Over the past two decades educators and psychologists have extolled the application of brain-based learning programs. Buzzwords such as neuroplasticity and prefrontal cortex are commonplace to the extent that they have invaded our Sunday comics (see the recent Doonesbury strip). Colorful functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) point to specific brain regions involved in learning and memory. Indeed, there is a sense that by attributing biology to educational practices (such as stating that “students must activate their prefrontal cortex!”), we have advanced our understanding simply because we are doing Science (with a capital “S”).
As someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of studying how the human brain learns and remembers, there is no doubt in my mind that an understanding of the biology of memory has important implications for educational practices. Educators should be aware of advances in memory research, as recent findings suggest that there are ways to improve student learning. Indeed, everyone should be knowledgeable about these advances as we are “teachers” whenever we disseminate our knowledge to others. How exactly can brain-based research benefit learning and retention in everyday situations?
From human neuroscience investigations, we have come to appreciate that there are brain regions that contribute to specific memory functions. These findings come largely from neuroimaging studies as well as from analyses of neurological patients who have memory impairment following damage to isolated brain regions. Memory researchers have focused on two brain regions—the prefrontal cortex in its role in focused attention and keeping things in mind (i.e., working memory) and the medial temporal lobe (specifically the hippocampus) in its role in binding new information with existing knowledge (i.e., relational memory). It is these findings of localized memory processes that exemplify both the power and pitfalls of brain-based learning programs.
For researchers interested in the biology of human memory it is reasonable to focus on specific brain regions. Yet for educators interested in implementing brain-based learning strategies, it is critical to note that these brain regions do not function by themselves. Over-indulgent practitioners often fall prey to a modern day form of phrenology—if we can only boost activity in these brain regions, we can solve the problem of poor student learning. Even worse are those practitioners who use brain regions as markers for “styles” of learning—are you a left-brain (verbal), right-brain (spatial), back-brain (perceiving), or front-brain (thinking) learner? A major pitfall in applying brain-based learning approaches is the over-attribution of brain regions to psychological function.