Friday, October 01, 2010

The New Scientist on neuroscience and education

This week's New Scientist (October 2nd 2010) is carrying an interesting piece entitled 'Supercharge Your Brain' but it's also the introductory editorial 'From neuromyth to reality' that has much to commend it.
Firstly, I can't resist including the remark once made by John Maynard Keynes quoted at the beginning of the editorial. He is recorded as saying that education is 'inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent', an encapsulation that will give many of us working in the field of education much food for thought.
However, on a more serious note, the question is raised about whether the gap between neuroscience, cognitive science and education can be bridged. Although neuroscientists have brought home to the teaching profession the importance of sensory motor learning and the active involvement of learners in their own learning, as well as dispelling 'half-baked' neuromyths such as the value of 'brain training', 'left-brained/right-brained' nonsense, and the like, as the article makes clear, 'even today, a grand theory of learning that can exert a direct influence on education looks a distant prospect'.
That said, what we do know about what works is still not finding its way into classrooms. A pupil I know well told me the other day about being introduced to simultaneous equations at school for the first time. The teacher 'explained' the elimination method for ten minutes and the class were then given a homework in which they had to solve an assortment of these equations. Next lesson, the pupils have been told, they will be learning the substitution method. In contrast, in Singaporean math, the pupils are first given an explanation of why simultaneous equations are useful in solving certain problems – the reason for knowing how to do them. The next step is to offer worked examples, beginning with the most simple and moving towards the more complex. After that, the pupils practise, not with ten example questions but with fifty! During this practice, the pupils are also practising the skills and knowledge they have previous learnt: basic algebraic manipulation - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of algebraic terms -, linear equations, and so on.
This kind of apprenticeship model of learning is precisely the one employed in Sounds-Write's methodology: the teacher models what it is they want the pupils to learn; next, they invite the pupils to take part in guided participation; finally, after plenty of rehearsal and consolidation – i.e. practice – the pupils gain independence before moving on to the next stage. Which is why, as an approach to the teaching of reading and spelling, it is so successful.
It's not just the training; it's the practice, stupid!

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