Donna Wilson, Ph.D., is a school/educational psychologist, teacher educator, and author. Her most recent books include Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press) and Flourishing in the First Five Years: Connecting Implications from Mind, Brain, and Education Research to the Development of Young Children (Rowman & Littlefield Education). She is cofounder and academic team leader at the Center for Innovative Education and Prevention (CIEP). http://donnawilsonphd.org
Driving Question: What does neuroplasticity research suggest about the potential of all students to master the 4Cs?
By Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
The discovery that learning changes the structure and function of the brain (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) has the potential to transform education in both profound and practical ways—if we can, once and for all, dislodge persistent misconceptions that obscure this promise.
Neuroplasticity is one of Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching (Wilson and Conners, 2013). It contributes to a necessary foundation, a conceptual framework, for teacher education and professional learning. Calfee (2006) identifies neuroplasticity as one of four “reallyimportant problems” that merit continued study to advance educational practice. Likewise, Dubinsky, Roehrig, and Varma propose that “the neurobiology of learning, and in particular the core concept of plasticity, have the potential to directly transform teacher preparation and professional development, and ultimately to affect how students think about their own learning” (2013, p. 317).
Psychologists refer to the class of neuroplasticity that describes how the brain changes in response to what we hear, see and do as experience-dependent synaptogenesis (Lightfoot, Cole, & Cole, 2009). This term captures how the brain creates new synapses (neural connections) based on one’s unique experiences in day to day life. “Experience-dependent synaptogenesis is the mechanism that can turn what we do into what we know” (Wilson & Conyers, p. 33). Vocabulary development is an example of this form of plasticity: the more we read and learn new words, the broader our vocabulary. We can continue to expand our knowledge of words throughout our lives.
The transformational power of neuroplasticity lies in how we think about students’ potential to learn and whether students believe they can get smarter if they commit to the hard
work required to advance academically. Within this context, teachers, administrators, students and other community members alike can come to accept that virtually all students have the capacity to learn when provided the supportive environment and experiences to do so.
Embracing this perspective requires setting aside widely held but often unacknowledged and erroneous assumptions embedded in our society about innate intellectual capacity and “natural talent.” Are some people just born communicators (or teachers)? Is creativity an inherent trait? Should we steer students toward specific academic or vocational studies based on current assessments of their analytic, creative, and interpersonal abilities? Should virtually all students be taught thinking strategies, or only those labeled as gifted?
By taking a constructive view “of genes as phenomena that enable rather than constrain behavior” (Sylvester, 2010, p. 18), we can move forward to create policies and schools that help equip all students with the four Cs they need to succeed in school and in the workplace.
Equally important is the finding that neuroplasticity is not confined to the very young. Experience-dependent synaptogenesis is at work throughout our lives, powering lifelong learning—and, more to the point of this discussion, educators’ capacity to continue to learn as they practice throughout their careers. As one teacher told us, “educators and leaders will benefit [from learning about neuroplasticity] as they recognize that learning never stops, regardless of an individual’s age.” Another teacher put it more memorably: “In essence, you can teach an old dog new tricks” (Wilson & Conyers, 2013, p. 37).
Among the practical applications that arise from this research are these strategies for teaching and learning (Bransford et al., 2000; Centre for Education Research and Innovation, 2007):
- Teach students about the power of their brains’ plasticity to help them achieve whatever goals they set for themselves in school and in life. Students who receive explicit instruction that they have the capacity to become functionally smarter are more likely to keep trying when learning gets tough.
- Rely on formative assessment to identify where each student stands currently in terms of critical skill development and to chart a path to continue the progression toward mastery.
- In teaching core subjects such as math and reading, emphasize “big ideas” like conceptualizing math operations and employing reading comprehension strategies rather than a focus only on rote memorization of math facts and words.
- Think out loud, model problem-solving strategies for students, and invite them to share their own solutions to underscore that there is no one right way to learn. Share a variety of analytic and creative approaches, and encourage students to try out and adapt those that work best for them.
- Beyond the classroom, educate others within the community to understand that virtually all students can succeed at school when the necessary conditions for students to flourish are present in communities as well as schools.
The practical and hopeful work of cognitive theorists Robert Sternberg and Reuven Feuerstein, as well as other mounting evidence from research in cognitive psychology and education dramatically changed my thinking. Both theorists were writing about capacity to increase our functional intelligence. Steeped in research still often unused in education, I began to see new potential in myself, in other adults, and in students across the spectrum of current achievement. Sharing the applications of that research, as well as findings in educational neuroscience, remains central to my work in teacher education.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Calfee, R. C. (2006). Educational psychology in the 21st century. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 29‒42). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (Eds.). (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Danvers, MA: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Dubinsky, J. M., Roehrig, G., & Varma, S. (2013, August/September). Infusing neuroscience into teacher professional development. Educational Researcher, 42(6), 317‒329.
Lightfoot, C., Cole, M., & Cole, S. R. (2009). The development of children (6th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.
Sylvester, R. (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.