Education, regardless of what you hear on the news, has developed a lot in the last decade. One of those developments has been in emphasizing brain development in the planning of instruction. Education professionals have learned that by know how the brain learns, we can more effectively instruct students in a way that will help them process and retain information. One of the more most recent breakthroughs in know how a brain learns was published in the journal Nature, and reveals that brain cells perform better when there are strong connections to their “neighbors”.
As reported The Atlantic, the researchers investigated this phenomenon by studying lab mice that were learning a new motor task and studying their brain cells, or neurons. Specifically, the researchers looked at the neuron’s dendrites, long spindly parts of the cell that form the connections between other neurons. That connection happens over a synapse, or a gap between the dendrites of one neuron, and the dendrites of another. The strength of that connection depends on the number of dendrites sending impulses across their respective synapses. The stronger the dendrites and the more synapses a cell has, the better that particular function is learned.
What the researchers found with the mice learning the new motor skill (such as putting their paw through a slot in order to gain access to a bit of food) was that neurons in the motor cortex of the brain begin to develop stronger dendrites and more synapses with each repetition. Furthermore, the spines of the dendrites grew stronger if there was another one, with its own synapse, next to it. These “cluster synapses” create a stronger connection in the cell and correlate to stronger performance of that motor task that the mice were learning. These “neighbor” dendrites were formed when repetitions were performed by approaching the task from different ways. The strongest connections were created when the neuron processed the same task over and over again, but in a variety of different ways.
In addition, researchers found that when they changed to motor task, such as training the mouse to grab a piece of pasta instead of a seed, that task had its own synaptic cluster separate from the previous one. In other words, each task or piece of information required continual repetition, or as the lead author Yi Zuo stated, “Repetitive activation of the same cortical circuit is really important in learning a new task.”
The implications for education are scientific evidence for the kind of repetitious coverage of content, but not the kind of “skill and drill” that is becoming more prevalent in schools. New knowledge does need to be repeatedly covered in classes, but it needs to be addressed from a variety of different angles in order to form the strongest connections in kids’ minds.