Cognitive Brain Research Beginning to Shape Teaching: Not the Holy Grail, But a Start

As imprecise people businesses, teaching and education research have resulted in some general approaches and directions over the years; but, with all the variables that students and teachers bring to learning, precision and prescription haven’t always been a tight fit.

Conventional wisdom and anecdotal experience have, for as long as I’ve been in the business, shaped teaching

Much is, and has always been, dependent on how, and what, teacher and student arrive to each other bearing and understanding on any given day.

At the most basic, did everyone arrive to class warm, safe, dry, and having eaten?

So many fundamentals require our attention and energy before we even get to teaching that some things get labeled as extras and are allowed to fall by the wayside. Teaching difficult material demands extra effort and attention; the hard stuff it often the first sacrificed.

Why don’t we teach students x at this age? I went through grade school just after our schools had stopped teaching foreign languages at the elementary school level. Foreign language was deemed to take too much time and energy with too few results. Teaching elementary school students a foreign language didn’t yield a clear advantage.

“They’re just not ready for it” expressed the conventional wisdom- rolling time, energy, teaching, and scientific limitations into a single catch-all line.

“….For much of the last century, educators and many scientists believed that children could not learn math at all before the age of five, that their brains simply were not ready.

But recent research has turned that assumption on its head — that, and a host of other conventional wisdom about geometry, reading, language and self-control in class. The findings, mostly from a branch of research called cognitive neuroscience, are helping to clarify when young brains are best able to grasp fundamental concepts…

…The teaching of basic academic skills, until now largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, is giving way to approaches based on cognitive science…”

It turns out that humans come hardwired for all sorts of behaviors and abilities. Pre-schoolers come equipped with a “Number Instinct” and, as addressed in other research, “…babies are innately sociable and helpful to others.” We’ve got a nineteen month old whose primary M.O. is helping.

Our charge as educators is to arrive at the research and subsequent changes to teaching methods with a healthy dose of skepticism. But, once we’ve read and understand the science, we would be negligent to ignore it.

We can reach more students, every day, of every year, by better understanding the ways that teaching spur and shape their brain development.

Will we reach every student, every day? No. School and home can’t control for every variable in a student’s daily growth and development.

But, we know, now, that students don’t arrive tabula rasa. It turns out that preschool students arrive with innate abilities and understandings that span everything from numbers to behavior.

The more we know, the greater every school and teacher’s responsibility. As educators we must challenge and check our conventional wisdom; make adjustments in our schools and teaching, and work to ensure that we help students nurture and improve the talents that science is beginning to show we’re all born with.

Perhaps, like medical doctors, a teacher’s first order of business should be:

Primum non nocere.

Read “Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them

Read, “We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

Peta-de-Aztlan

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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