Talking Points: Your Brain on Learning

First Grade Poetry
April 18, 2012
“Rats” (The 2012 All School Play — In Images)
May 3, 2012

Middle Schoolers, from days of yore, just before going on stage for the all school play.

There’s an often spoke truism at the intersection of neuroscience and education: Practice makes permanent.

It refers to the process by which the brain makes connections between neurons. Neurologist turned educator, Judy Willis, defines this “neuroplasticity,” as “as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brains.”

Author Sara Bernard expands on the topic of neuroplasticity on edutopia.com:

This means that when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks — groups of neurons that fire together, creating electrochemical pathways — shape themselves according to that activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or “prune,” the connecting cells that formed the pathways. Like in a system of freeways connecting various cities, the more cars going to certain destination, the wider the road that carries them needs to be. The fewer cars traveling that way, however, the fewer lanes are needed.

The fascinating thing to me is that this process goes on throughout our lives, and effectively debunks some rampant myths about the brain. Sara Bernard listed several of the more culturally embedded myths that shape how we view teaching and learning:

  • The brain is static, unchanging, and set before you start school.
  • Some people are left-brained and some are right-brained.
  • We use only 10 percent of our brains.
  • Male and female brains are radically different.
  • The ages 0-3 are more important than any other age for learning.

The research that debunks these myths should inform how we approach classrooms, students, and even ourselves as educators and parents. If the brain continuously creates and prunes neural pathways throughout our lives and if practice makes permanent, what do we want to create, practice and make permanent?

As I reflect on my 11+ years with Cornerstone Learning Community I see that we began answering that question a long time ago. Our students practice applied learning in which they employ developing skills in novel situations to solve real problems. One such example is our long-standing tradition of service learning through which projects have ranged from lobbying to ecosystem restoration to feeding the homeless to raising money for victims of natural events.

What’s more, our students garden, collaborate, think, build, read, write, compute, run, play, laugh, imagine, create, struggle, fail, succeed, help, apply, dream, and chase those dreams. These practices are encouraged in the context of we adults who model these behaviors ourselves.  Teachers as leaders. Parents as partners. And all as learners.

As I begin to look to the next stage of my career, leaving CLC as a teacher (though not as a parent), I am excited for the practices of CLC made permanent in me during my years of service.  I also look forward to the practices yet to come as new ideas cross-pollinate with old ones, both for me and for the school.

Thank you, CLC, for an amazing ride.

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