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Brain-based Learning

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The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Without it we could not dress ourselves, tie our shoes, drive a car, or cook a hotdog, let alone dream, invent, or create. Our brain is who we are, and, just like our fingerprints, each brain is unique.

The brain has fascinated man for centuries, and more has been learned about the brain in the past twenty years than in all of history. Hippocrates, as early as 360 B.C thought the brain was the seat of intelligence and emotion. The Egyptians thought the heart was the seat of emotions and the controller of thoughts. When mummifying the body, the Egyptians pulled out the brain with a hook through the nose and discarded it, believing it to be insignificant. Aristotle and other Greeks believed that the brain was a sort of radiator, used to cool the blood from the heart.

Many theories early on were based on very rudimentary knowledge of the brain. Frances Gall created phrenology in the early 1800’s. Gall believed that the areas most developed in the brain created bumps and ridges. He thought that personality could be discovered by feeling the bumps and ridges of the head. Pierre Flourens created the aggregate field view of the brain. He postulated that each of the organs in the brain were not separate, and an injury to any one part of the brain would affect the brain as a whole.

In 1848 a very significant event launched new studies about the brain and how the frontal lobes affect behavior. Phineas P. Gage, a railroad worker, was preparing a bed for the railroad in Cavendish, Vermont when an accidental explosion sent a tamping iron right through his head, destroying the left frontal part of his brain. He recovered but his personality changed so drastically that he could no longer work with the other employees. Whereas before Gage had been affable, reasonable, and friendly, he was now irreverent, profane, and irrational. He could no longer work as a railroad foreman and he took work as a currier both in Chile and in the United States. It is believed that for a time he also worked for Barnum’s museum in New York. After death, his body was exhumed and both his skull and the tamping iron are on display at Harvard University.

Another person who fueled much research about the brain and memory was a patient known in the literature as “H.M.” In an attempt to stop seizures, the hippocampi of his brain were removed. Doctors discovered after the surgery that while his long term memory was intact, he had no short term memory. This lead to years of compiling information about the different memory systems of the brain and the function of the hippocampus. Brain theory in the 1970s, due largely to research by Roger Sperry, focused on a theory about right brain left brain. Later, Paul McLean developed a concept of the triune brain: the lower, reptilian brain, dealing with survival; the mid brain which processed emotions, and the upper part of the brain, where higher order thinking takes place. Current brain research recognizes the brain as more systems- based than divided into neat and tidy categories. No longer is it compared to a computer as much as a rainforest, a place where systems are interconnected and overlapping.

Many significant findings have been discovered about the brain since then. Thanks to technology, scientists can see into the brain as never before. One of the most important machines to drive research is the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner, using radioactive material to image the brain, discovered in 1973 by Michael Phelps, Edward Hoffman, and Michael Ter Pogossian. Since then the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or FMRI, measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. This allows a look at the brain as it is learning. When the blood flow to an area increases, it shows that that particular area of the brain is in use. This has huge implications for education, allowing a connection between how the brain learns and how we can teach to how the brain learns.

Brain based learning is based on evolving knowledge about how the brain works and the connection to natural learning. The brain loves to learn—so why don’t all of our students? This course will take a brief look at brain anatomy, define and explore what brain based learning means, present brain based learning strategies, and offer tools for student engagement. It will show how evolving research about the structure and function of the brain suggest a biologically driven structure for effective instruction.

Teachers who have knowledge of the workings of the brain will be more motivated to follow the ongoing research and to apply their findings to the classroom. As Eric Jensen, one of the world’s leading trainers in brain based education, says, “Understanding and applying relevant research about the brain is the single most powerful choice you can make to improve learning.”

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