Thursday, 17 July 2014

How the Brain Learns

How to turn a new skill into an automatic habit.

Skill acquisition requires planning, training and practice. Sports people definitely know all about that. But what about teachers and students ?

Mostly we just "get on with it" as we teach and learn.

We don't give much thought to the range of mental skills that we are using every day as we teach and learn. Pause for a moment and think about it.

What mental skills are being used ?

Am I using  these skills effectively ?

Can I improve ?  How can I improve ?

Brain Science of Skill Learning 

It is helpful to take a look, firstly, at the brain science behind the learning of new skills.

We conscious humans are no more than our collection of brain circuits unique to each individual. These circuits are representations of our perceptions of the external reality and our understandings of the our world according to our personal experiences, knowledge, beliefs, values and culture (also part of our brain circuitry).

All our learned skill sets, both explicit and implicit, are formed and etched into this vast collection of neural circuitry. In fact, our "real selves" actually reside as a combination of chemicals found within the synaptic gaps between the connecting neurons of the brain circuitry.

How do these circuits form ?

Basically speaking, the number of connections between a group of neurons (nerve cells) may increase and bind more strongly each time that neural pathway is used. So, the more often you perform a particular task the stronger the connections of the pathway become. And the more often the pathway is activated (or "fires") the more easily it will fire next time it's used.

This process is called Hebbian Learning - "cells that fire together wire together". This process is possible because of synaptic plasticity (where brain circuits may be formed, modified or lost according to how often or not they are used). It is one of the important neurochemical foundations of learning and memory.

So, as we start learning a new skill we are starting to shape or "burn-in" the brain circuit(s) that will be responsible for that skill - called "mind sculpture".

Let's take a closer look.

The role of the two brain hemispheres in learning

In the past few years a mass of groundbreaking insights in cognitive neuroscience and learning has helped us understand much more about learning. Many studies using fMRI have shown which parts of the brain become more active ("light-up") when we perform certain mental tasks.

It has been shown that when we learn a new cognitive skill both hemispheres of the brain are involved. The Right Brain  dominates as we start learning the new skill but as we become more proficient the Left Brain becomes responsible for the skill.

 In fact, for the learning of all cognitive skills and tasks (verbal to visuospatial) the transfer from the right side of the brain to the left side is a universal rule !

Elkhonon Goldberg (2005) - The Wisdom Paradox

Early stages of acquiring a cognitive skill invariably the right hemisphere is dominant and some mental effort is required of you to keep yourself consciously focused on the steps involved in the doing of the task. So in the early stages of learning you are slow and not very efficient.

 But, as you train and practice the brain circuits are beginning to work more effectively. At this point less mental effort is required. Both brain hemispheres are equally involved in this intermediate learning stage (see fig. 15)

 Finally, with further training and practice the new skill becomes an automatic habit - fast and effortless. At this stage the left brain has dominant cognitive control. The neural circuitry of the newly acquired skill is fast and efficient.

This right to left transfer process may take years (eg. complex professional skills used in performing a task - such as a novice teacher relying on the RB initially compared to a skilled teaching professional performing on LB automatic pilot thereby freeing up cognitive capacity for other tasks).

Right brain (conscious effort) to left brain (automatic habit)

 In summary

1. The RB is in charge of dealing with novel information.
2. The main centre of cognitive control gradually shifts away from RB to LB
3. Once formed the overall ready-to-use skill representations are stored in the LB
4. The LB is in charge of dealing with well-established cognitive skills.
5. The right-to-left shift of cognitive control is a fundamental cycle of higher-order mental processes

This process (RB to LB) is different for different cognitive skills
At any one time there may be a myriad of such processes unfolding in parallel on different time scales and at different speeds.

Students becoming more proficient at solving maths problems

Consistent training and practice needed

Mind skills for students
Concentration  ..  Listening  ..  Observation  ..  Memory  ..  Visualization  ..  Asking questions  ..  thinking and reasoning  ..  explaining

Learning skills for students
Planning and organizing  ..  reading  ..  communicating  ..  team work  .. technology  ..  summarizing  ..  note taking and making  ..  study skills  ..  exam technique  .. self-discipline  .. goal setting  ..  learning from setbacks or failure  ..  self-control  ..  enjoy the learning journey

Skills for classroom teachers
All of above  ..  story-telling  ..  painting mental pictures  ..  using humor and emotion  ..  seeking feedback  ..  monitoring behavior  ..  checking for understanding  ..  inviting student input  ..  asking questions  ..  revealing relevancy and the bigger picture  ..  instilling confidence  ..  praising effort  ..  giving guidance and support ..  adjusting teaching style to student ability  ..  being comfortable within yourself  ..  admit when a mistake is made  ..  confess you don't have an answer to that  ..  leading students through the thinking process ........... and all the rest !

(as always click on an image to enlarge it)

Sometimes we might have to unlearn the wrong way of doing something. We may wish to break a bad habit and replace it with a new one. Or, start learning a new skill from scratch.

Whatever the case, remember that new brain circuits have to be "burnt-in". That's time and practice.

Steps to learning a new skill.

It is important to plan carefully and monitor how your doing.

Keeping a diary of your progress will be helpful. It enables you to reflect on what you have been doing in detail.

 Brain circuits will increase in size and function more efficiently as you train and practice.

Regular practice is important.


 SELF-DISCIPLINE - Stick with it !


KEY WORDS - In a nutshell 


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