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Centre for Educational Research and Innovation - CERI

Interview - Christian Gerlach

 

Researcher
LEARNING LAB DENMARK

WHO’S REALLY CREATING THE REVOLUTION IN EDUCATION?

OECD
Christian, please tell us a little about what you do at the Learning Lab and also a little bit about your background, before you came here.

Christian Gerlach
I was trained as a neuro-phychologist and did mostly research with brain-imaging techniques looking at different brain areas involved in visual object recognition. I was taken by the idea to see if all the knowledge that has been gained within neuro-science could be used in real-life. I thought that was a very important point and so that’s how I got into this. In Denmark, there has been no tradition for coupling neuro-science and pedagogy, or learning science, so we have been trying to establish this field within the last three years. We are a very small group. We are two post docs. We have two PhD students and we are trying to get our fields up and running. So I guess a lot of our activities have also been to visit schools, talk with teachers, and give lectures. A number of us have didn’t have any knowledge in advance about the educational sector. I thought it was very interesting. We had to go through a learning phase as well.

OECD
What was that like? How did you go about that?

CG
Well, I actually spent some time in school again. Just to sit in the classroom. To see if it had changed. With new eyes. My scientific eyes. Just to get a feeling of what it was like.

OECD
And did you learn anything new? Were you reminded of certain things? What was that experience like for you?

CG
It was very hard indeed.  I had to stop from not falling asleep because I couldn’t quite stand the lectures for 45 minutes. It is very difficult to sustain your attention for that long a period. So that was one kind of insight. But what do you do about that?  When you know something about attention and how long you can sustain attention - then 45 minutes is actually too long.  So, if you can teach people tricks for enhancing concentration, like to learn to take a two minute break, stand up, get the blood flowing to your body and brain. Open the window. There are a lot of small things we can contribute - based on our knowledge.

OECD
Have there been any specific changes in schools in Denmark - which your group has been a part of?

CG
Although we haven’t been in the business long enough to have made a huge impact, there is definitely a general interest in neuro-science - also sceptical but also very positive. And I think that many people find it inspiring. Some of the things we can show are based on something that a practitioner is already practicing.  They might know that it works but perhaps not why it works. And I think that we can complete it with that kind of knowledge.

OECD
Have you worked directly with some teachers?

CG
I lectured to students about learning and that it was an active process that they had to participate in – and to let them know about brain development – that it actually makes a physical difference to their brain in terms of what they are doing in class as well. Just to sort of create an awareness of that. Then I spoke to the teachers and we shared observations and gave them some hints on what they might do differently - like to have a small break – but  I think that compared to when I was in school – now, there is less talk from the teachers to the pupils and it’s more group work now. And I think that’s a good idea.

“Some of the things we can show are based on something that a practitioner is already practicing.  They might know that it works but perhaps not why it works. And I think that we can complete it with that kind of knowledge”

OECD
Creating more of a social interaction?

CG
Yes, but there is very little sharing between the teachers.  That was one of the things. But, of course, that had nothing to do with neuro-scientific knowledge but it might be good to take advantage of each other’s experiences, good or bad.

OECD
Are there any recent insights, from your research, that may not be ready for practice, but are informing you about what might possibly be done in the future regarding learning and the brain?

CG
Well, there are insights that teachers have themselves. For example, one of the things we are looking into now is the developmental trajectories in our brain maturation - because there is a lot of individual variability (variation). So one of the important things is to examine, what does it mean? People starting at the same age, for example, they might give up tremendously in their maturation, and how do you untangle that problem?

OECD
Meaning, that people at the same age are learning at different maturity levels, and how do you tackle that problem?

CG
Yes - at different rates. Maybe some are not ready for certain types of learning and then for others it may be too easy.  In Denmark, you have a standard curriculum and everybody starts at the age of 7. And perhaps if it’s true, if there are these large individual differences in brain maturation, and if these differences have some importance for our mode or way of learning then how do we approach the problem? Does it mean that we have to drop the idea of a standard curriculum and have something that is more adaptable to the individual student? Because you might imagine that even though the majority of the pupils might fit the standard curriculum then you might have quite a few who think it’s too easy and get bored. Even worse, you might have some that think it’s too difficult, not because they may have a learning disability but simply because they are not quite ready for that kind of learning yet, but maybe they might be in a half of a year, for example. And I think if you have a curriculum that you cannot adapt then the later pupils will experience a lot of frustration trying to accomplish something that they are simply not ready for.

OECD
And how do you educate the teachers about brain maturation. For now, are there any tools they can use?

CG
Well, for now, it’s a hypothesis, and we need to look into it more, but it’s something that we need to address politically as well. How do we tackle this problem? Of course, you cannot - one can argue that if it’s too much of a difference between the pupils perhaps we can start at different ages at school. But that might not be a good idea for other reasons, for example, social reasons. I don’t think that any educational problem is going to be solved with neuro-scientific knowledge alone.  It’s just a brick in a puzzle. There exist a whole range of parameters and different aspects – you need to take them all into consideration.

OECD
How do you go about gathering effective research to move forward – to present it to the policy-maker, for example?

CG
I think that one way to go about it is that every teacher will tell you that pupils are different. And that they really want to address that individuality but maybe it’s not practical because there is only one teacher for 25 pupils. And maybe we can - because neuro-scientific knowledge is considered hard evidence - we can say the same but show them in another way. That way, it might gain more credibility - because it seems to be considered hard evidence. So we might back-up something that teachers themselves already have identified as a problem, that they would like to address, but may not be able to get the resources because they cannot get the attention of politicians, but maybe, if we can point to some of the same things, from another angle, maybe it’s possible.

OECD
And would you be working directly with the teachers and the students during the process on brain maturation?

CG
I think that some of the questions that we can answer with neuro-scientific methods are really good in a setting of a laboratory. But it might look very different in a classroom.  And it’s very difficult to apply those techniques in a classroom. So I think that is part of our mission – to digest the knowledge – there is a lot of knowledge in cognitive neuro-science regarding different cognitive memory systems, how attention works, etc. etc. that might be difficult to comprehend if you are not educated within the field. Part of our work is to digest it and present it in a way that is understandable but that does not loose important aspects. There are a lot of books based on neuro-pedogogy, but I think, they are based on misconceptions, because they are written by people who are not trained in the field – who do not know the possibilities of the limitations of the different methods. So I think that it’s important for us to at least read and present some of the knowledge in this field that might be – just like some of the OECD CERI updates – that will get rid of some of the myths. I think that it’s not us, the neuroscientific researchers, who are going to make a revolution in the educational system. I think we can provide the knowledge but I think the practitioners and the educational researchers will have a much better understanding on what is usable and possible with the knowledge that we can present to them. And I think if we don’t have a dialogue, it won’t be good. They need the knowledge, just like I needed to go back to school to get a feeling of what it was like again to be a student.

"I don’t think that any educational problem is going to be solved with neuro-scientific knowledge alone.  It’s just a brick in a puzzle. There exist a whole range of parameters and different aspects – you need to take them all into consideration.”

OECD
Aside from the knowledge, what do you imagine the teachers need from you – to know what it’s like to be in your shoes, to get that feeling of what it’s like to be a neuro-scientist? Is that important?

CG
And I think that one way you can start a dialogue is that we can present something that is comprehensible and at the same time still being scientifically valid and from there we can start a dialogue. Because then teachers or practitioners will be able to draw our attention to some things that we haven’t the slightest idea about – or to point to some things that they say, well, that might work in a laboratory but would be hopeless because of this and that.

OECD
I guess the challenge is being honest about where you are in the process. One step at a time.

CG
Not only do the practitioners need to be educated or at least learn something about neuro-science but so do we – about education and how things work. Otherwise, there will be no dialogue. Just a monologue. About great thoughts about how terrific neuro-scientific knowledge is.

OECD
Since you are an expert, does my brain have less and less ability as I grow older?

CG
I think we haven't seen the limits yet. Our brain is very flexible and very plastic, as we call it. We do loose some of the learning potential; but this may actually be a consequence of the learning process: We loose in flexibility but we gain in proficiency. As children, we are at the highest peak and most sensitive. Part of the learning is that you can actually shape your brain – it’s not that it becomes fixed, but it becomes more and more difficult to change - but it certainly is possible. I just think that we use some of our life experiences but we become more fixed at doing what we are good at.  For example, if you look at human memory, that is something that is very vulnerable, if you have to recall something later, you can recall it better if you can connect it to something you knew in advance. Because you have a sort of shelf to put the knowledge on. You might learn in another way, when you get older, perhaps.

OECD
Like learning new languages at a later age?

CG
This is one of the positive things within the field for the time being. If we thought, 10 years back, if we thought the brain remained rather fixed after 6 years old, we have certainly become wiser since then – these changes go on throughout life – not at the same pace – but throughout life – and there appears to be different mechanisms depending on your age – but certainly, the brain keeps changing. Of course if we think about it, we knew this in advance. If you think there is some kind of connection between your psychological capabilities and your brain, then, of course, everybody knows that it is possible to learn throughout life.  So, of course, the brain must be capable of changing itself also. And it is.
Copenhagen, 21 February 2006

 

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