Please look back over all weve read, discussed and done, and indicate how the information, discussion, and assignments regarding learning theories, neuroscience,
Please look back over all we’ve read, discussed and done, and indicate how the information, discussion, and assignments regarding learning theories, neuroscience, motivation and engagement, and Habits of Mind contributed to your understanding of furthering your continual learning and the learning of your students. Be concise
ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science
© OECD 2007
Education is like a double-edged sword. It
may be turned to dangerous uses if it is not
After two decades of pioneering work in brain research, the education community has started to realise that “understanding the brain” can help to open new pathways to improve educational research, policies and practice. This report synthesises progress on the brain-
informed approach to learning, and uses this to address key issues for the education community. It offers no glib solutions nor does it claim that brain-based learning is a
panacea. It does provide an objective assessment of the current state of the research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and learning, and maps research and policy implications for the next decade.
Part I “The Learning Brain” is the main report, which is the distillation from all the analyses
and events over the past seven years of the OECD/CERI “Learning Sciences and Brain Research” project. Part II “Collaborative Articles” contains three articles devoted to the
“learning brain” in early childhood, adolescence and adulthood, respectively. These have been written, in each case, by three experts who have combined their experience and knowledge in synergy of the different perspectives of neuroscience and education. Annex A
reproduces some insights and dialogue that have emerged from the project’s interactive website, open to civil society and including notably a teachers’ forum. Annex B updates the
reader with developments in neuroimaging technology which have proved so fundamental to the advances discussed in this report.
The first chapter offers a novel “ABC” of the contents of the report by listing and discussing keywords in alphabetical order. This serves both to give short summaries of complex
concepts and to steer the reader towards the relevant chapter(s) providing the more in-depth coverage. This is followed in the first half of the following chapter by a short but
essential overview of the brain’s architecture and functioning.
How the brain learns throughout life
Neuroscientists have well established that the brain has a highly robust and well-developed capacity to change in response to environmental demands, a process called plasticity. This involves creating and strengthening some neuronal connections and weakening or
eliminating others. The degree of modification depends on the type of learning that takes place, with long-term learning leading to more profound modification. It also depends on the
period of learning, with infants experiencing extraordinary growth of new synapses. But a profound message is that plasticity is a core feature of the brain throughout life.
There are optimal or “sensitive periods” during which particular types of learning are most
effective, despite this lifetime plasticity. For sensory stimuli such as speech sounds, and for
certain emotional and cognitive experiences such as language exposure, there are relatively
tight and early sensitive periods. Other skills, such as vocabulary acquisition, do not pass
through tight sensitive periods and can be learned equally well at any time over the lifespan.
Neuroimaging of adolescents now shows us that the adolescent brain is far from mature, and
undergoes extensive structural changes well past puberty. Adolescence is an extremely
important period in terms of emotional development partly due to a surge of hormones in
the brain; the still under-developed pre-frontal cortex among teenagers may be one
explanation for their unstable behaviour. We have captured this combination of emotional
immaturity and high cognitive potential in the phrase “high horsepower, poor steering”.
In older adults, fluency or experience with a task can reduce brain activity levels – in one
sense this is greater processing efficiency. But the brain also declines the more we stop
using it and with age. Studies have shown that learning can be an effective way to
counteract the reduced functioning of the brain: the more there are opportunities for older
and elderly people to continue learning (whether through adult education, work or social
activities), the higher the chances of deferring the onset or delaying the acceleration of
The importance of environment
Findings from brain research indicate how nurturing is crucial to the learning process, and
are beginning to provide indication of appropriate learning environments. Many of the
environmental factors conducive to improved brain functioning are everyday matters – the
quality of social environment and interactions, nutrition, physical exercise, and sleep –
which may seem too obvious and so easily overlooked in their impact on education. By
conditioning our minds and bodies correctly, it is possible to take advantage of the brain’s
potential for plasticity and to facilitate the learning process. This calls for holistic
approaches which recognise the close interdependence of physical and intellectual
well-being and the close interplay of the emotional and cognitive.
In the centre of the brain is the set of structures known as the limbic system, historically
called the “emotional brain”. Evidence is now accumulating that our emotions do re-sculpt
neural tissue. In situations of excessive stress or intense fear, social judgment and cognitive
performance suffer through compromise to the neural processes of emotional regulation.
Some stress is essential to meet challenges and can lead to better cognition and learning, but
beyond a certain level it has the opposite effect. Concerning positive emotions, one of most
powerful triggers that motivates people to learn is the illumination that comes with the
grasp of new concepts – the brain responds very well to this. A primary goal of early
education should be to ensure that children have this experience of “enlightenment” as early
as possible and become aware of just how pleasurable learning can be.
Managing one’s emotions is one of the key skills of being an effective learner; self-regulation
is one of the most important behavioural and emotional skills that children and older people
need in their social environments. Emotions direct (or disrupt) psychological processes, such
as the ability to focus attention, solve problems, and support relationships. Neuroscience,
drawing on cognitive psychology and child development research, starts to identify critical
brain regions whose activity and development are directly related to self-control.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN: THE BIRTH OF A LEARNING SCIENCE – ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 – © OECD 2007 14
Language, literacy and the brain
The brain is biologically primed to acquire language right from the very start of life; the process
of language acquisition needs the catalyst of experience. There is an inverse relationship
between age and the effectiveness of learning many aspects of language – in general, the
younger the age of exposure, the more successful the learning – and neuroscience has started
to identify how the brain processes language differently among young children compared with
more mature people. This understanding is relevant to education policies especially regarding
foreign language instruction which often does not begin until adolescence. Adolescents and
adults, of course, can also learn a language anew, but it presents greater difficulties.
The dual importance in the brain of sounds (phonetics) and of the direct processing of
meaning (semantics) can inform the classic debate in teaching reading between the
development of specific phonetic skills, sometimes referered to as “syllabic instruction”, and
“whole language” text immersion. Understanding how both processes are at work argues for
a balanced approach to literacy instruction that may target more phonetics or more “whole
language” learning, depending on the morphology of the language concerned.
Much of the brain circuitry involved in reading is shared across languages but there are some
differences, where specific aspects of a language call on distinct functions, such as different
decoding or word recognition strategies. Within alphabetical languages, the main difference
discussed in this report is the importance of the “depth” of a language’s orthography: a
“deep” language (which maps sounds onto letters with a wide range of variability) such as
English or French contrasts with “shallow”, much more “consistent” languages such as
Finnish or Turkish. In these cases, particular brain structures get brought into play to support
aspects of reading which are distinctive to these particular languages.
Dyslexia is widespread and occurs across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. Atypical
cortical features which have been localised in the left hemisphere in regions to the rear of the
brain are commonly associated with dyslexia, which results in impairment in processing the
sound elements of language. While the linguistic consequences of these difficulties are
relatively minor (e.g. confusing words which sound alike), the impairment can be much more
significant for literacy as mapping phonetic sounds to orthographic symbols is the crux of
reading in alphabetic languages. Neuroscience is opening new avenues of identification
Numeracy and the brain
Numeracy, like literacy, is created in the brain through the synergy of biology and
experience. Just as certain brain structures are designed through evolution for language,
there are analogous structures for the quantitative sense. And, also as with language,
genetically-defined brain structures alone cannot support mathematics as they need to be
co-ordinated with those supplementary neural circuits not specifically destined for this
task but shaped by experience to do so. Hence, the important role of education – whether
in schools, at home, or in play; and hence, the valuable role for neuroscience in helping
address this educational challenge.
Although the neuroscientific research on numeracy is still in its infancy, the field has already
made significant progress in the past decade. It shows that even very simple numerical
operations are distributed in different parts of the brain and require the co-ordination of
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN: THE BIRTH OF A LEARNING SCIENCE – ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 – © OECD 2007 15
multiple structures. The mere representation of numbers involves a complex circuit that
brings together sense of magnitude, and visual and verbal representations. Calculation calls
on other complex distributed networks, varying according to the operation in question:
subtraction is critically dependent on the inferior parietal circuit, while addition and
multiplication engage yet others. Research on advanced mathematics is currently sparse, but
it seems that it calls on at least partially distinct circuitry.
Understanding the underlying developmental pathways to mathematics from a brain
perspective can help shape the design of teaching strategies. Different instructional
methods lead to the creation of neural pathways that vary in effectiveness: drill learning,
for instance, develops neural pathways that are less effective than those developed
through strategy learning. Support is growing from neuroscience for teaching strategies
which involve learning in rich detail rather than the identification of correct/incorrect
responses. This is broadly consistent with formative assessment.
Though the neural underpinnings of dyscalculia – the numerical equivalent of dyslexia –
are still under-researched, the discovery of biological characteristics associated with
specific mathematics impairments suggests that mathematics is far from a purely cultural
construction: it requires the full functioning and integrity of specific brain structures. It is
likely that the deficient neural circuitry underlying dyscalculia can be addressed through
targeted intervention because of the “plasticity” – the flexibility – of the neural circuitries
involved in mathematics.
Over the past few years, there has been a growing number of misconceptions circulating
about the brain – “neuromyths”. They are relevant to education as many have been
developed as ideas about, or approaches to, how we learn. These misconceptions often have
their origins in some element of sound science, which makes identifying and refuting them
the more difficult. As they are incomplete, extrapolated beyond the evidence, or plain false,
they need to be dispelled in order to prevent education running into a series of dead-ends.
Each “myth” or set of myths is discussed in terms of how they have emerged into popular
discourse, and of why they are not sustained by neuroscientific evidence. They are grouped
• “There is no time to lose as everything important about the brain is decided by the age of three.”
• “There are critical periods when certain matters must be taught and learnt.”
• “But I read somewhere that we only use 10% of our brain anyway.”
• “I’m a ‘left-brain’, she’s a ‘right-brain’ person.”
• “Let’s face it – men and boys just have different brains from women and girls.”
• “A young child’s brain can only manage to learn one language at a time.”
• “Improve your memory!”
• “Learn while you sleep!”
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN: THE BIRTH OF A LEARNING SCIENCE – ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 – © OECD 2007 16
The ethics and organisation of educational neuroscience
The importance and promise of this new field are not the reason to duck fundamental ethical questions which now arise.
For which purposes and for whom? It is already important to re-think the use and possible abuse of brain imaging. How to ensure, for example, that the medical information it gives is kept confidential, and not handed over to commercial organisations or indeed educational institutions? The more accurately that brain imaging allows the identification of specific, formerly “hidden”, aspects of individuals, the more it needs to be asked how this should be used in education.
The use of products affecting the brain: The boundary between medical and non-medical use is not always clear, and questions arise especially about healthy individuals consuming substances that affect the brain. Should parents, for instance, have the right to give their children substances to stimulate their scholarly achievements, with inherent risks and parallels to doping in sport?
Brain meets machine: Advances are constantly being made in combining living organs with technology. The advantages of such developments are obvious for those with disabilities who are thus enabled, say, to control machines from a distance. That the same technology could be applied to control individuals’ behaviour equally obviously raises profound concerns.
An overly scientific approach to education? Neurosciences can importantly inform education but if, say, “good” teachers were to be identified by verifying their impact on students’ brains, this would be an entirely different scenario. It is one which runs the risk of creating an education system which is excessively scientific and highly conformist.
Though educational neuroscience is still in its early days, it will develop strategically if it is trans-disciplinary, serving both the scientific and educational communities, and international in reach. Creating a common lexicon is one critical step; another is establishing shared methodology. A reciprocal relationship should be established between educational practice and research on learning which is analogous to the relationship between medicine and biology, co-creating and sustaining a continuous, bi-directional flow to support brain- informed educational practice.
A number of institutions, networks and initiatives have already been established to show the way ahead. Vignette descriptions of several leading examples are available in this report. They include the JST-RISTEX, Japan Science and Technology’s Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society; Transfer Centre for Neuroscience and Learning, Ulm, Germany; Learning Lab, Denmark; Centre for Neuroscience in Education: University of Cambridge, United Kingdom; and “Mind, Brain, and Education”, Harvard Graduate School of Education, United States.
Key messages and themes for the future
Educational neuroscience is generating valuable new knowledge to inform educational policy and
practice: On many questions, neuroscience builds on the conclusions of existing knowledge and everyday observation but its important contribution is in enabling the move from correlation to causation – understanding the mechanisms behind familiar patterns – to help identify effective solutions. On other questions, neuroscience is generating new knowledge, thereby opening up new avenues.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN: THE BIRTH OF A LEARNING SCIENCE – ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 – © OECD 2007 17
Brain research provides important neuroscientific evidence to support the broad aim of lifelong
learning: Far from supporting ageist notions that education is the province only of the young
– the powerful learning capacity of young people notwithstanding – neuroscience confirms
that learning is a lifelong activity and that the more it continues the more effective it is.
Neuroscience buttresses support for education’s wider benefits, especially for ageing populations:
Neuroscience provides powerful additional arguments on the “wider benefits” of education
(beyond the purely economic that counts so highly in policy-making) as it is identifying
learning interventions as a valuable part of the strategy to address the enormous and
costly problems of ageing dementia in our societies.
The need for holistic approaches based on the interdependence of body and mind, the emotional
and the cognitive: Far from the focus on the brain reinforcing an exclusively cognitive,
performance-driven bias, it suggests the need for holistic approaches which recognise the
close inter-dependence of physical and intellectual well-being, and the close interplay of
the emotional and cognitive, the analytical and the creative arts.
Understanding adolescence – high horsepower, poor steering: The insights on adolescence are
especially important as this is when so much takes place in an individual’s educational
career, with long-lasting consequences. At this time, young people have well-developed
cognitive capacity (high horsepower) but emotional immaturity (poor steering). This
cannot imply that important choices should simply be delayed until adulthood, but it does
suggest that these choices should not definitively close doors.
Better informing the curriculum and education’s phases and levels with neuroscientific insights: The
message is a nuanced one: there are no “critical periods” when learning must take place
but there are “sensitive periods” when the individual is particularly primed to engage in
specific learning activities (language learning is discussed in detail). The report’s message
of an early strong foundation for lifetimes of learning reinforces the key role of early
childhood education and basic schooling.
Ensuring neuroscience’s contribution to major learning challenges, including the “3Ds”: dyslexia,
dyscalculia, and dementia. On dyslexia, for instance, its causes were unknown until
recently. Now it is understood to result primarily from atypical features of the auditory
cortex (and possibly, in some cases, of the visual cortex) and it is possible to identify these
features at a very young age. Early interventions are usually more successful than later
interventions, but both are possible.
More personalised assessment to improve learning, not to select and exclude: Neuroimaging
potentially offers a powerful additional mechanism on which to identify individuals
learning characteristics and base personalisation; but, at the same time, it may also lead to
even more powerful devices for selection and exclusion than are currently available.
Key areas are identified as priorities for further educational neuroscientific research, not as
an exhaustive agenda but as deriving directly from the report. This agenda for further
research – covering the better scientific understanding of such matters as the optimal
timing for different forms of learning, emotional development and regulation, how specific
materials and environments shape learning, and the continued analysis of language and
mathematics in the brain – would, if realised, be well on the way to the birth to a
trans-disciplinary learning science.
This is the aspiration which concludes this report and gives it its title. It is also the report’s
aspiration that it will be possible to harness the burgeoning knowledge on learning to create an
educational system that is both personalised to the individual and universally relevant to all.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN: THE BIRTH OF A LEARNING SCIENCE – ISBN 978-92-64-02912-5 – © OECD 2007 18
1.Persisting Stick to it! Persevering in task through to completion; remaining focused. Looking for ways to reach your goal when stuck. Not giving up.
2.Managing impulsivity Take your Time! Thinking before acting; remaining calm, thoughtful and deliberative.
3.Listening with understanding and empathy Understand Others! Devoting mental energy to another person’s thoughts and ideas. Make an effort to perceive another’s point of view and emotions.
4.Thinking flexibly Look at it Another Way! Being able to change perspectives, generate alternatives, consider options.
5.Thinking about your thinking (Metacognition) Know your knowing! Being aware of your own thoughts, strategies, feelings and actions and their effects on others.
6.Striving for accuracy Check it again! Always doing your best. Setting high standards. Checking and finding ways to improve constantly.
7.Questioning and problem posing How do you know? Having a questioning attitude; knowing what data are needed and developing questioning strategies to produce those data. Finding problems to solve.
8.Applying past knowledge to new situations Use what you Learn! Accessing prior knowledge; transferring knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned.
9.Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision Be clear! Striving for accurate communication in both written and oral form; avoiding over generalizations, distortions, deletions and exaggerations.
10.Gather data through all senses: Use your natural pathways! Pay attention to the world around you Gather data through all the senses; taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.
11.Creating, imagining, and innovating Try a different way! Generating new and novel ideas, fluency, originality
12.Responding with wonderment and awe Have fun figuring it out! Finding the world awesome, mysterious and being intrigued with phenomena and beauty.
13.Taking responsible risks Venture out! Being adventuresome; living on the edge of one’s competence. Try new things constantly.
14.Finding humor Laugh a little! Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected. Being able to laugh at oneself.
15.Thinking interdependently Work together! Being able to work in and learn from others in reciprocal situations. Team work.
16. Remaining open to continuous learning I have so much more to learn! Having humility and pride when admitting we don’t know; resisting complacency.
H a b i t s o f M i n d
Images © 2000 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,1703 N. Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311 USA This and other resources available at www.habitsofmind.org
33 Motivation in Second Language Learning ZOLTAN DORNYEI
KEY QUESTIONS ›- What does it mean when we say that a learner is motivated? )0- What is the role of motivation in language learning, especially in classroom contexts? >- How can language teachers actively promote their students' motivation?
EXPERIENCE When enthusiastic novice teacher Erin Gruwell started her teaching career in a high school in Long Beach, California, she soon realized that she had been assigned the lowest-performing stu- dents in the school, with all the students in her class labeled at-risk inner-city youths, also known as "unteachables." Cliques formed among the stu- dents according to their ethnic backgrounds, fights broke out, and the drop-out rate was high. Not only did school management not help in this situation of violence, racial tension, and underachievement, but the head of her department even refused to let her use actual books in class in case they got damaged or lost. To make a long story short, it is difficult to imagine a more desperate situation for a beginner teacher, yet Erin Gruwell not only survived the first year but became so successful that all 150 of her "unteachable" students graduated from high school and many went on to college. As a result, her inspirational story was turned into a Hollywood film in 2007, Freedom Writers, starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. After leaving her high school job, Erin Gruwell became a distinguished teacher in residence at California State University, Long Beach; published several teacher-training books based on her experience (e.g., Gruwell, 2007a, 2007h); and started the Freedom Writers Foundation, which aspires to spread the Freedom
Writers method across the country_ How did Erin Gruwell achieve the almost
unachievable? Of course, she had to have a natural
gift for teaching with a uniquely compassionate and, at the same time, stubborn personality, but that would not have been enough to beat such impossible odds. As becomes clear from her writ- ings and from the well-scripted film, with no available resources and support all she had at her disposal was a range of creative educational strategies to raise the students' motivation and promote group dynamics in her classes—and she used these to great effect. The ultimate lesson from Erin Gruwell's story is that motivational and group-building strategies can work even in such a tough environment, and therefore an understand- ing of the motivational dimension of classrooms can offer teachers very powerful tools to combat a range of possible problems, from student lethargy to an unproductive classroom climate.
WHAT IS MOTIVATION? Motivation is a word that both teachers and learners use widely when they speak about language learn- ing success or failure, and normally it is taken for granted that we understand what the term cov- ers. This seemingly unambiguous understanding, however, contrasts starkly with the perception of motivation as a technical term in the psycho- logical and applied linguistics literature. Although it is used frequently, the meaning of the concept can- span—such- a- wide- -spectrum- that sometimes we wonder whether people are talking about the same thing at all. In fact, there have been serious
do ubts as to whether motivation is more than a rather obsolete umbrella term for
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