Home' Teacher : April 2010 Contents 28 TEACHER APRIL 2010
In the past 10 years, neuroscientists have made great progress in understanding how the
human brain learns and what factors affect learning.
All humans, aside from those who have a damaged brain or a marked developmental
delay, have the capacity to learn throughout their life span. Each of us can, for example,
learn a foreign language and become reasonably competent with that language after
about 100 hours of instruction, at any stage in ou r lives, if we choose.
In a new book, Alison Gopnik, a prominent developmental psychologist at the
University of California Berkeley, has helped us to understand how a child's brain is
programmed by early experience to handle complex cognitive tasks like reading.
In her book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik summarises years of research on brain
development in young children, highlighting new findings about the remarkable plastic-
ity and flexibility of the young brain. She sees young children as explorers, with an open
attention that allows them to seek out relevant features of their environment from the
mass of information that is getting into their brains through their eyes, bodies and ears.
Out of all that information that comes through their exploration of the world around
them, they then learn to make hypotheses.
This capacity to learn new things has a basis in brain changes. Brain changes occur
each time a person learns and retains new information. Brain scientists call this neuro-
Neuroplasticity is evident when, say, a child learns to rhyme or an adult masters an
iPod. The brain changes involve new connections that form among brain cells, called
neurons, as well as chemical changes that enable those connections.
Reading experts used to believe the struggle that some students have in learning to
read resulted from problems in making the visual discriminations needed to recognise
letters, but new studies by neuroscientists using brain-imaging technology have gener-
ally shown that the same areas involved in oral language usage and comprehension are
involved in reading.
BREAKTHROUGHS IN BRAIN SCIENCE ARE NOW ENABLING TEACHERS
TO SIGNIFICANTLY IMPROVE THE LEARNING CAPACITY AND READING
SKILLS OF THEIR STUDENTS. MARTHA BURNS EXPLAINS.
Neuroscience is helping
students learn to read
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