The Brain and Children’s Education

Considerable progress is being made in charting developmental changes in the brain and its connections to children’s education. Photo source: Camdu St. Lucia
Considerable progress is being made in charting developmental changes in the brain and its connections to children’s education. Photo source: Camdu St. Lucia
Asad-Uz-Zaman Asad
Written by Asad-Uz-Zaman Asad

Over the past decade there has been renewed interest in facilitating Brain development and Education. Brain development emphasizes the importance of early experiences on children’s physical, psychological, cognitive, and social development. Considerable progress is being made in charting developmental changes in the brain and its connections to children’s education. Brain changes with children’s age and growth.  So, this is a new era in the field of education– a time to bring together Brain and Education.

Due to innovative cognitive neuroscientific research, our knowledge about “learning” has recently increased. An important domain of this increasing knowledge involves the period of adolescence. We know that there is significant variability among adolescents with respect to their cognitive development and that this cognitive development is linked to individual patterns in brain development. Furthermore, we know that the development of the brain continues beyond the age of 20.

The Brain cells and Regions

The number and size of the brain’s nerve endings continue to grow at least until adolescence. Some of the brain’s increase in size also is due to myelination. Myelination a process in which many cells of the brain and nervous system are covered with an insulating layer of fat cells. This increases the speed at which information travels through the nervous system. Myelination in the areas of the brain related to hand-eye coordination is not complete until about four years of age. Myelination in brain areas that are important in focusing attention is not complete until the end of the elementary school years. The implication for teaching are that children will have more difficulty focusing their attention and maintaining it for very long in early childhood but their attention will improve as they move through the elementary school years. Even in elementary school and later, many educators believe occasional short breaks sustain energy and motivation to learn.

Another important aspect of the brain’s development at the cellular level is the dramatic increase in connections between neurons. Synapses are tiny gaps between neurons where connections between neurons are made. Researchers have discovered an interesting aspect of synaptic connections. Nearly twice as many of these connections are made than ever will be used. The connections that are used become strengthened and will survive while the unused ones will be replaced by other pathways or disappear. That is, in the language of neuroscience, these connections will be ‘pruned’. These areas are critical for higher-order cognitive functioning such as learning, memory and reasoning. Notice that in the prefrontal context (where higher-level thinking and self regulation take place) the pick of overproduction occurs at about one year of age. Notice also that it is not until middle to late adolescence that the adult density of the synapses is achieved.

The Brain’s Four Lobes

In a recent study that used sophisticated brain-scanning techniques, children’s brains were shown to undergo substantial anatomical changes between the ages of three and fifteen (Thompson & others, 2000). By repeatedly obtaining brain scans of the same children for up to four years, it was found that children’s brain experience rapid, distinct spurts of growth. The amount of brain material in some areas can nearly double within a year, followed by a drastic loss of tissue as unneeded cells are purged and the brain continues to reorganize itself. In this study, the overall size of the brain did not change from to fifteen years of age. However, rapid growth in the frontal lobes, especially areas related to attention, occurred from three to six years of age. Rapid growth in the temporal lobes (language processing, long-term memory) and parietal lobes (spatial location) occurred from age six through puberty.

(a)    Frontal Lobe: Voluntary movement and thinking

(b)    Occipital Lobe: Vision

(c)    Temporal Lobe: Hearing

(d)    Parietal Lobe: Body sensation


The cerebral cortex (the highest level of the brain) is divided into two halves, or hemispheres. Lateralization is the specialization of functions in one hemisphere of the brain or the other. In individuals with an intact brain, there is a specialization of function in some areas:

1.    Verbal processing: The most extensive research on the brain’s two hemispheres involves language. In most individuals, speech and grammar are localized to the left hemisphere. However, this does not mean that all language processing is carried out in the brain’s left hemisphere. For example, understanding such aspects of language as appropriate use in different contexts, metaphor and much of humor involves the right hemisphere.

2.    Nonverbal processing: The right hemisphere is usually more dominant in processing nonverbal information, such as spatial perception, visual recognition, and emotion. For example, for most individuals, the right hemisphere is mainly at work when they process information about people’s faces. The right hemisphere also may be more involved when people express emotions and when they recognize others’ emotions.

Because of the differences in the functioning of the brain’s two hemispheres, people commonly use the phrases ‘left-brained and ‘right-brained to say which hemisphere is dominant. Unfortunately, much of this talk is seriously exaggerated. For example, lay-people and the media commonly exaggerate hemispheric specialization by claiming that the left brain is logical and the right brain is creative. However, most complex functions-such as logical and creative thinking-in normal people involve communication between both sides of the brain.

Left Brain

Uses logic, detail oriented, facts rule, words and language, present and past, math and science, can comprehend, knowing, acknowledges, order/pattern perception, knows object name, reality based, forms strategies, practical and safe.

Right Brain

Uses feeling, ‘big picture’ oriented, imagination rules, symbols and images, present and future, philosophy & religion, can “get it” (i.e. meaning), believes, appreciates, spatial perception, knows object function, fantasy based, presents possibilities, impetuous and risk taking.

How Education occurs, especially in Children’s Education

  • Education occurs through maturation and learning

  • When children grow physical, psychological, cognitive, and socio-emotional changes take place
  • Some of these changes are maturational and some are learned
  • Children’s education streamlines all the above changes in children

What is Brain-Based Education?

Education brings a change in the structure of the brain and helps to develop the child. Brain-based education (By Eric Jensen) is the purposeful engagement of strategies based on neuroscience. Brain-based education is the application of a meaningful group of principles that represent our understanding of how our brain works in the context of children’s education. Brain-based education is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who represents that to others is misleading them. There is not yet a “one size fits all” brain-based program, model, or package for schools to follow.

What Does a Brain-Based Teacher Do?

A brain compatible teacher is one that understands the principles and uses strategies in a purposeful way. It is an educator who understands the reasoning behind their teaching. It is also one who stays constantly updated through continuous professional development.

Example of Brain-Based Learning on Children’s Education

Evidence suggests that stress is a significant factor in creativity, memory, behavior and learning. Teachers who purposely manage stress factors (purposefully decrease or increase stress) in class are likely to experience a positive classroom environment. There are many ways to decrease stress in the classroom, such as integrating stretching exercises, incorporating recess, teaching coping skills, and utilizing physical education.

The development of a child is directly linked to two aspects:

(1) Proper nutrition

  • Nutrition keeps the child healthy and free from diseases

  • It can be obtained from daily meals and seasonal fruits

(2) Appropriate stimulation

  • Makes the child’s life potential for future success

  • Stimulation can be obtained from home, school and community

Stimulation is engaging the child in various developmental activities: It is the opportunity for a child to develop with:

  • Good physical and mental health

  • Sound emotional state
  • Socially stable mind
  • Success in school and community
  • A child’s future largely depends on sufficient stimulation in the first five years of life

Stimulation and Learning

Stimulation makes learning happen. Learning is neurobiological process and it takes place in the brain. It works through genetically set neuronal networks. Recent studies have also shown that the manner in which humans take on information and then process that information is determined by a combination of biological, cognitive and psychosocial factors. The biology of our brain thus determines the efficiency with which information reaches our senses. This biology ensures that important stimuli are stored and that less important stimuli are discarded. By doing this, the brain can ensure that its capacity is not unnecessarily overloaded, which is important because brain capacity is indeed limited. The environment also plays an important role in information processing. We have come to understand that developing children benefit from decreases in the amount of distracting information present in their environment. It is also important that children are sufficiently stimulated and motivated because then the brain can learn to plan behavior in ways that promote the transfer of information. Recent research on brain-cognition relations has provided numerous insights regarding the development of functions such as language, perception, attention and memory.

Principles of Brain-Based Learning on Children’s Education

1. Malleable memories: Memories are often not encoded at all, encoded poorly, changed or not retrieved. The result is that students rarely remember what we think they should. Memories are strengthened by frequency, intensity and practice under varying conditions and contexts.

2. Non-conscious experience runs automatic behaviors: The complexity of the human body requires that we automate many behaviors. The more we automate, the less we are aware of them. Most of our behaviors have come from either undisputed downloads from our environment or repeated behaviors that have become automatic. This suggests potential problems and opportunities in learning.

3. Reward and addiction dependency: Humans have a natural craving for positive feelings, including novelty, fun, reward and personal relationships. There is a natural instinct to limit pain even if it means compromising our integrity. For complex learning to occur, students need to defer gratification and develop the capability to go without an immediate reward.

4. Attentional Limitations: Most people cannot pay attention very long, except during flow states, because they cannot hold much information in their short-term memory. It is difficult for people to maintain focus for extended periods of time. Emotions, meaning making, ultradian rhythms and glucose uptake all affect attention span. Some brain mechanisms facilitate attention by processing the desired areas and others facilitate attention by inhibiting unwanted inputs. Adapting the content to match the learner provides better attention and motivation to learn.

5. Brain seeks and creates understanding: The human brain is a meaning-maker and meaning seeker. The more important the meaning, the greater the attention one must pay in order to influence the content of the meaning.

6. Rough Drafts: Brains rarely get complex learning right the first time. Instead they often sacrifice accuracy for simply developing a rough draft of the learning material. If, over time, the learning material maintains or increases in its importance and relevance, the brain will upgrade the rough draft to improve meaning and accuracy. To this end, prior knowledge changes how the brain organizes new information. Goal-driven learning proceeds more rapidly than random learning. Learning is enhanced by brain mechanisms with contrasting output and input goals.

7. Input Limitations: Several physical structures and processes limit one’s ability to take in continuous new learning. The slow down mechanisms include the working memory, the synaptic formation time for complex encoding and the hippocampus.

8. Perception influences our experience: A person’s experience of life is highly subjective. Many studies show how people are easily influenced to change how we see and what we hear, feel, smell and taste. This subjectivity alters experience, which alters perception. When a person changes the way they perceive the world, they alter their experience. It is experience that drives change in the brain.

9. Malleability/Neural Plasticity: The brain changes every day and more importantly, we influence those changes. New areas of brain plasticity and overall malleability are regularly discovered. It is known that experience can drive physical changes in the sensory cortex, frontal lobes, temporal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus. In addition whole systems can adapt to experience such as the reward system or stress response system.

10. Emotional-Physical State Dependency: Both emotional and body states influence attention, memory, learning, meaning and behavior. These states become more stable over time and will resist change. For example, the longer one is angry or depressed, the more comfortable he or she becomes with that state. This has profound implications for the social and behavioral role of children’s education.

Techniques of Learning: The three instructional techniques associated with brain-based learning are:

1.    Orchestrated immersion–Creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience
2.    Relaxed alertness–Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment
3.    Active processing–Allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by actively processing it

How Brain-Based Learning Impacts Children’s Education

  • Curriculum–Teachers must design learning around student interests and make learning contextual.
  • Instruction–Educators let students learn in teams and use peripheral learning. Teachers structure learning around real problems, encouraging students to also learn in settings outside the classroom and the school building.
  • Assessment–Since all students are learning, their assessment should allow them to understand their own learning styles and preferences. This way, students monitor and enhance their own learning process.

How factors affect learning on Children’s Education

Learning makes the brain rich. The excellence of learning depends on early life exposures, repetition and varieties of stimulation. Less active children develop various deficiencies in their brain which need to be considered early. So, children’s education has to be-Flexible, Supportive, Developmental and Innovative. Education is influenced positively or negatively by some factors. The factors that help a child to acquire good qualities are friends of children’s education. The factors that help a child to acquire bad qualities are enemies of education.

Objects or events go through three states of mind

  • The conscious mind

  • Sub-conscious mind
  • Un-conscious mind

Enemies of mind that affect learning

  • Excessive control

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Hatred
  • Frustration
  • Repression

How to Fight the Enemies

  • Allow children to serve their own interest

  • Do not be overprotective
  • Avoid creating a fearful situation
  • Give explanations of fearful events
  • Express love in all respect
  • Do not express hatred for undesired phenomena
  • Support the failure with an explanation
  • Avoid situations that are frustrating
  • Help except for the reality
  • Understand the child’s unwanted behavior without blame
  • Help sublime the repressed phenomena by some positive events

Children’s education should be brain-based and developmentally appropriate. That is, teaching should take place at a level that is neither too difficult and stressful nor too easy and boring for the age of the child. Developmental changes can help us to understand the optimal level for teaching and learning. It is not a good strategy to try to push children to read before they are developmentally ready; but when they are ready, reading materials should be presented at the appropriate level.

About the author

Asad-Uz-Zaman Asad

Asad-Uz-Zaman Asad

Asad-Uz-Zaman Asad is an Assistant Director of D.Net (Development Research Network) and M.Phil Researcher, e-Learning, University of Dhaka.

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