[ECAR Summer 2008] Gwen Jacobs – The (Neuro) Science of Learning

Gwen’s talk is subtitled What do we know about how the brain learns that can inform and improve pedagogy? What do we know about the brain that might be useful? Experience and learning change the physical structure of the brain, which organizes and reorganizes brain function. Different parts of the brain may be ready to … Continue reading “[ECAR Summer 2008] Gwen Jacobs – The (Neuro) Science of Learning”

Gwen’s talk is subtitled What do we know about how the brain learns that can inform and improve pedagogy?

What do we know about the brain that might be useful?

Experience and learning change the physical structure of the brain, which organizes and reorganizes brain function. Different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times. Learning continues throughout life.

Four examples

Language learning. Two parts of learning language, which begins right when you’re born: perceptual part (hearing and perceiving) and production (practicing to make songs and words). Human language acquisition is mimicked in bird song – every step of the way. The babbling phase is practicing. Birds and humans learn the songs that they hear. As native language skills improve, perception of other languages decreases, so it becomes harder to acquire other languages later in life. Both learn better with a live tutor – social interaction is important to learning. In birds learning stops at sexual maturity – language ability decreases after age 14 in humans.

Why is it so hard to learn new languages as you get older? As you learn and focus on your native language you gradually lose the ability to perceive other languages. Example of experiment with Japanese speakers who can’t perceive difference between “ra” and “la”. Language area in the brain of bilingual speakers is enlarged.

What’s going on in teenager’s brains?

Different parts of the brain mature at different times (Toga’s work at UCLA). The wiring of the brain changes just prior to the onset of puberty . Sensory motor parts mature first, language and spatial reasoning during ages 6-12, frontal lobes (reasoning, decision making) mature last – not till age 20. If you look at the brain regions responsive to emotions like fear or anger, they are gradually switched to those for reasoning.

Sex hormones can change brain structure and function. In songbirds males are the ones who learn to sing. If you give females testosterone they can learn to sing – they develop “male” brain structures. There are studies suggesting that there are gender differences in human brains.

Experience continues to modify the brain – learning takes place throughout our lives.

A study that looks at brain imaging in London taxi drivers. Asks them to remember a route – taxi drivers have a very large hippocampus, which is involved in short-term memory and navigation. Being a musician throughout life actually improves your cognitive abilities in many other areas. People who play checkers, Scrabble, Sudoku, etc – there’s a lot of evidence that improves ability to solve other problems. Deaf individuals learn language through signing – turns out that same brain regions are used for language, no matter what the sensory modality.

Our students – how can we engage them? Given their current experience, multitasking all the time, how can we engage them in the classroom?

Active learning = paying attention

Science of learning – National Science Foundation. Goals: advance frontiers of all the sciences of learning through integrated research. Started in 2004. Six centers funded so far, with very different explorations underway.

Temporal dynamics of learning – a distinct region of our brain responsible for remembering faces. There’s a difference between categorizing an object vs. categorizing the object as something you can recognize and name. Musicians activate different brain regions when they look at music notation – musicians are better at multitasking than non-musicians. Individuals with autism or those with Asberger’s have a hard time recognizing and making facial expressions – turns out they don’t use that part of their brain. UCSD center has developed a game that helps them recognize expressions.

LIFE center – learning how a toaster works from a video. People learn much better from a point of view camera vs. a side camera. Social homework game – kids train an AI agent to answer questions. Students learn and retain more from training these agents.

CELEST center – neuro-morphic engineering. DIVA – A model for speech. Looking at how we learn to make motor movements to create speech. Created a model for reproducing speech from listening.

There’s more, but I’ve got to leave to catch a shuttle to the airport…

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