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What every teacher should know about the functions of learning in the human brain.

How can a teacher fulfill the contract with a school district to bring abut learned behavior among classroom children unless the teacher has a well defined belief system about how learning occurs? Every teacher should know how and why learning is acquired among both elementary and secondary school students. During the 1980s, in colleges, schools, and departments of education located in research supported universities, teacher education programs moved away from teaching methods and curriculum centered instruction, and began adopting social learning theories and information system theories (cognitive psychology) as the foundations in preparing teachers (White 1989; 1989; 1993; 1995). In those departments, schools, and colleges of education housed in universities that are not strongly research focused and are likely labeled "teaching colleges or universities", preteachers are most likely prepared with methods, mechanics, and "how you do it teaching manuals". This has been a practice spanning sixty years. In many teacher education programs where research and inquiry are not emphasized, where faculty in education do very little descriptive or experimental research, and where the tradition of "this is the way we teach" is emphasized, graduates and newly certified teachers have not been sufficiently trained to be problem solvers, hypothesis testers, and users of scientific method. Indeed, teachers follow the tradition "recitation method". The teacher asks a question; students raise their hands, and the teacher calls out a name. The named student responds, and the teacher quickly follows by some rewarding phrase, "good job", or "that's right", or "very good". In such a recitation method, the teacher (or the student teacher) has taught from one lesson plan and has assumed the content being taught is directed at everybody in the classroom. The tragic conceptualization in traditional methods orientation is that the teacher is teaching the large group process, or the entire "class" the same content. Teaching today, embraces inclusion or mainstreaming and maintains a tremendous variation of skills, abilities, and attitudes among students. Instruction, today, must be individualized, or client centered. In place of teaching one lesson plan, the contemporary classroom teacher should be prepared to teach a diagnostic-prescriptive approach to each student in a clinical teaching modality (White, 1995).

In place of lesson plans for all students, individual education plans (IEPs) are the prescriptions of modern pedagogy. Toward a theory and practice of teaching, the elementary and secondary teacher should be experienced in social learning theory and information systems theory. Emerging from these theoretical learning systems is a contemporary pedagogical theory of clinical teaching.

When we attempt a discussion of the body of knowledge for effective teaching, there remains a haunting discovery. There does not appear to be any researcher, or research group which has published a substantive research study of the body of knowledge about the total teaching function. There is little doubt that such a study of "what every teacher should know" would cost a great deal of money, time, and energy. There would have to be focus on at least three domains of knowledge and their interactions: (1) Cognitive, intellectual, thinking, (2) Affective, attitudinal, and emotional, and (3) Psychomotoric, coordination, growth, and development.

The Neurophysiology of the Brain and Its Function In Learning

It is widely accepted that each student has a central nervous system and an autonomic nervous system. Very few psychologists would deny that students learn to copy and imitate models. Students at every grade level "incorporate the thinking, feeling, and behavior of models". By the word incorporate we mean that the student actually takes into his or her body the very thought and process of thinking as well as feelings, attitudes, or emotions, and even behaviors, gestures, and mannerisms of a model. There are three kinds of models: (1) real live model, e.g. teachers, parents, (2) symbolic models, e.g. characters and images on the television screen, and (3) verbal models in the textbooks and, or, descriptions from teachers. From social learning we recognize that the observer or learner internalizes both cognitive and affective processes. This is the central message of S-O-R learning. The observer, or learner, mediates and incorporates the meanings in the thinking and attitudes of models. Certainly, learning is not merely stimulus-response (S-R). The causes of learned behavior is not explained simply by direct reinforcement.

In the late 1960s when social learning theory and research was the prominent about how children learn, another theory was making an initial impact on the explanation of how children learn, namely, information systems theory. How did the information systems ideas gain prominence in explaining how students learn? The high speed computers were in their fourth or fifth generations. Information processing by mini-computers and micro-computers was developing rapidly. The competition in Silicon Valley was tremendous. At the same time, in medicine, neurosurgeons were operating on the brain and were removing blood clots, embolisms, and tumors. In psychology laboratories in research oriented universities, there was clear evidence of an expansion of research on human memory.

The major theme that seemed to catch the fire of research in the 1970s and 1980s was that learning was interpreted as information in the form of electro-chemical energy flowing through the brain.

Information systems theory seemed to differ from typical S-R and S-O-R learning theories (White, 1993). For one difference, no particular name was attached to information systems theory of learning. The Pavlov's, Thornkikes, and Guthries were associated with their S-R belief systems and research. Another difference has been the multiple applied areas associated with information systems theory, e.g., psychology, medicine, computer assisted instruction, and communication, while other learning theories were generated by research in a laboratory. Information systems theory began to explore the central nervous system, the neurophysiology of the brain, and electro-chemical discharges utilizing the high speed computer as a model of the functioning. One of the historic highlights of information systems approach to understanding learning was Broadbent's (1958) multi-stage explanation of the brain's functions of information flow.

The flow of information through brain begins with a stimulus (energy change) in the environment. The S impacts or impinges on the senses, i.e., the eyes, cars, the nostrils, the month, the skin, and muscles. The impact is registered in the senses for about 3 seconds. The energy stimulus is then passed on to the short term memory system (STM), or it drops out of the flow of information. Within the STM system, the brain is very active and in 20-30 seconds transforms the energy stimulus of information as it is encoded for the long term memory system (LTM), or permits the information to drop out of the system. The electrical-chemical stimulus remains in the LTM, probably residing in the synapse, which is the gap between two neurons in dendrites (branch like endings) extending out from the neurons.

There are billions of nerve cells in the human brain. The short term memory (active brain) plays an important role in learning. The STM determines the value of learning for later on. Information, if it is not encoded, is forgotten and drops out of the system. Otherwise, it is stored as an association with another bit of information already learned, and may become integrated into some larger framework in the structure of the brain. When a stimulus is sent by the STM system to be stored, ready for retrieval, in the LTM system, it is encoded in two ways: (1) through rehearsal or repetition, or (2) through associations or relations among various pieces of information (Gredler, 1992). At the base of the brain, in the reticular formation, the electro-chemical sparks (or energy stimuli) are dispersed and discharges to various locations on the cortex. Indeed, the brain handles the stimuli in various locations on the surface of the brain. As we will discuss shortly, medical science has recorded these electro-chemical discharges at various locations on the cortex and with the help of computers is able to draw figures representing the brain and its functions.

Storage and Retrieval of Information in the LTM

We carry around in our heads information that we have learned, remembered, and stored in the classification and well ordered LTM system. When the long term memory system receives new information, the brain's structure is changed - is reconstructed. New associations are formed, and learning is expanded. Teachers must face this awesome truth: Presenting new information to students, with the student's intent to learn, changes the structure of the human physiology of the brain. The student's brain will never again be the same.

Certain verbatim passages, such as one's prayers, or the Pledge of Allegiance are stored in semantic form for later retrieval. By far, the majority of information is stored in summary code. Key elements, rather than every single detail, are stored in the LTM. Think of the memory as a huge classification system filled with associations, schemas, large networks, smaller networks, patterns and images. Can those electro-chemical firings in the brain represent meanings (White, 1995)? How we understand, apply principles, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate in our thinking process is determined by our brain power and its meanings. Perhaps we have heard the psychologist say "the greatest problem in psychology is the meaning of meaning."

How Meanings Are Formed In The Brain

What does the word Christmas mean? If we think of the meaning of Christmas as an ever encircling number of associations or experiences attached to the word Christmas, we are identifying the perception and meaning of Christmas. Denotatively, we can look up the word, Christmas, in the dictionary. You will find it refers to "December 25, anniversary of the birth of Christ." Connotatively, however, Christmas means all those circumstances, situations, and experiences in your personal lives which were attached to the word and the event of Christmas.

Meaning, therefore, probably is anchored in the second level of thinking in Bloom's Taxonomy which we call understanding or comprehension of meaning. What do we mean by the word "kitchen"? Examine the numerous "associations" (about 37) which are attached to the word, kitchen, e.g., knives, forks, spoons, dishes, glasses, cups, table, chairs, cupboard, refrigerator, stove, napkins, towels, pepper, salt, etc. The meaning of any person, place, or thing is the number of associations which surround the object and give it an anchor, or meaning in the human brain. Then, does it follow, that meaning is tied up in what one perceives? Connotatively, yes. Can we teach the meaning of a word to a student? Denotatively, the student will try to memorize the meaning of words which are abstract, but connotatively we should present associations, images, color, examples to our students. Most people are familiar with the "color-commentator" in the TV broadcasting of NFL football games. How can we teach children to build meanings in the brain. By asking "why" questions, and training students to be curious about why things are or why things happened is the most effective way of teaching students to expand their meaning of concepts.

Position Emission Tomography (PET) and Neuro-Imaging

Where are these meanings? Can we observe memory storage and meaning in the brain? In 1989 there were more than 40 scientific centers which were conducting research on Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Most of the centers were research hospitals where medical researchers were examining patients, looking for blood clots, aneurysms, tumors, etc., in patients. Several of the centers were using language to stimulate the human brain and, then, inserting radioactive materials in the blood stream flowing to the brain, a laser beam apparatus would locate electro-chemical firings in the brain. In turn, these electro-chemical discharges were "read" by a macro-computer and pictures were drawn of the brain. Try to picture a volunteer subject placed on a gurney and inserted into a doughnut shaped ring. The lights in the room have been shut off signaling that a language experiment is about to begin (Montgomery, 1989). The man lies very quietly on the gurney, his head inside a mask that has molded to his features. Suspended above his face is a small TV monitor with a white cross displayed on the screen.

The subject is asked to relax and fix his eyes on the cross. A plastic syringe filled with water and a radioactive form of oxygen is injected into the subject arm. Within ten seconds the positron-emitting blood has reached the brain. The PET ring is stimulated and within minutes a large computer draws images of what is happening in the brain. There are subsequent tasks in which the subject looks at word, says a word, and merely listens to a word. Seeing, hearing, speaking, thinking, therefore, are highlighted in areas of the brain. The computer reads the electro-chemical sparking in the synapse and draws pictures in living color. PET has begun to explore the relationship between words and the things they symbolize. Since it is through language that we construct and reconstruct our perceptions of the social and natural world, we must find out where in our brains do we attach meaning and memory to images and semantic code.

Neuro-imaging of Children With Attention Deficit Disorder

Recently, 1995, in a study of 120 males between the ages of 4-18, alarming data were discovered about males with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Using neuro-imaging, similar to PET, it was discovered that on the fight side of the brains of these ADD or ADHD students, three specific locations of the brain had significantly reduced electro-chemical activity. All these males were medicated with ritalin, so a comparative sample of males is being observed to test hypotheses about ritalin effects. Preliminary data infers that ritalin is not the cause of the suppressed cortical activity. Another study is examining hypotheses about girls age 4-18.

There seems to be some corroborative information about a neurophysiological component in ADD and ADHD children and adolescents. Dr. Harold Levinson in his book, Total Concentration: Attention Deficit Disorders (1990), draws conclusions from 20,000 cases observed in the Medical Dyslexic Treatment Center in Great Neck, New York, that the most common recognized type of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was traced to an inner ear disturbance that disrupts not only the concentration and activity of the brain, but also a host of sensorimotor mechanisms responsible for learning difficulties. The cause, therefore, of 90% of ADHD or ADD of Type III cases (Levinson, 1990) is traced to a neurophysiological problem in the brain.

Neuroscientists are exploring the benefits of Brain Calisthenics. In a convent for retired nuns in Mankato, Minnesota, Professor David Snowdon at the University of Kentucky has been studying the nuns for years. Of the 150 retired nuns residing in this convent, 25 are older than 90; the average age is 85. The nuns have dedicated their brains to science after death. Dr. Snowdon has found that those who earned college degrees, who taught school, who constantly challenged their minds live longer than those who clean rooms or work in the kitchen. One 99 year old nun taught school until she was 97. What can the average person do to strengthen his or her mind, and to make dendrites grow? "Be actively involved in areas unfamiliar to you" says Dr. Scheibel, head of UCLA's Brain Research Institute. "Anything that is intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computational reserves in your brain" (Golden, 1994).

For those who teach, knowledge about the functions of learning in the brain is an essential element. All of life should be a learning experience. Twentieth century technology is confronting the traditional viewpoint that the curriculum is the focus of learning. Teachers must be informed in this era that we are challenging our brains in the classroom, and, therefore, building brain circuitry. The best way for children and adolescents to increase their dendrites and expand their learning is to meet and be challenged by an intelligent, interesting, enthusiastic teacher and stimulated peers.


Braodbent, D.E. (1958). Perception and communication. London: Program.

Golden, D. (1994). Building a Better Brain. Life, July, 63-70.

Gredler, M. (1992). Learning and instruction. New York: MacMillian Co.

Levinson, H. (1990). Total concentration: attention deficit disorder. New York: M. Evans and Co.

Montgomery, G. (1989). The Mind in motion. Discover, March, 58-66.

White, W.F. (1989). Engaging the cognitive and affective process of the learner. Education, 110 (1), 79-86.

White, W. F. (1993). From S-R to S-O-R: What every teacher should know about learning. Education, 113 (4), 620-630.

White, W.F. (1995). The Search for the Truth about "good" teaching. Education, 116(1), 70-74.
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Author:White, William F.
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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