Training the Brain

I’ve long been intrigued by the saying “There are no bad learners, just those with poor learning strategies.” The more you think about this, the more you come to realise that if it’s really true, then for each of us there really is no limitation on our ability to learn if we can just acquire, practice and hone our learning skills and strategies.

And yet,…… in the average school, how much time do pupils spend being coached in learning skills, strategies or competencies – the ‘How’ of learning as opposed to the ‘what’? I suspect that the roots of this issue lie in the past when educators made no apologies for the fact that they saw what they did as a means of filtering children to determine their future paths. How would an education system filter if every pupil succeeded?

I have long believed that we should integrate in to the learning process time and practice that enables pupils to master effective methods. I will only believe we are making progress in this area when we no longer see children wasting hours of their lives week after week in tuitions (should be completely unnecessary), cramming and mugging for exams in the last days and hours before sitting, writing endless screeds of linear notes (instead of using mindmapping and other organisational tools) or clutching the textbook just minutes before entering an examination room having gone without adequate sleep the night before and having resorted to an unhealthy diet.

On a study trip to the US around 2 1/2 years ago I had many amazing meetings with some of the leading thinkers in education. One that sticks in my mind was the Dean of the School of Education at a prominent Ivy League University. She talked about how it had taken a long time, but finally the School of Education had created a formal relationship with the Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine. Sadly when it comes to education wheels turn slowly – way too slowly. Neurology and the use of Functional MRI scanning has opened up fascinating new areas of research in to the working of the human brain, memory and ultimately learning. These should be leading to key changes in the way education and schooling are approached.

The idea of the brain as analogous to a muscle has also long intrigued me. The idea that you could train the brain in the same way that an athlete trains his or her muscles appealed to me at an instinctive level. However, in the past it was difficult to do research that was conclusive in this area. So, around a year ago i was very interested to hear of the work of a new company that was getting a lot of backing and support from teams within major universities, doing research in to the scope to train the mind through the use of mental exercises and ‘games’. it offered something more sophisticated than my daily mental stretch with the Sudoku in the newspaper!

It’s called Lumosity and I personally started playing the games daily some months ago, took a break and have recently gone back to it again. It takes only a few minutes a day, but i have to say I felt it was possibly doing me some good (and couldn’t be doing harm). You can sign up for some features for free, or there’s a more comprehensive pay service.

I was recently interested to see some of their initial research findings from using Lumosity exercises with school age children. These seem to offer some very promising evidence in favour of brain training. I am worried that this will lead to an inevitable rash of ‘copy-cat’ operators without credentials seeking to sell brain training services in to schools. The credibility of the backers of Lumosity is hard to beat and for the foreseeable future i will continue to follow and evaluate what they’re doing to consider its scope for incorporation in our school activities.

Here is the research on Lumosity in schools: Lumosity Blog Article

In the meantime, there is much that schools can do by integrating practices such as mindmapping in to regular learning. I’ve found these don’t work well when delivered as stand-alone workshops. it’s far more effective to integrate their use in to the normal pattern of schooling along with awareness building from an early age of the benefits for effective learning of good diet, sleep habits and mental exercise.

The world no longer needs education to act as a giant filter to shape and determine young people’s futures on the basis of innate characteristics or accidentally procured effective learning habits. We are on the threshold, I believe, of a time when it will only be considered acceptable when educational institutions show they meet the needs of every pupil to fulfil potential and be an effective contributor to society.

And finally …. I’m not too old to tune up my mental muscle, so will continue to get my daily dose of Lumosity games and the odd sudoku when time allows. Like getting to the gym for a physical workout it’s an investment of time that will pay back continuously.

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