Learning with the Brain in Mind


Frank McNeil

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    Until now education systems have been designed with little understanding of how the human brain works. Teaching has been undertaken with only the vaguest knowledge of how humans actually learn. Our knowledge of the brain has been acquired from autopsies and medical treatments involving invasive brain surgery. This situation, however, is changing. One of the most exciting developments in medicine today involves a growing understanding of our most complex organ and an unravelling of how the mind might work.

    Frank McNeil trained as a school teacher in the early 1960s, after a career in the Royal Navy. He came as a student on teaching practice to my classroom in south London. Since then, I have watched him develop as a teacher, a head teacher, an inspector and an educational researcher. In all these years and in these different roles he has maintained a sense of wonder and, committed teacher that he is, the determination to pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm.

    In this book, McNeil introduces his readers to the developing science of scanning and takes them on a journey around the brain. He describes the billions of neurons, axons and dendrites that enable us to give attention to objects and ideas, to remember information and to learn new skills. In arguing that the ability to focus in a sustained way is fundamental to human development, he touches on the crucial need to pay attention – as demanded by teachers of their pupils throughout the centuries.

    McNeil is not afraid to be controversial. He warns parents of the dangers of letting young children watch too much television and even of not getting enough sleep. He also enters the debate about how the emotions are linked to intellectual development.

    Drawing on his long experience in the education system, McNeil identifies many teaching opportunities, identifies further sources of information and inspires interest in these unfolding developments. As he notes, the time lag between neuroscientists discovering how the brain works, and teachers and schools adopting new methods better to support learning, is bound to be sizeable. But, as with the massive GNOME project, scientists will eventually complete their work and the baton will be passed on to teachers. Reading this book will help prepare them to take up this all-important challenge.



    Grateful thanks to Angela Sheahan of Highlands Primary School, Redbridge who has been most generous with her time in poring over drafts and offering guidance. Thanks also to Clare McNeil for her encouragement and valuable suggestions. And my final thanks must go to Helen Fairlie and Rachel Hendrick from Sage for their patient help.


    I read my first book about the brain when I was a school inspector, and I immediately wanted to read all that I could understand about neuroscience and brain studies. The reason for this compulsion was because my time as a teacher was plagued by notions of learning as a set of polarised arguments – ‘look-say v phonics’, ‘progressive v traditional’ and other dichotomies. These debates created something of a battleground, where both pupils and their teachers were the losers. As I read more about the brain, I realised that our understanding of learning could one day be partly based on science, as the evidence from neuroscience would provide the datum for a science of learning. This could lead to a broad consensus as to what learning is about and enable teachers to enjoy more public support for their work.

    The nineties of course was the decade of the brain and there were great expectations developing as to what brain studies might offer in the future. However, at present the evidence from neuroscience that informs learning is like a huge and only partly-formed Roman mosaic; incomplete yet fascinating. New research about the brain is coming in thick and fast, and in time I am convinced it will have a powerful influence on theories of learning. Already there are major strands of evidence that are having an impact by creating a sea change in our understanding of how learning evolves and develops through our earliest experiences. This book aims to investigate how our understanding of learning, and therefore of teaching, is changing.

    The quality of an individual's life, and therefore to some extent the quality of life in society, is directly linked to the experience of love, supervision and support of early childhood. The foundations of learning and intellectual development are established at the same time and from the same roots. Evidence from brain studies is helping us to understand how children grow, learn and develop from dependent infants to fully functioning adults. It is becoming clear that successful adults owe a great deal to their thoughtful and caring parents and other caregivers, and studying the brain in the earliest stages of life sheds light on why this may be so. A major theme of this book is that formal schooling should as far as possible be married to the experience, skills, knowledge and talents that children bring into school with them.

    The Structure of the Book

    Learning with the Brain in Mind describes how learning evolves, develops and is sustained from the earliest stages of life, and how teaching in particular ways can enhance this process. The book is structured around three chapters reflecting the three major learning themes of attention, the emotions, and memory. Another three supporting chapters look at brain scanning, the structure of the brain and the social brain with wellbeing in school.

    Chapter 1, ‘Seeing inside the brain’, describes the main scanning techniques that enable us to observe, and sometimes to measure, changes in brain activity. It is important to appreciate the nature and value of the evidence where learning is concerned – the technology is developing rapidly and it may not be too fanciful to envisage that in the future some children will come to school with scans of their brains to assist their teaching.

    Chapter 2, ‘A journey round the brain’, provides basic information about the geography of the brain and the main functions of the various regions, with a focus on the synapses where learning is thought to take place. This short chapter is intended as a reference source for the other chapters in providing explanations of technical terms, and may also be useful as a basis for teaching pupils about their brains.

    Chapter 3, ‘Pay attention and get connected!’, focuses on the theme of attention, and is the first of the three major and interconnected chapters about learning. Using evidence from neuroscience, it argues that attention should be regarded as the foundation skill for learning, and that it should be supported, encouraged and in some cases taught from the earliest stages of life.

    Chapter 4, ‘Learning and the emotions’, explains how the emotions are not only essential to the formation of the brain, but also how they are fundamental to learning at all stages of life.

    Chapter 5, ‘Memory, the brain and learning’, argues that memory grows from early experience, that there are differences between experts and novices and that memory strategies can and should be taught.

    The themes of chapters 3, 4 and 5, namely, Attention, Emotions and Memory, form the triangle of learning referred to frequently in the book.

    Chapter 6, ‘The social brain’, addresses the concept of brain plasticity (how the brain is constantly changing in response to experience) which recurs throughout the book. The social aspects of learning are considered, and suggestions are made about how pupils’ views of their experience could be taken into account in order to improve the quality of life and learning in school.

    I remember as a teacher periods of laissez-faire in schools where teachers were largely left to themselves, to the disadvantage of many pupils. However I feel the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, to the point where many teachers feel they are just implementing others’ ideas and theories of learning. Sadly, some teachers also feel they are not able to learn from their own experience with pupils and develop their own pedagogy.

    I hope this book will provide practitioners and those others interested in the emerging evidence from neuroscience with an understanding of the possibilities for the future of learning and therefore of schools.

  • Appendix: Suggestions for Some Themes of Professional Development

    The ideas below are noted as starting points for teachers who wish to explore further the themes of attention, emotions and memory, either for themselves or with their pupils, as part of their continuous professional development.

    Attention and Learning

    The full range of practices that contribute to attention include noticing, observing, orienting and screening out unwanted information. Evidence shows that focused attention helps pupils to gain more from their learning experiences, and that simple exercises can lead to improvements. These can be used with all ages, but some adjustment may be needed to ensure they are appropriate for younger children.

    The activities suggested below could help pupils to develop an awareness of some of the important issues surrounding attention, as well improving their attention skills.

    Focusing on and Describing Simple Objects

    Ask pupils to look carefully at their hand or an object such as a leaf or a stone, and note as many different features as they can. Get them to record their observations in a variety of forms, such as writing notes, drawing a pen or pencil portrait or sketch, taking a photograph, or making notes to be recorded on computer or CD.

    Noticing and Observing

    Take pupils for a walk in the local environment and ask them to focus their attention on a particular building or a specific feature of the local environment. Consider simple ways to record what they notice and observe, and perhaps feed back this to another group. As with all of these suggestions, this could be part of a more extended piece of work.

    Maintaining Attention to Tasks

    Jane Healy suggests a five-point plan to help pupils manage their tasks, through asking themselves these questions.

    • Check that you understand the task and identify the problem in words.
    • What is my plan? Talk through the possible steps to a solution.
    • How should I begin? Analyse the first step.
    • How am I doing? Am I on task?
    • Reflect back on the task, analyse the results. How did I do?
    Developing an Awareness of the Limitations of Multi-Tasking

    Arrange for pupils to attempt to carry out two activities simultaneously; for example, drawing and talking, or tapping with one hand while writing their name. The aim is to notice what happens and how difficult it is for the brain to divide attention. It is not that we can't do two things at once, but there is a cost. Homework in particular needs to be done one item at a time. Discussion of the issues that arise will be as important as the exercise itself.

    Understanding the Dangers of too much Exposure to Television

    Encourage pupils to keep logs or to find other ways to be aware of their watching time as a basis for discussing the balance in their lives of passive and active activity. It seems that most of us imagine that we watch television rather less than we do, so it needs some effort to note the actual amount of time that we devote to our viewing habits. This may also lead to a discussion of the use of technology in the bedroom and the need to set boundaries in order to ensure sufficient sleep in preparation for learning. There is no suggestion here (or in this book generally) that watching television is inherently bad: instead the issues are around the choice of programmes and the quantity of time that we spend in front of the television.

    Some Points for Teachers to Consider
    Performance and Learning Goals

    Performance goals are convergent and concerned with finding the ‘right’ answer that the teacher has designed the activity to achieve. However, learning goals are concerned with helping pupils to learn about their learning strategies and thus to become more effective learners. Both are important, but there should be a balance of concern for each one. Consider the balance of both learning and performance goals in your planning.

    Modelling and Imitation

    Consider the opportunities in each curriculum area that your pupils have for imitating and modelling that will help them with their learning. Think about ways in which any improvements could be measured, and not least in terms of pupils’ attitudes to their work.

    Recognising the Risks of Over-Using Computers

    The strategies suggested by Healy in Chapter 3 (see page 53) may be helpful as a guidance framework for both teachers and parents.

    The Emotions and Learning

    There are four guiding principles that inform our understanding of the emotions and their importance for learning:

    • Motivation is the force that connects the emotions and action.
    • The emotions are fundamental to all communication.
    • Touch is important for physical and emotional growth.
    • Movement is profoundly connected with emotion.
    Some Points for Teachers to Consider

    Role play and drama are important for connecting the emotions with learning. Activities that engage pupils with both the content of study and role play/drama should be provided across the curriculum.

    Movement related to curriculum themes should be used where possible to help with enhancing and consolidating learning.

    Reference to the emotions should be included as part of the work in most of the curriculum. This should include both the student's emotions and those of the people being studied. This in turn involves a shift in planning teaching to seeing the brain and body as an integrated system and then planning to take this into account.

    Pupils’ understanding of the purpose for an activity is important because if teachers give their pupils a lucid explanation of why they are being asked to carry out an activity, there is more chance that the pupils will be motivated. Some teachers deal with this through the use of success criteria. An understanding of purpose affects the quality of the outcome from the pupil.

    Anxiety and stress can have an impact on performance. Opportunities to discuss feelings in relation to tasks can be very productive, and this is more important than is currently appreciated. Once we see that emotions cannot be separated from the intellect, then it becomes clearer that feelings are important to the quality of the outcome.

    Pupils’ Views of their Intelligence

    The work of Carol Dweck shows how important and influential pupils’ own views of their intelligence can be. Discussion around the themes of what makes you think you are intelligent or clever or not bright – or whatever pupils think about their performance – can be very important, but needs sensitive handling in small groups. Many pupils have a deficit view and helping them to consider the evidence they have for this is worthwhile.

    The ability to get on with others in school has been identified as a positive trait for learning. Teachers might consider how pupils can discuss the characteristics and qualities of those who are easy to get on with, or what constitutes a hindrance.

    Memory and Learning

    It is important for each pupil to understand that memory, like intelligence, is plastic and that it can therefore be improved with training.

    Pupils’ views of their strengths and weaknesses with memory are worth exploring in order for them to assess their influence, since memory is an important influence on learning.

    Relating activities to pupils’ own background and experience, particularly in the early stages of education, is valuable for reinforcing memory

    Working memory is essential to pupils for many reasons, but particularly when holding information from instructions about a task. A small number of pupils have difficulty with this and will need to be identified in order for suitable help to be given. Some pupils mask this problem by seeking help from their friends or the pupils they sit with. This is a coping strategy that can in itself be stressful.

    The effects of sleep on memory would be a useful area of discussion for pupils, particularly for those who have computers and televisions in their bedrooms.

    Strategies for remembering, including those that pupils already use themselves, can be a very useful topic for discussion, leading to an appreciation of more and less successful approaches. Teachers may wish to experiment with and test strategies based on the three key memory skills of association, location and imagination. The work of Dominic O'Brien, described in Chapter 5, provides one of many models for helping pupils with techniques for the following:

    • Remembering names and faces.
    • Remembering directions.
    • Remembering spellings.
    • Remembering countries and their capitals.
    • Learning a foreign language.
    • The skills of revision and recall.

    A multi-sensory approach to developing memory can be valuable. Teachers may choose to experiment with ways to involve one or more of the senses to assist in recall.

    Physical Fitness: The New PE

    One of the major themes in this book, explored particularly in Chapter 6, is that exercise is essential for brain growth. Many brain studies show that this is true at any age. A recently published work by John Ratey provides a lot of new evidence and further arguments in support of exercise. The essential shift that is taking place is away from games skills and towards personal fitness. This is particularly needed in our culture where technology can lead towards sedentary occupation. Ratey explains how exercise improves learning at three levels:

    • It optimises the mind-set to improve alertness, attention and motivation.
    • It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another which is the cellular basis for logging new information.
    • It stimulates the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. (Ratey 2008)

    In light of this evidence, teachers could consider how the curriculum can encourage shifts towards an emphasis on personal fitness for pupils that does not deny the possibilities for enthusiasts of playing games.


    These ideas are offered as starting points, because they underpin some of the shifts in our understanding of learning as indicated by neuroscience. I hope you find something useful among them as an action point for your particular situation and your pupils.


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