BSc Educational Psychology: Why do I teach The Brain Goes To School?

by | Jan 4, 2023 | Academic insight, Education | 0 comments

How do we learn new things or new skills? How does memory work? How can I put my attention where it is needed? How does vision work? These are all interesting questions that if we know the answers to we can then think about how teachers can help learners. We have taken the topic of neuropsychology and framed this into thinking about how to apply our knowledge of how the brain works in a module called The Brain Goes To School. This is my module, but how come I teach it?

Neuropsychology is an interesting approach to understanding human behaviour. It tries to understand how the way the brain is organised leads to the complexity of behaviours that make us human. It is a reductionist approach, focusing on the building blocks of brains and then using our understanding of how these link together to explain how processes such as attention, learning, memory, language, perception and problem solving operate. It moves from shape and form to function. These are just the kind of processes that are important in thinking about how we can make teaching and learning in schools more effective.

My interest came about as a general curiosity of how the world works. My parents related a story of how when I was two years old, I dismantled their alarm clock to see how turning the key led to the ticking sound and the fingers going round. I can remember how we lost a bit of the clock and consequently when the key was turned the fingers whizzed around rather fast. I was amused by the cause and effect relationships that I could see – turn the key, the spring tightens, the cogs go round and these turn the fingers. My parents were less amused with a clock that now did not tick and 24 hours passed in just a minute or so! So, knowing cause and effect is one way into working out how things work. This drove me into understanding simple machines, then wondering about living things and an interest in biology. But what about people – how do they work? Can we break them down into component parts like a clock and see evidence of cause and effect? This leads me into neuropsychology – what does this bit of the brain do? How do these nerves go together and work? What chemicals are involved? Where exactly is a memory stored? Are there ways to use the brain more efficiently to learn new material? Is our experience of self an emergent property of how the brain works or is there a ghost in the machine?

The brain is incredible, made up of 86, 000, 000, 000 nerve cells or neurones, each with hundreds or thousands of connections to provide a quadrillion connections (1 000 000 000 000 000). That is a lot of potential to hold and process information. We can think simplistically of the brain being like a very powerful computer that takes information from the senses and then produces a model of the world to make predictions about what is happening. The brain clumps some of its processing into specialised areas for instance for vision, attentional regulation or language. Knowing this is useful for working with teachers in schools who may have children who have brains that have developed in a different way from most children or have undergone a traumatic brain injury. We can predict the types of weaknesses and strengths that the child might have and then use this information to teach them more effectively. The same principles have been useful in other areas of my work with adults who had experienced problems such as a stroke, degenerative brain disease or an inherited disorder. Knowing how the brain works and adapts helps to plan how these adults can best be supported in the workplace. I have been amazed at how a damaged brain can reorganise itself and regain functions that were lost, it displays a degree of plasticity. This feature of the brain is one that should give us hope; hope for children who have been born with some damage to their brain or have suffered brain damage through disease or injury. Effective teaching techniques can lead to learning success and improved life outcomes.

The Brain Goes to School is a module that takes students through the fundamentals of how the brain works from a reductionist perspective. We cover theory and then students find out how this theory applies to them through a series of experiments called NeuroLab. This allows students to apply the theory directly to themselves and to understand that the brain is not reflecting reality but modelling it (and sometimes it gets it wrong!). The module continually asks for application of theory to education, “We know this about the brain, so what? How does this help teachers in the classroom to be more effective? How can learners become successful independent learners?”. The module provides a basis for understanding later modules such as Cognition and Learning (Year 2) and how individual differences are understood in education in the module Special Educational Needs and disabilities (Year 3).

So, my curiosity started with cause and effect, went on to look at form and function in biological systems and then to thinking about application to education by asking so what? How can we apply knowledge of how the brain works to inform the way that teachers teach and learners learn? This is why I am interested in and enjoy teaching The Brain Goes To School.

Garry Squires,
Professor in Educational Psychology, Special Educational Needs and Inclusion