Grey matters

Are you a left-brain or a right-brain person? Do you learn while you sleep? Do men and boys have different brains than women and girls? Popular misconceptions such as these pepper ads, magazine covers and conversations. What is fiction and what is fact, and where did they originate?

Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science, the second and final report from a project launched by the OECD in 1999, challenges these neuromyths, and explores how brain science can be applied to learning science and the classroom.

“Learning Sciences and Brain Research”, the project undertaken by the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), was created to encourage collaboration between the learning sciences and brain research on one hand, and researchers and policymakers on the other. The first phase was summed up in 2002 in Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science and described what is most recently known about the brain, what is likely to be revealed shortly and what may ultimately be known. The second phase has focused on precisely how the brain works, how people learn best, and what educational provision can best help them.

Yes, there are differences between the male and female brain. The male brain is larger, for instance, while the relevant areas of the brain used in language are more strongly activated in females. Yet since no study to date has shown gender-specific processes involved in building neuronal networks during learning, Understanding the Brain says it would be meaningless to style teaching to gender. Instead of an exclusively cognitive, performance-driven approach, the authors suggest the need for holistic methods which recognise the close interplay between the emotional and the cognitive, the analytical and the creative.

The report also examines language, literacy and numeracy, discusses the impact of environment–says that “the brain is a sculpture carved by experience”–and emphasises the importance of understanding adolescence as a period of “high horsepower and poor steering”.

Despite the powerful learning capacity of youth, the authors insist that education is not only for the young. Lifelong learning to keep the grey cells alive and crackling will be increasingly important as our societies age. In 2001 it was estimated that there were about 18 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s disease, and the figure was set to nearly double by 2025 to 34 million. While the brain does decline with age and in general the more we stop using it, lifelong learning can keep the grey cells active and healthy. The more there are opportunities for elderly people to continue learning and use their knowledge, the better will be the outcome in fighting the likes of neurodegenerative diseases.

For more on brain science and CERI: 

CERI forum: 

ISBN: 9789264029125

OECD Observer N°261 May 2007

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