Saturday, September 10, 2011

Understanding the Brain Function for Better Retention of Knowledge

            Students are models of diversity, their cultural backgrounds, religions, families, and economic stature all contribute to the individuality of each student. The learning styles of students can be just as diverse, with the style diversity distributed amongst intrapersonal skills, interpersonal skills, tactile, musical, visual, and auditory learners. The brain, research has discovered, is constructed of a unique biological series of components. These components allow the brain to develop, strengthen, and change, thus creating a learning and retention tool.
Personal Theory and Practice
            Research, specifically that presented by Wolfe in her video Understanding The Brain, show that the brain uses connectors, called synapses, to connect memories and experiences. These synapses can be strengthened by repetition, and can also weaken with non-use. The initial connection seems to be a key to learning and the retention of memories. We all have vivid memories, easily recalled, that puzzle us as to why we retain such a memory. On the other extreme, some knowledge is elusive, and seems impossible to recall even after using all types of memory retention strategies.
            My personal theory is that the strength of the initial connection, or memory, is crucial to long-term retention. If the initial connection is powerful and deep, we cannot help but retain this knowledge. However, if the connection is so vague or does not exist, then the memory has little chance of connection through the synapse. Once the connection is made, I fully agree with Wolfe that the synapse must be used in order to strengthen the connection. I do not believe that unused connections will sever; however, they do become so weak and irrelevant that their path is not used.
            Discovery makes the initial connection powerful. If a person, in our case a student, finds the knowledge on their own, the initial connection is comparatively deep compared to a the knowledge that is forced or presented. These are the light bulb moments that are often followed by the sounds of students realizing that they just "got it". Imagine a time when we find a short-cut on the road or computer, and wind up having a revelation; specifically, this revelation is a powerful connection. If a student discovers the material with some facilitation, as opposed to lecture, the knowledge is more likely to be retained over a longer period of time. Both strong initial connections, as well as those developed with use, move knowledge into an understood position of knowledge. An example of this is multiplication tables. Some students can see the groups of sizes, while others need repetition. The end result of both, however, is that most high school graduates can easily recall a multiplication product without having to work it out in their heads. People simply know that two times five equals ten; they do not need to use mnemonics, picture recollections, or paper to recall a simple fact.
            I also believe that the mind can be made to retain knowledge by repetition, which can be used to develop the synapses, retaining the knowledge. If an initial connection is weak, it can be strengthened to a point where the knowledge is retained. This method would require some work that would be more likely found in a classroom of a previous century, with worksheets, tables, and endless drilling of facts.
            My classroom is a combination of discovery and development. Since I believe discovery is powerful, I attempt to have students discover knowledge. There does come a time where knowledge is so crucial that it needs to have moved into the second nature portion of memory. I do not believe that this should be done with all facts, but used sparingly to assure that it can remain a powerful tool. Using a previous example, multiplication tables are so important that they must be second nature. Their use throughout life, applying to many other fields or study, merit the effort and time to assure that the person can recall the answers without conscious thought.
            Each student learns in their own manner, and targeting the most efficient manner for the group may be a self-eliminating process. If a teaching method is directed specifically to one student, other students may be at a disadvantage. If our students are diverse, so should the learning methods we employ in our classrooms, developing the brain's connections in a variety of ways. Research, along with common sense, shows the brain changes, develops, heals, and adapts based on sensory inputs. Varying those inputs, i.e. our teaching methods, may provide the best overall method for the obtaining and retaining knowledge to our students.

1 comment:

  1. Todd, I found your post to be very interesting. We have been focusing a lot on the role of the brain in learning at my school and so far our findings are very interesting and rather consistent with much of what you said.

    What stuck out to me the most from your post was the idea of repetition in order to absorb the information into the brain. We had a number of educators from my school, including our principal, attend a seminar at Columbia University on the role of the brain in learning and while they certainly stressed repetition, they found that in order for the information to absorb more effectively in the long term, self assessment proved to be quite effective. The idea of reading the information and applying it, in conjunction, seemed to trigger something in the brain which allowed for it to remain in the long term memory. I certainly encourage my students to utilize this technique of self testing now and have been observing them to see if I am noticing any different results from previously. As many of them utilized the technique before, it is hard to determine, but I find the theory to be very interesting and worth attempting.

    I enjoyed your post!