Brain Plasticity and Learning

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

February 3, 2018|

Leath Ramsay

"Our brain has an incredible capacity to learn and grow no matter our age," explains Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler.

During my studies of her Stanford course 'Mathematical Mindsets' I have discovered many mind bending truths backed up by current research that debunk many old myths.  Gone are the days of "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." You’re not born with a 'maths brain'. Everyone can learn maths to a high level with the right teaching and attitude. There is no such thing as a maths brain, or history brain, or science brain. Whilst her research and books mostly pertain to mathematics, her message clearly relates to any new skill, subject, task or talent.

This is astonishing news for all of us. It is exceptionally exciting for educators, parents, and schools. It means that EVERY child can reach high levels of success and achievement in maths, or any subject, with the right growth mindset, time and teaching methods. When teachers learn these important and impactful approaches, listen to the research and apply skills they can have enormous impact on students and their understanding, engagement and results.

In the opening introduction of her course, Jo Boaler discusses three key studies. The first is a Taxi Driver Study where scientists observed that hippocampus in the brains of taxi drivers grew when they went through their training and working life, then shrunk when they retired. This demonstrates the brain’s amazing power to grow when needed. Conversely, when you don’t use it, you lose it, so to speak.

Brains are incredibly changeable. Another study Boaler refers to is about a girl who had half her brain removed. Before the surgery, doctors thought she would be paralysed and lose many functions. This girl shocked scientists by regrowing connections in a really short space of time. Study after study shows just how incredible our capacity is to learn and grow.

A recent Stanford Study conducted by neuroscientist, Teresa Luculano and her colleagues, studied a group of 7 to 9 year olds. Half of the students had been diagnosed with learning difficulties and the other half were 'regular' performers. They found actual brain differences during activities. The children diagnosed with learning disabilities actually had more brain activity than the other children and more areas of their brain were lighting up when they worked on maths. That might seem odd. We may be guilty of thinking that kids with learning disabilities have less going on in their brains. But they actually had more. After eight weeks of tutoring, working in different ways, with number visuals, number lines and maths facts not only did the two groups of students have the same achievement, but they also had the exact same brain functioning. These results were pretty shocking and very, very important and relevant to teachers everywhere.

The research is stacking up. We can't ignore the simple truth that everyone can learn. We shouldn’t limit achievement with our preexisting ideas. Instead, we need to have a growth mindset and realise that we have an incredible capacity to learn and grow no matter our age, history or background. What do you want to learn? Make it happen. Just start with one step. One foot after the other. It is possible. You can teach an old dog a new trick or two.

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