Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Learning and the Brain

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Learning & the Brain conference entitled “Educating World-Class Minds: Using Cognitive Science to Create 21st Century Schools.” I attended my first Learning & the Brain conference when I was an undergraduate and just beginning to explore the fields of psychology and education. The conference organizers would likely be heartened to know that my passion for learning about learning has only grown since. A theme running through the various workshops, keynote addresses, and sessions in this year’s program was the importance of helping students to become independently driven learners, ready to dynamically engage with a globalized and technology-infused world. This theme was conveyed not only through the presentations themselves but on a meta-level, as I took note of my fellow attendees holding up their iPads to take pictures of slides, sharing that information via a few keystrokes and clicks, and conversing with each other about how this learning fits in with their previous experiences as well as their anticipated developments.

One presentation included reference to some particularly interesting research suggesting the importance of inquiry. In a 2011 study at MIT, an experimenter presented four-year-olds with a toy. In one condition, she acted surprised when pulling on one of the toy’s various tubes and finding, as if by accident, that the toy then squeaked. In another condition, she provided direct instruction regarding how to make the tube squeak. When left alone to play with the toy, children in both conditions pulled the tube to produce a squeak. However, children in the first condition played with the toy longer and discovered more of its features, i.e., what happens when engaging with its other tubes. A 2011 study at UC-Berkeley expanded on this research by presenting a music-playing toy to a group of four-year-olds. The experimenter showed the children five successful sequences of action interspersed with four unsuccessful ones to make the toy play music. In one condition, she took a curiosity stance (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works. Let’s try this.”), and in another condition, she provided direct instruction (“Here’s how my toy works.”). Many children in the first condition figured out the most efficient way to get the toy to play music, i.e., with fewer steps than had been demonstrated, whereas children in the second condition imitated the experimenter exactly.

The implications of this research are significant in the context of a world in which facts can be quickly retrieved via technology, and critical thinking and entrepreneurship are increasingly in demand. Educators must take into account these realities and use the best tools we have available to create thinkers as well as knowers.

One unexpected highlight for me was running into my sixth grade math teacher. I confirmed his identity after, for the first time ever, asking him a question without first raising my hand. Whereas our roles as student and teacher were clearly defined to my sixth grade self, our new dynamic illustrated something important about education. Side by side, taking notes and asking questions, we were both students. The importance of this, that educators and practitioners be continually learning and questioning, is particularly salient in the context of our rapidly evolving Information Age. I was grateful for the opportunity to be one amongst many eager students at this stimulating conference, with presenters emphasizing their positions as lifelong learners as well. Meanwhile, the “thinking cap” we were taught to wear in the classroom is an accessory that should be in fashion regardless of setting or age, and it was a privilege to exchange a tip of the hat with an old teacher as well as many others at the informative and thought-provoking Learning & the Brain conference.

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