Cognitive and Neural Aspects of Learning (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 29, 2009

This is the beginning of the PERC (Physics Education Research Conference).  This talk was by Michael Posner, about how brain science informs us about effective classroom learning.

Brain research gives us insight into the process of how people learn and understand, including techniques like fMRI.  Neuroimaging contributes to our understanding of how we should teach. In language, for example, skilled readers don’t have to concentrate on the details of reading — such as the organizaiton of letters into a unit or a word.  But children who are still in the process of doing this, or who have reading difficulties, can have trouble extracting the meaning of their reading because they’re still concentrated on this process of reading, which makes it difficult to focus on the meaning behind the words that they’re reading (or, even, to enjoy it).  Studies on people with brain injury shows us which areas of the brain are relevant for these different tasks.

Infants, even at 7 months, have some primitive ability to count.  For example, when infants are shown two puppets, which are covered by a screen, and then a 3rd puppet is added, they will look longer when there is 1 puppet left when the screen is taken away than if the addition is correct.  When we look at the brain activity in the relevant area (the anterior singulate, which is active in error correction), these infants show activity in the same area as do adults (albeit a few milliseconds later).

Attention and self regulation is a large area of his study. This is what, he tells us, lets us stay seated in this room despite our desire to go out for cocktails.  The ability to concentrate and control oneself is very important for kids in school, who need to sit still in class, not leave, and deal with their fear about school.

Expertise.  We’re trying to build particular skills in college.  An expert chess player, exposed to 5 seconds of a master game, can reproduce the entire board.   A novice can only do the usual memory span of 5 or 6 pieces.  The expert can chunk the board into portions.  We chunk letters into words when we read, and we chunk portions of faces together to let us recognize them.  There is a particular part of the brain that works on this chunking operation, and another part of the brain that then remembers if we know that person.  An expert in birds see birds in a different way — the visual part of their brain reacts differently to birds than a non-expert.  It performs automatically and delivers the information to other parts of the brain.  What about physics experts.  Do they see the world differently?   He showed us a standard textbook picture of a spool being pulled.  It’s likely, he says, that our posterior visual system reacts differently to this picture, due to our training, in relation with other aspects of the brain.

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