Educators are constantly learning new things in the evolving quest to inform and inspire our students. If you acquire a basic understanding of brain
functionality, will it help you guide students to their full potential? We believe so. Toward this goal, we offer Part 2 of our six-part series entitled
The Science of Learning. In this installment, we explore the basics of brain anatomy and learning physiology.
100 Billion Neurons
You are born with at least 100 billion brain cells, called neurons. As you listen to, talk about, or practice something, fibers called dendrites grow out of your neurons. Learning is built, as your network of dendrites grow higher and higher, with new dendrites sprouting
from existing dendrites. In other words, you’re building new knowledge upon the things you already know (like a tree sprouting twigs from existing
Growing Strong Dendrites – And Synapses
Growing your dendrites takes time and practice. When two dendrites grow close together, chemical or electrical messages can be sent from one neuron to
another, through the contact point between the dendrites, called the synapse.
Learning a subject or skill involves growing topic-specific dendrites to connect specific neurons at specific synapses. Your neurological network grows
more and more massive with each new piece of information learned. You can grow as many as 10,000 connections (synapses) for each of the 100 billion neurons
you have! Do the math… it’s “mind-boggling” (if you pardon the expression).
Practice Makes Perfect
As you practice something, your related dendrites develop a thick fatty coating. Thicker dendrites pass signals over the synapses more quickly. The coating
also reduces interference, enabling you to come up with answers more quickly.
Your volume of synapses is constantly changing, too, and some are stronger than others. Weak synapses become stronger through practice and learning. No
matter how many synapses a neuron has, it still has the potential to grow more. Scientific proof that “practice makes perfect”!
Applying This Science to Teaching
Understanding that dendrites build upon existing dendrites, we realize that students need the opportunity to grow foundation dendrites for a topic before
they can branch out into higher levels of knowledge. One student’s potential cannot be evaluated against another’s, unless both have had equal opportunity
to build their foundation knowledge.
Therefore, we can increase our teaching effectiveness if we:
- Attempt to ascertain and build upon each student’s existing level of knowledge
- Present material in a way that relates directly to something the students already know
As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the brain is constantly changing and reorganizing itself by forming new neural connections. That’s called
brain – or neuro – plasticity. This process takes place throughout our lives, as we learn from and react to sensory inputs of all kinds. That’s an
extremely important point for students to understand. Their intelligence level is not fixed; it can grow and change.
If your students embrace that concept, they can become more motivated and confident. With this confidence they will be more likely to accept both
challenges and setbacks. It’s not rocket science, right? We already know that frame of mind determines to a large degree how well someone learns and
achieves. Tune in for Part 3 of this series, in which we more deeply explore the science of mindset and emotion as it pertains to learning
And look for these later installments in the Science of Learning Series, too!
Part 3 – How Emotion and Mindset Affect Learning
Part 4 – Brain Plasticity at Different Ages
- Part 5 – Do Girls’ Brains Differ from Boys’ Brains?
- Part 6 – “Left Brain” or “Right Brain”?