BRAIN PLASTICITY & CREATING INDEPENDENT LIFELONG LEARNERS

Until recently, it was widely believed that the brain developed in pregnancy, influenced primarily by genetic factors and was pretty much “a fixed entity thereafter.” Advances in neuroscience over the past several years have shown that the brain has the capacity to change and adapt throughout one’s life. “Because learning shapes the brain, we can use brain imaging to identify the effects of school learning on the brain and thus build the first bridge between the brain and education. (Masson 2014)”
The fact that learning has shown to contribute to brain growth suggests that there is no cap or limit on a student’s ability to learn throughout their school careers and beyond. “Students’ learning difficulties should not, therefore, be perceived as unchangeable, but rather as challenges to overcome for students whose brains can change and improve through learning…This more positive observation comes, however, with great responsibility: teachers and education systems must strive to provide instruction adapted to students’ brain function and architecture.” (Masson 2014). It is particularly important for teachers whose students are struggling, un-motivated, tuned-out or have spotty attendance to create a classroom culture that strives to engage students as active participants in their own learning. So what strategies can school systems use to motivate and engage students to learn in ways that support and develop students’ “brain function and architecture?”  
 
ACTIVE LEARNING
Children are social and need to experience positive interactions with teachers, peers, communities, instructional materials & devices in ways that promote curiosity, playfulness, empathy, tolerance, critical thinking, inquiry & problem solving. Whenever possible and appropriate, teachers need to use strategies such as group discussion, partner work, seminars, peer revision, collaborations and partnerships inside and outside the classroom.
 
CHOICE, AUTONOMY & INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES
Learners are more motivated when they have choice & autonomy. Students can learn through a wide range of instructional activities, including  direct instruction, discussion, debate, inquiry, questioning, collaboration, individual reading & reflection, writing to learn, performing, teaching, and also through creative and interdisciplinary projects. As much choice as possible should be provided with respect to instructional strategies but also: reading materials, texts, projects. writing topics, daily tasks, learning goals, success criteria, formative & summative assessment, type of devices used, etc. Teachers need also to be mindful of time spent on traditional teacher-talk and whenever possible, increase time as coach, guide, advisor and facilitator.
 
RELEVANT & AUTHENTIC
Learners are more likely to fully engage & participate when learning is authentic and they understand the reason for learning specific skills or knowledge. When students ask, “Why do I need to learn this?”  “Because it’s part of the curriculum,” is not a satisfactory answer. Teachers need to know why they are teaching specific skills or knowledge, and have thoughtful authentic answers that build students’ connection to material and their investment in learning about it. Engage & encourage families to participate in their child’s learning and connect learning, when possible to the larger community.
 
DIFFERENTIATE, SUPPORT & SCAFFOLD
It is essential to promote the gradual release of responsibility and movement toward learner independence. This can be achieved through differentiation of texts, content, assignments, assessment, teacher/student conferences and ongoing feedback. This approach keeps students engaged & motivated, while they receive targeted, individualized support. Academic intervention should support students’ ongoing engagement with authentic relevant learning, not replace it. Excessive use of worksheets, drill & rote activities have a deadening effect on motivation.
 
THE BALANCE OF CHALLENGE & SUCCESS
Tasks need to be challenging enough to engage and motivate each learner, but not so challenging that they need a lot of teacher support, or frustration pre-empts learning. Authentic and ongoing non-invasive diagnostic assessment is the key to finding and maintaining this fine balance.
 
TECHNOLOGY
Technology is not a fad; it will be part of students’ lives and learning from now on. Therefore, students need to have access to, and a critical understanding of a wide variety of devices and technology. This will increase engagement and prepare them for their futures in post-secondary education, the workplace and life in general. When students do not have access at home, it is even more critical to provide technology in school and a deeper understanding of the role and challenges of technologies in our lives.
 
FEEDBACK & AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT
Students need to receive timely, ongoing feedback during learning, and to demonstrate their learning in authentic ways that are meaningful & relevant to them. This promotes the belief that learning has intrinsic value and is not just about marks and grades. Effective descriptive feedback and authentic assessment has shown to increase motivation and this results in deep, sustained learning and the motivation to take on future challenges.
 
INQUIRY PROMOTES A SENSE OF CURIOSITY AND DESIRE TO LEARN
Finding that one key topic or subject that re-ignites natural curiosity or fascination has the power to restore interest in a student who has given up on school. Young children have an innate sense of wonder and curiosity, which sparks an accelerated capacity to learn in the first few years of life. In order to maintain their motivation to learn over time, this curiosity needs to be valued, encouraged and supported.  Intermediate and senior students may need to have this natural curiosity re-ignited if it has been stifled or squashed through years of academic struggle or school failure. Therefore, wherever possible, learning should encourage personal inquiry or problem solving, giving students opportunities to research, evaluate, analyze, adapt, and create topics that have personal meaning to them.
 
REFERENCES
Curriculum &  Assessment Policy Branch, MOE. Adolescent Literacy Guide: A professional
Learning Resource for Literacy, Grades 7 to 12 . Ontario  2012.
Lent, Releah Cossett  & Gilmore, Barry   10 Standards for Motivation. Educational Leadership; Sep 2014, Vol. 72 Issue 1, p66-67, 2p
Masson, Steve. Can a better understanding of the brain help us teach? Education Canada. Sep 2014. Vol. 4. Issue 55.http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/brain-learning-and-teaching
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