Neuroplasticity and the Evolving Learner, PART 1

The education landscape is continually changing. With the advent of newer technologies and studies into brain functioning and learning styles, we now know more than ever about how a child learns best. Historically, a child’s brain was thought of as ‘fixed’ and incapable of changing and adapting. Science has since demonstrated that this is certainly not the case and that our brains are more ‘plastic’ and malleable than we originally thought. As a result, the theory of ‘neuroplasticity’ was born. So what implications does neuroplasticity and adapting brains have on parents of school-aged children?

Part 1aIn this article, Beyond the Classroom sits down with Jessica Poulin, one of our resident education experts from the Arrowsmith Program. Here, Jessica will share with us why it is important to discover new ways we can teach our children and the significance of neuroplasticity.

As an educator and mother, Jessica is always looking for ways to engage her students and allow appropriate skill development. “In education, we aim to find innovative approaches to teach our children,” she explains. “Techniques and strategies have changed over the years as we have gained knowledge about how we learn and store information”.

As parents, we work tirelessly to support our kids through a variety of modalities including personal coaching, sharing facts, life experiences and reading. Despite our best efforts at home, sometimes it is just not enough and extra support is needed. This is especially the case with children with special needs.

Our special education system today uses are variety of strategies to support students.  According to Jessica, these may include curriculum modifications and special accommodations. Examples include using tools or technology to reduce the impact of the learning difficulty. She points out, however, that these can be effective for many learners, but there are always non responders who do not benefit from these specific approaches.

“That is why organizations such as Beyond the Classroom are fabulous because they provide the tailored support students need to learn skills or strategies that will support their experience in the classroom” adds Jessica. “I believe that we are heading in the direction of individualized (customized) learning.”

As previously mentioned, scientists originally thought of the brain as ‘fixed’ and incapable of change. “For decades,” Jessica explains “research has shown that the brain is capable of change throughout our lifetime” So what exactly is neuroplasticity and how can we help our children become better learners? “Neuroplasticity is the understanding that the brain has this ability to change, to reorganize itself and form new neural connections,” Jessica reveals. “By increasing these connections, the learning capacity of any individual can be greatly improved”. Jessica also offers that one way we can achieve this is by engaging with very specialized mental tasks that can result in changes in our brains both structurally and functionally, thereby improving our overall ability to learn.

Part 1Jessica also points out that the concept of neuroplasticity is not new. Research first emerged in the 1940s and 50s, and showed that the brain was made up of very specialized areas that have highly specific functions. This work was able to literally map out the brain and provide a landscape of brain function and its interconnectedness between the different parts. “Take reading for example,” Jessica explains. “Reading requires several different brain areas working in tandem in order to carry out the specific task.” We need our eyes to track words, our memory to recall and recognize words, and our vocal chords to coordinate the sound of the words and pronunciation. We often take these complex tasks for granted!

In our next article, we dive deeper into neuroplasticity and compare the fixed versus growth mindset.

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