Neuroscience and technology can bridge the gap of individual learning – A panel of neuro-experts and academicians discussed new dimensions of education

 

Gandhinagar: At a time when the global pandemic has changed the dynamics of education and made us re-think the traditional teaching-learning processes, the Centre for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) hosted a pertinent panel discussion on March 19, 2021, as a part of the Brain Awareness Week. The panel discussion titled – “Neuroscience, Technology and Education – the new equilateral triangle in education?” –brought together two scientists and a teacher to discuss how neuroscience can be brought to classrooms through the aid of technology and how it can impact major aspects of education, such as pedagogy, curriculum and individual differences in learning.

 

Dr Gregoire Borst, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience of Education at the University of Paris; Dr Nandini Chatterjee Singh, Scientist at the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (UNESCO MGIEP), National Brain Research Centre; and Mr Gareth Manning, a teacher at the THINK Global school, were part of the panel, while Ms Kriti and Mr Mayank, two budding young scientists at MGIEP moderated the discussion.

 

Explaining the significance of healthy cognitive development, Dr Gregoire Borst said, “Brain maturation and cognitive development are dynamic processes. There are sensitive periods in brain maturation, and socio-economic factors play a major role in it, especially during adolescence. Cognitive self-control can determine a person’s success in adult life. It is predictive not just of academic achievement but also mental and physical health.” He also stressed on the use of online tools to teach science and bridge the gap between the lab and the classroom. Dr Borst’s lab has studied systematic difficulties in classrooms to study inhibitory control and academic learning of school students with active involvement teachers. They also used experimental methods to check if playing games improved performance. The study showed that the control group (those not playing games) did not perform better than the experimental group (those who played games), which indicates that creating effective pedagogical material for classrooms can improve learning among students.

 

Dr Nandini Chatterjee provided a brief overview of how UNESCO MGIEP attempts to bridge the education gap through a whole-brain approach to education while recognising the potential of technology. Emphasising social and emotional factors that impact learning and the significance of emotional literacy, Dr Nandini said, “A major part of our brain is involved in forming relationships. This is crucial in the current scenario when schools have shifted online, and students miss the connections that in-person learning allows. Schools serve as great social and emotional spaces for students and teachers.” She then explained the concept of the emotional brain, which is involved in motivation, learning, emotion, attention, and memory, leading us to make decisions. Fear has an adverse impact on learning, and this makes it crucial for teachers to ensure that classrooms are safe spaces that ground students.

 

She brought in the need for teachers to understand the importance of neuroplasticity in learning and how they play a major role in moulding their students’ brains. “Teachers are facilitators of experiences that enable empathy, respect, critical thinking and positive connection. They must take into account learner differences. The use of new pedagogies such as games, storytelling, dialogue and reflection stimulate the brain. They can be combined by leveraging new technology to lead to transformative education.” She also introduced “FramerSpace.com”, a platform where students can safely talk about their experiences and engage in learning. It is being implemented in 10 countries. An example is GRIS, a game based course that talks about how to cope with grief. There is another course on climate change. The platform also caters to teachers with courses like digital teacher, the SEL primer and the GC (global citizenship primer) for teachers to build their own socio emotional skills and also bring in the digital practices into their classrooms.

 

Mr Gareth Manning emphasised focusing on “learning how to learn” and said, “It is crucial to give children a sense of agency. Classrooms deprive children of that, which often induces anxiety.” Sharing his thoughts on using technology as a modern-day teacher, he said, “A pen is a technology, a book is a technology. People tend to conflate technology with examples that they do not like. When parents and teachers are afraid of using technology, it is because they do not know how to use it. The key for technology is not to drive, but to enable pedagogy.” He works in THINK global school that travels all over the world and has curricular flexibility. The kids are given the responsibility to design night rituals, exercise, and a number of things such as mindfulness and journaling.

 

In agreement with Mr Gareth, Dr Gregoire added that it is hard to individualise technology, but it could be a great way to foster the automaticity of learning. He emphasised that we must have critical conversations on “why are we learning this” with children and should also be teaching students to be aware of abuse of the internet, such as fake news.

 

There was an interactive part where attendees were asked to bust neuromyths. Dr Nandini narrated an interesting intervention with “problem children”, talking to the child two minutes everyday for ten days. This is called the 2×10 intervention. She elaborated that this was nothing to do with discipline or how the child should behave but just to give two minutes to show compassion. By the seventh or eighth day, the child as well as the rest of the class behaves better. This offers an insight into how empathy can improve classroom management.

 

The panel discussion was met with enthusiasm, especially the idea of including gamification in the classroom. Dr Gregoire gave the example of dyslexic children playing games and that translated into reading competencies.

 

The session concluded with brief insights on the role of policy in education. Mr Gareth expressed the need for policymakers to take social and emotional learning seriously to allow teachers to have more decision making power. Dr Gregoire and Dr Nandini both shared their experiences and called for policies to be more evidence-based.

 

Box: Myth or Fact

1. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning styles (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic):

Dr Nandini – This is a myth. You really want children to learn in as many ways as possible and engage as much of the brain as we can.

2. Some of us are “left-brained” and some of us are “right-brained” and it is due to this hemispheric dominance that we have differences in how we learn:

Dr Gregoire said It is a myth! There are some specifications of the processes that are more specialized in each hemisphere.

3. Extended rehearsal of mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brain:

Dr Nandini shared that this was a fact, and gave the example of how London taxi drivers mapped the roads in the hippocampus. Extensive repetition does change the brain, some is conscious and some isn’t. Another example is her own research which studied Vedic Pundits who can memorize very large portions of text that had a different part of the hippocampus involved. “Neuroplasticity is here to stay” she said, and that this was a good thing, because it means that the brain is dynamic.

4. Rereading course materials is an effective strategy for learning:

Dr Gregoire explained that this is a myth, and re-reading will give one the illusion that one has learnt a lot. “You should do less but better, ask yourself questions.” Dr. Nandini added that “sleep consolidates learning” and encouraged students to not skip on sleep. Gareth added that it is better to mix chapters instead of learning them serially, this challenges the brain and improves learning.
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