A kindergartener is perched on the edge of his seat, peering over a simple book, and sounding out the words he sees on the page. Learning to read is frustrating but also exciting. There are some amazing changes happening inside this new reader’s brain.
Brain Function While Learning a Language
An article on The Conversation explains, as a new reader views printed words, this information travels from their eyes to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain where it is processed as visual information. Then it travels to the left fusiform gyrus, also known as the brain’s “letterbox”. This is where words are recognized and stored.
New readers do not have as much letter information stored in their “letterbox” so their effort is much slower and harder. This process is much faster, even automatic and effortless, for skilled readers. The journey takes less than half a second. After the information leaves the letterbox, it travels to the frontal and temporal lobes to identify meaning. This process is the same when you hear sounds. The frontal and temporal lobes are centers of the brain specially designed for language.
Learning Programs Our Brains
From the moment we are born, our brains have the ability to constantly change and grow, even through old age. This adaptability is called neuroplasticity. In an article on Edutopia, neuroplasticity is defined by educator and neurologist, Judy Willis, as, “the selective organizing and connection between neurons in our brains”. Neurons are nerve cells whose function is to transport information throughout our bodies.
As a child is learning to read, their brain is developing and forming synapses, or neurological connections. This organizing and reorganizing affects the circuitry in our brains so we can process and remember. Also in the Edutopia article, neurologists say, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The more we learn, the more connections are made in our brains.
When we are born, we have few synaptic connections. Synapses are formed and then disappear as new information is learned and refined in our brains. This is a normal brain process during learning. Adults have trillions of these connections.
The Science of Learning
There is a detailed science to learning that teaching professionals are constantly researching and studying. There are many schools of thought regarding the best ways to learn. The growth mindset approach to learning focuses on the personal understanding that our learning is not fixed and we have the ability to grow and change. Behaviorism maintains that learning produces changes in behavior. A third school of thought is sociocultural learning. This idea supports that learning is social, cooperative and embedded in our society.
Each of these ideas about learning has strengths and are useful theories about how we learn best. Despite the differences in each of these views, however, there are a few universal truths we learn from Edutopia and Psychology Today about learning.
- First, we have control over our own learning. We can choose to develop new skills and entertain new ideas.
- Second, we build stronger connections when we connect prior knowledge to new knowledge. Neurological imaging shows that utilizing and establishing background knowledge, generates greater brain activity.
- Third, practice makes perfect. Practice retrieving new learned information enhances retention and helps develop thicker, stronger connections in the brain.
- And fourth, learning takes place on a continuum. We start as a novice and as we progress, we move toward becoming an expert. The most profound learning takes place when we are challenged or problem solving. This is why the goal in classrooms is to help students develop strong critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Learning changes the actual physical structure of the brain.
There is research from National Academies Press that shows the experiences we have and the information we are introduced to in our lifetime, are reflected in our brains. Meaning, quality experiences enhance the quality of our brain function. This is one reason why there is a focus on teaching young children. Our brains have heightened neuroplasticity before we reach young adulthood. Which only means there is a greater flexibility in learning while we are young. This is not to say that learning is not possible throughout our entire lives. At any age, when we learn a new skill, the pathways between neurons become stronger and our brains continue to change and grow.