Learn from what excites you

Jorge García Palomo

One of the big challenges of our era is to improve education. Adapt it to the needs of today’s students. There is a general boom –perhaps unprecedented– in favour of pedagogic innovation. In Spanish schools, as in Bob Dylan’s song, the times they are a-changin’. And among other tools, that discipline with the highfalutin name of cognitive neuroscience seems to have entered the classroom to stay. Through a study of the different areas of the brain, the experts stress that what we learn best –what really makes an impression– is that which generates an emotion in us, something that we somehow love. And that simple claim is totally shaking up today’s 21st-century school, the school of future generations.

Without imposing an academic rulebook, neuroeducation scrutinizes how our brain functions in psychological, scientific and didactic contexts. “It’s relatively simple: taking advantage of how the brain works and applying it to teaching. Learning, memorizing or interacting with the world depends entirely on our brain,” was how it was put during a television programme by Francisco Mora, one of the gurus of this discipline, a doctor in Medicine and Neurosciences and author of a key book aptly titled Neuroeducation (Alianza Editorial).

In it, he explains the importance of aptitudes like empathy, curiosity, altruism, cooperation, attention processes, learning and memory, the circadian rhythms and a broad conceptual universe that upsets the traditional foundations of teaching. Thais is because scientific research supports the idea that the things that excite us are the ones that leave the greatest impression. We’re seduced by what’s different. What breaks monotony. These are cerebral codes that vary over the course of one’s life and that during the school years can optimize the teacher’s mission and the performance of the students, who will spend more than a decade in the classroom. At least.

In the prologue of his highly regarded work, Francisco Mora stresses that “interest in knowing about and creating bridges of understanding between neuroscience and education has grown quickly in recent years.” Mora, who is also a professor of Human Physiology at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, notes that brain research makes it possible to devise new techniques to reinforce the development of children. He also reminds us that attention is being given to factors that previously would have been unthinkable, such as “the importance of designing better schools, with lots of light, and controlling temperature and noise. In other words, the design of the school itself (neuroarchitecture), the surroundings and, of course, culture.” Yes, as Dylan sang, times are changing.

The teachers, those everyday heroes

How can you capture the attention and interest of the students? Is it enough to say “pay attention, everyone”? This road isn’t often taken. According to professor Mora, the classes should include provocative elements, disruptive moments that are a departure from the ordinary. It’s not enough to demand silence and concentration. Neuroscience thinks the carrot is better than the stick. What captures our attention is what is stranger, novel and more attractive. And to learn, a student needs an initial stimulus that awakens his curiosity. “In the first years of life, a child’s playing is what he develops so as to learn through curiosity,” he says. And “playing is a means, an excuse by which we learn, because each perception, followed by a motor act, is always new and comes from the previous one, thus reinforcing curiosity.”

As stated on the cover of the book, “it’s only possible to learn what is loved.” And according to the experts, it’s been that way for more than 200 million years. Emotion is the key because the human brain has not varied in the past 15,000 years; thus a child from the Palaeolithic period could attend a school today and, a priori, nobody would know the difference. “Because the brain is the same, the genome is the same. What’s important for us is to realize the power of our capacity to teach, instruct and educate so as to constantly transform what we are as persons and as a society,” said Francisco Mora during some gatherings about education sponsored by the GSD Educación group. “There is no reasoning without emotion. The golden rule in neuroscience is curiosity. Let’s make what we say so interesting that it will capture the attention of whoever is listening to you. This is essential because without attention, that window that opens the machinery of learning, memorizing and creating knowledge is not possible. Thus we should make it automatic, and this can be done in a hundred thousand ways,” he says. The figure of the teacher, with or without information and communication technologies, will always be the crown jewel of a country.

Attention: let’s awaken attention!

Teaching doesn’t exist without the action of a human being. And that human being should be passionate about what he does. Francisco Mora often tells a story about a neuroscience course he was preparing for  Harvard. They asked him to speak for just 10 minutes. Unheard of. Then he began to think about it and realized the restriction was very efficient: full, 100% attention is only maintained between 10 and 20 minutes. But that’s enough for imparting effective learning, more memory and guaranteed knowledge.

In other words, 50 sessions of 10 minutes each are more productive for our brain than 10 sessions of 50 minutes each. Thus, according to neuroscience, good mental performance stands in opposition to those traditional nearly one-hour classes from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon. Should we all of a sudden change a school’s regular schedule? A more realistic idea would be this: step by step, as much as possible, every 15 minutes the teacher should revive student attention by using creative elements: a video, a curious story, different rhythms, questions… It’s a daily accomplishment. A constant challenge that has the educational community stumped. And in this uncertain setting, neuroscience has appeared as an engine for innovation: the aim is, along with other teaching resources, to adapt to a time when the educational times really are changing.

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