With brains in mind

July 9, 1999

Sleep, diet and the right environment can help intelligence to thrive, say scientists. Bill Lucas looks at how lecturers can use this knowledge to create healthy conditions for learning

It weighs just over one kilogram, is the size of a small car engine and is probably the most complex and least understood organism in the world. It has been described variously as a hydraulic system, a loom, a switchboard, a clean slate and a computer. If you do not use it, then you may lose it. It is, of course, your brain.

While much has changed in higher education, in many ways the craft of lecturing and teaching has stayed still. Lecturers still give lectures that are almost entirely spoken, last too long, show little understanding of how we learn, take place in inappropriate environments and are rarely differentiated or targeted on the particular group of learners. Few students are helped to understand how they learn and how they can maximise their potential.

During the past decade we have probably learned more about the brain and how we learn than ever before. There has been new evidence about the nature of intelligence and the range of learning styles, the role of emotions, the impact of health and diet, the brain's love of patterns and cycles, effective learning environments, the operation of memory and issues of motivation.

Most recently, with the advent of new scanning technologies, neuroscientists have been able to see patterns of activity in the human brain, as they occur, while difficult tasks are being performed.

The application of much of this is comparatively straightforward, but potentially hugely influential. For instance, as a result of Howard Gardner's work, the idea that we have eight (or more) intelligences is widely accepted as a commonsense rebuttal of IQ theory. IQ largely deals with verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical intelligence in Gardner's terms. His other intelligences include spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal (social), intrapersonal (emotional) and, most recently, naturalist. While we probably possess a degree of each of these intelligences, each of us have particular strengths. In much of academic life, sadly, musical, bodily and intrapersonal intelligences are ignored or seen as having low status.

In the United States, some schools and universities are so excited about the potential for encouraging better all-round learning performance that they have created environments that stimulate particular intelligences. An understanding of multiple intelligence theory will modify lecturer behaviour. If you tried to appeal to at least two intelligences not associated with IQ in every presentation you gave, then you could dramatically improve your success. In short, you should vary your teaching styles with the theory in mind.

But this is common sense. Research into the effect of emotions on the learner probably falls into the same category. Every lecturer knows that teaching a distraught learner is a waste of time. But for some professionals it is almost an article of faith that exploring learners' emotions is inappropriate territory.

Looking inside the brain helps us to understand this. Being in a positive frame of mind aids perception. Indeed, by extrapolating much of the research, it is clear that emotions influence key learning skills: we all know how difficult it is to remember something when we are feeling particularly emotional. The kind of practical actions that follow from this are that time spent at the start of a session endeavouring to make sure that learners are in a receptive state is important. Music may help. So can simple mind-calming visualisation techniques or the creation of a few minutes for structured dialogue or role play in the opening moments of any learning episode.

For learning to be successful, the ideal environment is highly challenging, not stressful but full of opportunities for feedback.

Practically, it is impossible for a teacher or lecturer to fulfil the needs of a whole group. So the trick must be to create situations in which other learners can provide this essential feedback service to the brain.

With health and diet there are stunningly simple facts. Diet is critically important. We all eat too much fat, sugar and carbohydrates. We drink too much coffee, tea and alcohol. We fail to eat enough of certain proteins and to drink enough water.

These are simple behaviours that can be modelled with all adult learners. Significant amounts of deep sleep are essential too. Sitting down for a long time is bad news for the brain. Standing up, moving around, even a moment of physical movement sends more blood and more oxygen to your starved synapses. While the stresses or excesses of students' lives will always be challenging, these issues need to be explored.

When it comes to presentation of information there are very clear messages from research. The brain likes patterns and context. If it can see how something fits in, then it will be more likely to assimilate new data. It switches off after about 20 minutes of concentrated listening. It has its own rhythms, preferring new information in the morning and tasks that call for integration of existing information in the afternoon. It is also biologically and neuro-scientifically true that some of us are morning people and some are night owls.

So, always give the big picture, ideally with as much advanced warning as possible. Give regular detailed trailers for new sessions. Start each session with an overview and a clear indication of the sequence of steps you intend to follow. Limit any presentation to 20 minutes and think very carefully about the timing of sessions.

Memory is not talked about often enough in connection with learning. Memory involves both retention and recall. The brain remembers beginnings and ends of episodes. Unusual things stick.

Positive emotional involvement increases the likelihood of retention. Learners tend to remember activities that have involved many of its systems, as is often the case with experiential learning. To aid recall, the brain needs to map and order.

Get students to help you by giving them the opportunity to introduce sessions. Always try to give a context and, wherever possible, share strategies for recalling data as well as for retaining it. Be prepared with mnemonics, acronyms, jokes and odd facts.

As to motivation, much of the available evidence of what our brains would prefer is in stark contrast to what the system offers: all the literature suggests that extrinsic reward mechanisms can be very unhelpful. A study by Teresa Amabile shows that, in many areas, reward systems actually lower the quality of work.

On the other hand, we know that learners tend to be more motivated when they have ownership of the learning and greater control over the choice of task and learning styles. We also know that brain activity increases when complex tasks are being undertaken and that we reach a state of flow when our brain begins to operate almost unconsciously.

So, get learners to set their own goals wherever possible. Ensure that these are challenging, but attainable. Create an environment that is responsive to learners: do not just do it the way you did it last year.

Bill Lucas is chief executive of the Campaign for Learning, a charity supported by DFEE and private sector and educational organisations. The campaign is seeking to create an appetite for learning in us all. To find out more, write to him at 19 Buckingham Street, London, WC2N 6EF. Or visit www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk

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