02/07/2007 - The brain never loses its capacity to learn, according to a new publication from the OECD. Contrary to the myth that “everything important about the brain is decided by the age of three,” Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science suggests not only that learning never stops - especially if actively pursued - but that it physically transforms the brain.
The book is part of a project on "Learning Sciences and Brain Research", launched by the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) in 1999. Drawing on current research in neuro- and cognitive science, it offers findings that can be usefully applied to educational policy and practice.
Neuroscientists are also identifying aspects of learning that can help to address the problems posed by neurodegenerative diseases. This is of wide policy relevance, given the ageing of populations in OECD countries and the health challenges this poses.
Among the conclusions of the study is that the “plasticity” of the brain - its ability to change in response to environmental demands - depends not only on the type of learning undertaken but also on the age at which it occurs and the general learning environment. Drawing on evidence that emotions re-sculpt neural tissues, it suggests that one of the most powerful motivations to learn is the illumination that comes with grasping new concepts.
With this in mind, the report recommends that early education should ensure enjoyment from learning by providing children with such experience of “enlightenment”. Drawing on evidence provided by neuro-imaging of adolescents, in which high cognitive potential is shown to be combined with emotional immaturity, it also raises questions about the practice in some countries of streaming school students at a relatively early age, as well as about whether it would be more efficient to offer young people learning opportunities later, once they have matured.
Among other things, the report suggests that new findings on how and at what age the brain processes language can usefully be applied to foreign language teaching. The report also contradicts ideas about “right brain” and “left brain” learning and thinking, arguing that most skills are not lodged exclusively in one part of the brain. In the case of numerical ability, for example, addition and subtraction sums are carried out in entirely different regions.
The report addresses ethical questions such as the use of brain imaging and medication to enhance education achievement. It also discusses the 3 Ds: dyslexia, dyscalculia (innumeracy) and dementia. Dyslexia, for example, results primarily from atypical features of the auditory cortex, now identifiable at a very young age.
Overall, the report emphasises the importance of a holistic approach in education, taking into account both neurological findings and environmental and social factors. Whereas research shows that language acquisition is best at an early age, it also reveals that the ability to enlarge one’s vocabulary remains constant throughout life.
For further information and to obtain a copy of the report Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science, journalists should contact the OECD's Media Division (tel.+ 33 1 45 24 97 00). The report can be purchased in paper or electronic form through the OECD’s Online Bookshop. Subscribers and readers at subscribing institutions can access the online version via SourceOECD.
Further information can be found at www.oecd.org/edu/brain.