of explicit, structured lesson plans, laden with information distilled from brain research and purified for the purpose of its direct application in the classroom. Instead, the authors provide an account of the newest findings from developmental neuroscience and make suggestions as to how these findings could be integrated or considered in the practice of general and special education. This approach is maintained throughout all chapters, each of which can be read in isolation, thereby making them convenient reference tools. The interpretation of each topic for real, everyday educational problems will naturally vary depending on the discipline of the reader as well as the sociocultural characteristics of their students. For example, the cognitive impact of second language learning is more relevant in some environments than others.

The book covers brain development, the neural bases of language (spoken and signed), reading acquisition, and, importantly, mathematical skills. Mathematics has often been marginalized in the past, overshadowed by the intense interest in typical and atypical skills related to reading. As would be expected from leaders in the field of cognition and developmental disorders, the chapters on learning disabilities (language impairment, dyslexia and dyscalculia) and disorders of social-emotional development, attention and communication are outstanding. The book moves through changes seen in the neural system during adolescence and then on to adulthood. It ends with a thorough account of the neural basis for plasticity, learning and remembering, and how this knowledge can be harnessed to maximize the brain's learning capacity. For example, positive rewards can strengthen memories, and the brain's reward system is grateful even for gestures as small as a person gazing directly at you rather than away from you. The avoidance of jargon makes the book a smooth read, yet for those wishing to venture into the details of tools used to study brain function or willing to learn the language of brain anatomy, neurotransmitters and more, a thorough glossary is provided.

An important part of the book is dedicated to popular misconceptions about neuroscience. For example, a belief exists among some educators that individuals are left- or right-brained and that teaching to a particular hemisphere can be advantageous. Another unfounded theory is that we only use a fraction of our brain (OK, perhaps on some days that may be true!). The book will curb some misguided efforts arising out of these myths, instead offering scientifically grounded theories underlying mechanisms of learning. Results from animal models have occasionally been misinterpreted and caused confusion in educational practice. Prominent examples are developmental studies demonstrating dramatic changes in the number of synapses, the existence of 'critical periods' and the neural consequences of 'enriched environments'. The authors skillfully sort out such misunderstandings and explain the complexities associated with linking research to public policy.

Experienced scientists will find this book upbeat and entertaining. It is also a perfect book to recommend to nonscientist colleagues. It is loaded with intriguing facts that can be dished out to visiting students, say during a 'brain awareness' week: did you know that literacy acquisition changes brain structure, as does becoming an expert London cab driver? In other words, schooling and learning can transform the brain! The book will give pause to neuroscientists as they think about the implications of their work. Disagreements are a normal aspect of scientific progress, but with educators, child advocates and parents watching closely, it helps to keep an eye on the big picture: emphasizing the need for research-based evidence to inform educational practice.

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Eden, G. Toward a new science of learning. Nat Neurosci 8, 1277 (2005).

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