Neuroscience in teaching and learning - Education Matters Magazine
Professional Development

Neuroscience in teaching and learning

Teachers of today are equipped with more evidence about learning and how a child’s brain develops than ever before. Kathy Walker, founder of Walker Learning, discusses the importance of adapting evidence-based practice to the classroom.

History has shown us that education – just as with many other fields – has seen numerous trends that have come and gone, and a constant stream of new and varied approaches when it comes to teaching and learning.

In recent years, we have also started to see some university courses in education lean more toward teaching and preparing for specific government frameworks, rather than closely examining pedagogical approaches and the skills of actual teaching.

I have observed and noted from my past academic life, as well as through my work as an author and education consultant, that many major professions continue to reinvent and respond to new information and research, using evidence to drive and refine practice. Medicine is a good example of this.

While various professions continue to argue certain methodologies, there are some major developments and evidence that have improved and changed the way each professional discipline is practiced.

We now know more about the biological, neurological and cultural interplay in a developing child’s brain, thinking, motor skills, personality and behaviours that can be used as a sound and solid basis for teaching and learning methodologies.

In some cases though, when applying evidence that is based on the science of the brain, certain aspects may not fully translate into appropriate and different teaching and learning strategies that are based on the child’s specific needs.

It is important to consider that there are significant differences in the brain of a five-year-old just entering school for the first time, an eight-year-old in Year 3, and an 11-year-old in Years 5 or 6. Though the content is tailored to the child’s age and stage of school life, the key strategies used to deliver the content are sometimes not.

There are numerous programs being introduced into schools that use a one size fits all approach and don’t tailor the strategies according to what and how a child’s brain may process, take in information, or make sense and translate the information into new or related information.

A whole school approach to teaching and learning with a consistent set of strategies across all classes and teachers is what research has highlighted as the most effective means to achieve higher levels of academic outcomes.

Just as with other disciplines, such as medicine, it is important for teachers to continue to update and change the way they educate to ensure their methods are current and taking advantage of evidence based approaches. Teaching a certain way because “I have always done it this way” doesn’t suffice in today’s world of education.

It is possible to teach both academic and life skills, to teach literacy and numeracy, as well as effective communication and appropriate social skills and problem solving.

These all go hand in hand, there doesn’t need to be any polarisation or choice of one versus the other.

It is also possible for a school curriculum not to be over-crowded, though this often isn’t the case, with countless add ons often incorporated into the school’s offering – resilience programs, socialisation programs or disciplinary programs, the list is endless.

A key issue is to look at how young children are taught both sets of skills consistently across a whole school and how evidence is used as the basis for this to occur. Programs shouldn’t be selected and taught based only on personal inclination of an individual teacher or principal. Instead, it is important to draw upon the evidence of how children best learn. Where does this evidence come from and how does it translate itself into practice?

Sciences of the brain, and the related biological and physiological skills of development have sometimes been neglected in recent years in education. Strong political influences, combined with a concentration of cultural influences and impacts have dominated university and teaching content.

It is obvious, necessary and critical that cultural, environmental, family and community influences and impacts on a child are factored into the learning environment. It is vital that teaching and learning contextualise these cultural and environmental influences in all teaching communities.

However, it is just as critical that teachers and parents are empowered to understand the biological and neurological differences in children and how this impacts on teaching and learning.

It is important, for example, to understand why younger children have less empathic understanding than older children. This one fact helps everyone to understand that not all young children are selfish, but because parts of the cerebral cortex frontal part of the brain – where empathic understanding develops – matures later than other parts of the brain, it is often harder to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Asking a young child, “how would you like it if that happened to you?” may not be the best response. Most young children will learn to answer “no” because they come to realise that it’s the right answer, not necessarily because they mean it, feel it or understand it.

How values, behaviours, discipline, morals and teaching strategies are implemented and impacted upon just by this one element of empathic cognition in the brain throughout the early childhood and primary years would dramatically change many school programs that mistake or confuse morality, development and modelling.

The fact that younger children generally have shorter concentration spans than older children and yet some five-year-olds are expected to stand at a whole school assembly and be silent and still for over 30 minutes is simply setting children up to fail.

So many young children get into trouble at school because teachers have inappropriate expectations.

Too often, children in the Australian education system are labelled as slow learners, yet Australian children begin school at an age that many countries across the world consider to be too young. Children are simply not biologically ready to learn to read and write at the age of just four.

There will always be programs that teach children to recite words, letters and numbers at the age of two. What these programs fail to recognise is that the children can make no meaning from what they are doing.

What we need are teaching institutions which, like many overseas, take and use sciences and psychology seriously as the basis for teaching and learning. How can we teach a child if we do not understand how their brain, their understanding, their personality and their behaviours work? How do we know when to intervene if we do not understand some basic biological elements of brain maturation and development? This is a major and fundamental basis for teaching and learning – to recognise that evidence is based upon what the brain actually tells us about how it develops and what and when children can take things in.

Of course there are always cultural variances, but not so significantly that the course of basic brain development is different. Experience, exposure and opportunity help but don’t significantly speed up the development of the brain, but can assist in the function of the brain.

Walker Learning, a teaching and learning pedagogy, is implemented in hundreds of schools across Australia and internationally. It is based on research about how a young child develops, and the most appropriate ways for teaching and learning to occur. It is neither viewed as particularly progressive or conservative; instead it believes in explicit instruction of literacy and numeracy once children are biologically ready, usually from the first year of school.

It believes that ‘how’ children learn in the early years, through being active, exploring, experimenting, designing, interacting and problem solving, alongside the discreet explicit instruction time, integrates what might be called basics in teaching with life skills education.

Neuroscience is a major foundation of Walker Learning. It is a whole school approach to teaching and learning that includes teaching, life skills, behaviours, and discipline techniques that best suit the maturational and cultural stage of children.

It requires teachers to contextualise the learning environment for the community it is in, reflecting the unique cultural and environmental factors. It is also inclusive of parents and families.

The key factor in Walker Learning is that it uses evidence in the ‘how’ of teaching. Walker Learning avoids the debate between back to basics or progressive education.
It is a fact that with a whole school philosophy, with strong leadership that understands pedagogy, and relevant up-to-date evidence; effective teaching and learning, and competent outcomes can be achieved.

It is all about education moving into a thinking of not just knowing about evidence but using and implementing evidence in a systemic methodology across a whole school.
The challenge is that nearly every school I have ever worked in espouses a clear philosophy and yet across grades even of the same year level, different strategies and approaches are used by individual teachers that may or may not reflect the school’s values and usually do not reflect a whole of school set of teaching and learning practices that are mandatory.

There still remains a mindset that teachers can teach the way they individually want to. They can introduce their own reward or behaviour strategies in the classroom.
What is so obvious and yet remains elusive in so many schools is that for many children moving across seven years of different teachers, they may in fact experience seven different types of disciplinary techniques, different ways of teaching and learning despite what the rhetoric, mission, vision and school philosophy statement actually says.

Inconsistent practice is not conducive to effective learning. The main goal for any leader and any school needs to be ensuring not just a whole agreed set of values or philosophy statement, but an evidence based set of practices that are consistent across the school and mandatory for all teachers to use.
Walker Learning is one example of an evidence based pedagogy which provides a whole of school educational philosophy and set of teaching and learning practices. It relies on evidence, not personal inclination.

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Walker Learning is the exclusive product of Early Life Foundations
Ph: 03 9551 1900

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