We must teach children to learn: language lessons from neuroscience

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Language education

Language educators and researchers are fascinated by neurological data.  We love to cite the latest research —Have you read Bialystok’s work on the bilingual brain? — and share documentaries like The Secret Life of the Brain.  Because we still subscribe to the notion that “hard science” is more respected than social science, we tout scientific research that validates our pedagogical framework. So when Dr. Elvira Souza Lima opened her keynote speech at this year’s Brazilian Immersion Conference, and declared that “Pedagogy is the most important change in education,” the room paused.  Did she really mean that pedagogy is more important than neurological function for teaching and learning?

For the first half of her talk, Dr. Souza Lima paid homage to 2000 Nobel Prize recipient Eric Kandel‘s research on memory and neurology.  The auditorium full of international immersion school educators delighted to learn about synapses, Long-Term Potentiation (LTP), and plasticity.  How exactly do our brains convert short-term experiences to long-term memory to knowledge?  What we can do to keep our brains learning as long as possible? We watched researchers animate the precise moment of “learning” in the human brain and marveled at the density of learning in the child’s brain vs. the adult’s brain.

Memory in silent neurons

Memory in silent neurons, Photo credit: Wellcome Images (Creative Commons)

Dr. Souza Lima’s talk quickly gave way to neurological implications for language learning.  First, she parsed out oracy (listening and speaking) from literacy (reading and writing).  Genetically, humans are programmed for oracy yet must learn literacy.  Singing, melody, and repetition of natural sounds developed in Neanderthals before speech.  Everyone can hum, cry, or sing (however poorly) without having explicitly learned to do so.  In the first three years of life, the brain’s language function is focused on listening and singing.  During early childhood years, humans learn in the vocal area of our brain, which allows us to improve our brain’s plasticity. Prevalent recommendations to speak, read, and sing to your infant are not only the most important receptive functions that their brains are developing, but they expand their capacity to learn more later.

From ages 3-6, the young brain develops twice as many synapses than an adult brain and this is the best time to begin forming long-term memories.  Long-term memories developed during preschool years provide children with background knowledge necessary to acquire literacy skills.  According to Dr. Souza Lima, the purpose of early language instruction (immersion or otherwise), in students ages 4-6, is to further oracy and build plasticity.  Plasticity is highest in children through age 7 and then is extinguished by age 10.  Daily exposure to music, arts, graphic arts, drawing, imaginative play all contribute to plasticity in the young brain.  These assertions reinforce play-based preschool and kindergarten curricular frameworks that focus on providing rich environments and new experiences for young learners to discover more about their world.

“It is not only what the child speaks, but what the child thinks.”

Dr. Souza Lima frequently quoted Vygotsky during her talk to remind us that our work is not simply getting students to produce speech and words, but that in forming language, we are curating thoughts as well.  Learning literacy, specific reading and writing skills, requires that your brain forms long-term memories. During the formative years of oracy we can train our brains to learn new information and store it for long-term access.  By age 7, at the peak of plasticity, the brain is ready to start learning discrete literacy skills. Can we begin learning literacy before the age of 7 ?  Absolutely, and our world is full of autodidacts who have mastered reading fluency before they begin formal education.  Developmentally, however, youth who begin reading at 4 do not significantly outperform youth who begin reading at 7.

Enter significant dissonance between neurological research about literacy learning and current US curriculum expectations.  With little exception, American schools subscribe to earlier and more aggressive academic and literacy instruction in attempts to accelerate learning outcomes.  Not only is this practice counter to neurological productivity, but time spent “teaching reading” in early elementary years actually usurps the time that the brain could be developing plasticity.  Recent research demonstrates that, while they may initially outperform their peers, students who have been taught explicit literacy skills in grades K-2, tend to plateau their reading comprehension and language use after 3rd grade (Stefanou, Howlett, and Peck, 2012).  Early explicit literacy instruction may actually be limiting our youth at the peak plasticity, and access to deeper learning in later years.

Dr. Souza Lima’s message was subtle, yet insistent that rich, daily experiences in music, creativity, arts, and imagination contribute significantly to the brain’s capacity to learn over time.  These activities are what teach the young brain to learn and provide ample opportunities to build capacity and plasticity.  Exposing young learners to a wide variety of life experiences allow them to create scaffolds to which they can attach new information as they grow.

Dr. Elvira Souza Lima is a researcher in human development, with training in neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and music.  She works in applied research in education, media and culture.  Follow her blog at http://elvirasouzalima.blogspot.com

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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