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How learning shapes a student’s brain. Literally

If you ever witnessed the process a newborn goes through while developing into a child you’ll probably agree that we humans are amazing creatures. Babies learn a tremendous amount of information about the surrounding world in the very first part of their lives. Not only that, but they use this information to discover more.

It’s amazing how their little brains get them to crawl, get up, put one little foot in front of the other while trying to maintain balance, eventually master walking and then running. Or how they figure out language and go from gibberish syllables to uttering complete and complex sentences. In the case of kids growing up in bilingual families, things are even more amazing!

The amazingness of the human brain does not fade away when a child goes to kindergarten or later to school. It doesn’t fade away even later in adulthood. On the contrary. But let’s stick to the part of human life between kindergarten and high school.

That’s the part we all associate with learning. We go to school — in whatever its form — and learn stuff.

How learning shapes the student’s brain

When they go to school each child brings along their most important asset for a successful learning process: their brain.

Your lessons, no matter their format — face to face or online — are full with new information that students need to process, remember and then use when required. When they learn something at school, the brain of each student is very active:

  • New brain synapses are being created — whenever they have a light-bulb moment, a new idea or a great question;
  • Others are getting stronger — when they associate a new fact with something they already know;
  • Yet others are getting weaker and disappear — when they forget what they learned.

So the learning process makes the brain to either create new neural connections or to alter existing ones, resulting in a continuous organization and reorganization of the brain. In other words, learning changes the physical structure of the brain.

Learning about the brain

There are many many things related to how the brain transforms itself during the learning process, like why sleep is so important, how emotions can affect the learning outcomes, how other physical factors can do this as well, or how the time frames of intense focus can be achieved and worked with. There are yet many more to be discovered.

Neuroscientists have come a long way since the birth of their field of study. However, they still have to fill in plenty of blanks regarding how the human brain works, why it does what it does and what other effects learning has over it. Jeff Lichtman, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University, makes an interesting analogy between what we know about the brain and what it is to know about it by comparing all this with a mile-long journey:

If everything you need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked in this mile?

His answer is:

Three inches.

Three inches may not seem a lot compared to a mile, but they certainly are a lot compared to half a millimeter. What we do know about the brain is that it is constantly rewiring itself based on any new information it has to process at any given moment and therefore learning is a physical process.

Why teachers have a God-like power

One of the most beautiful biblical stories is the one when God finally models the man from dust from the ground and breathes the breath of life into this ultimate creature.

To some extent, teachers have a God-like power. They may not actually model students’ brains, but they do provide knowledge and instill curiosity about the surrounding world, which is almost the same.

When a student has a light-bulb moment you can really see their physical reaction. New neural connections may be created and strengthened inside their brain, but the entire body is caught in this reaction: the eyes widen, eyebrows raise, perhaps they even lean forward in an attempt to absorb every tiny new piece of information. It’s a wonder to see the direct result of learning and understanding something for the first time.

Creating these moments sure resemble a God-like power, don’t you think?

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