Download article | By Manfred Spitzer | Published in Personalising Education, OECD/CERI, 2006
Manfred Spitzer (Ulm, Germany) argues that brain research not only shows that we are born for learning and do it for our entire life, but also shows the conditions for successful learning and differences in each stage of life. The time has come, he says, to use this understanding to shape learning environments and programmes; we cannot act as if we know nothing about the workings of the brain, the most important resource that we have. Thus, it is important to create the conditions for transferring insights from basic studies of learning in brain research to the practice of teaching.
His discussion is organised around themes describing how brain function can inform educational methods and the personalisation agenda. One discussion concerns the way the brain is able to generate rules from examples; for instance, when we learn single items (people, places, words, events), a different part of the brain is more involved than when the brain is engaged in extracting rules.
The chapter also discusses the aging process and the ways in which the brain is able to come to complexity by learning more basic patterns and connections. The brain of the newborn contains practically all neurons, but many are unconnected – learning is about creating connections between neurons and “maps” which, once made, have important consequences for new learning.
In school, students can best prepare for a rapidly-changing world through learning, not details and facts, but problem-solving skills, and future brain research promises to give more precise understanding of how practice-oriented learning takes place.
To conclude, the author highlights that emotion’s impact on learning is a relatively new subject in which brain research has insights to offer, especially concerning the impact of negative emotions (fear, anxiety) on how learning occurs. Spitzer outlines the relative role played by separate parts of the brain under different emotional states and how this can affect the learning process. He also discusses the life cycle and slowing rates of learning (seen as something positive, even necessary) and the ways in which experience and judgement improve with age.