Theoretical and Practical Insights on the Science of Learning - An Interview with Dr. Judy Willis

Neurologist and Neuroeducation consultant



What is neuroplasticity and how does it relate to learning?

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change or adapt after experiences. Memory is held not in individual neurons, but rather in multiple neurons in communication with one another. Neurons that regularly communicate with each other to represent knowledge and memories are referred to as a neural network. However, one of the most important findings for education is that the brain and its connections are “plastic”; that is it has the ability to change.

As educators, we are ‘brain changers’ because we promote learning through experiences that activate students’ neural networks as their brains construct memories and knowledge. Educators can help students build their brains beyond what was previously believed to be fixed limits, based on the predictions of test scores or previous achievements.

IQ is not fixed at birth and brain development and intelligence are plastic in that internal and environmental stimuli constantly change the structure and function of neurons and their connections.


Is there evidence that ​neuroplasticity makes a difference to learning?

Locally, Broadmeadows Primary School in Melbourne has had success applying neuroscience-based planning and insights to their curriculum which, according to their principal, Keith McDougall, has had a positive effect on test scores and increased retention of information.

A study published in the journal Child Development conducted by Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stanford University found that both morale and grades improved when students understood that intelligence is malleable. When the researchers actively taught this idea to a group of students, their performance surpassed their peers in a control group. ​


Change your brain


Have you seen how this approach can change both the culture of institutions and teaching practices of educators? Do you have examples?

There is a huge misconception that intelligence is determined at or before birth by genes and that effort will not significantly change an individual’s potential for academic success.

Never underestimate the brain’s potential to impact learning and educational performance. For example, students’ engagement and successful information processing suffer when they believe they are “not smart” and success is out of their control.

The realisation that learners can literally change their brains through study and review strategies is extremely empowering for educators. Research reveals evidence that all brains have the potential to become better and all students to become smarter, especially with guidance and encouragement.

To give you an idea of how I personally applied this in my elementary and secondary school classroom discussions, I would ask students if they thought they could change their brains or if their brains were something they inherited that were unchangeable, like their eye colour.

I’d then show them functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brains of people before and after they learn to juggle or play an instrument and demonstrated the thickening in the areas of the brains that were stimulated as the subjects developed their skills. They recognised this as evidence that they too could build more powerful brain networks from practice and study.

This was a student's response after they realised their power to change their own brains with neuroplasticity:

''I didn’t know that I could grow my brain. Now I know about growing dendrites and synapses when I study. Now when I think about watching TV or reviewing my notes I tell myself that I have the power to grow faster and stronger brain power because my myelin will get thicker if I take the time to review my notes. I’d still rather watch TV, but I do the review because I want my brain to grow smarter. It is already working and feels really good.”

When these students understood that through neuroplasticity their “practice makes permanent” and their “neurons that fire together wire together,” they increased their motivation for studying, practising, and participating. It was no longer an abstract or out of reach goal to build the brains they wanted.


How ​can you use the science of learning to influence learning outcomes? ​​

The implicit goal of all education is to change students’ brains by improving both their knowledge base and their understanding of information acquired through the guidance of their educators.

Neuroscience research dives deeper into exploring how and why successful teaching strategies work by developing a greater understanding of how the brain processes information into learning.

The educational neuroscience’s biggest benefit is that it can help educators effectively change teaching methods to increase learning in their students. Petitto and Dunbar (2004) describe how findings on language learning can help inform educational practices that in turn can help students be more successful at learning languages.

They report that the view of holding back second language exposure grew out of the idea that children exposed to two languages at once, do not differentiate between the two languages until age three; suggesting that children exposed to two languages simultaneously have delayed language development. However, research reports showed exactly the opposite. It was illustrated that when children are exposed to two languages from birth, they reach linguistic milestones in each of their languages at the same time as monolinguals.

These findings would seem to suggest that early exposure to two languages does not have detrimental effects on language development, but rather that early second language exposure is in fact beneficial to students.

One of the ways to promote success in students is to understand how the learning process occurs, and how it involves changing the brain.




Taking neuroplasticity into consideration, what is the effect of technology on learning and how the brains work?

From laptops to tablets to smartphones, technology is ingrained in our culture. It is in our homes, in our classrooms, and in the way we learn.

For better or for worse, modern technology might be changing the way we think and the way our brains work. There is certainly no conclusive evidence as to brain changes resulting from technological approaches to learning. However, since neuroplasticity responds to brain activation, it is valuable to consider the advantages of adding computerised learning experiences to complement or support classroom instruction.

Online learners may have the advantage of navigating the online world using and reinforcing the many brain regions involved in that process. However, unlike traditional learners, online learners typically don’t have to memorise information the same way and can utilise specific cognitive techniques, such as chunking or using mnemonic devices to help retain information.

Traditional classrooms might benefit from getting back to the basics and only integrating technology into areas of learning that are appropriate, useful, and meaningful.


What is the role of reinforcement in the science of learning?

Students can develop extended long-term memory networks that hold learning into relational patterns by activating prior knowledge and continuing to reinforce connections between new learning topics.

There are several techniques that can be used to preheat these related memory circuits, such as bulletin boards.

By posting pictures or visual cues related to an upcoming unit of instruction, students’ brains will evaluate existing patterns of prior knowledge to predict new sensory input from the bulletin board.

Another technique is brainstorming. Brainstorming about what they already know and what they want to learn about a new unit could be done using informal class discussions. Pre-empting students with prompts allows them to activate these prior knowledge-memories, and reinforce any existing connections that will help them better relate to the new information.

However, rote memorisation should be reserved for items such as multiplication tables and sight words. When students memorise single answer data without understanding important concepts and the reasons behind theories, formulas, or procedures, they are not likely to construct the understanding that is needed for successful learning and application of knowledge.

We see the phenomenon all too frequently when students “memorise” and soon forget facts that are of little primary interest or emotional value, such as a list of vocabulary words. Students ultimately require guidance and context to recognise connections that will ultimately promote memory storage into durable extended networks of understanding and memory.




What distinguishes the learning sciences from other related fields?

Understanding how the brain processes information into learning, knowing more about what it takes for students’ brains to be maximally responsive to information input, and finding explanations for how and why successful strategies work, are ways neuroscience research is providing keys to the strategies and interventions best suited for individual students and specific topics.

The selecting of instructional techniques and the designing of lesson plans can be aided by understanding neuroscience research. Bringing information from neuroscience research into the classroom is part of the field of educational neuroscience, or mind, brain, and education.

The biggest benefit educational neuroscience can provide is that it can help you effectively change teaching methods to increase learning in your students.


How can the science of learning be integrated into the home environment to increase students learning?

We now have neuroscience of learning research to support recommendations to avoid forced instruction and provide children with the best environment and experiences for joyful learning. We have come to literally see how stress and curiosity edits which sensory information is given entry to our neural networks and where the input ends up.

Personal meaning is relevant in learning, as children must care enough about information or consider it personally important for it to be stored as memory. Use the students’ interests to connect them to the material.

Patterning is another effective teaching tool, as the brain is a pattern-seeking organ. When children recognise relationships between new and prior knowledge, their brains can link the new information to a category of existing knowledge for long-term storage. Charts, mnemonics, listing similarities/differences, and making analogies build long-term memory patterns.

One other technique is to grab their attention. Memorable events make long-term memories. Find out what students will study next in school and hang posters giving hints about that topic and encourage them to guess what it might be.

Another technique is to add novelty to a study experience, as it will be also more memorable. Use video clips from the internet or put a scarf on the dog right before your child begins to study and alerting system will be more open to processing and remember information that comes in after a novel experience.


How do short breaks increase the effectiveness of learning?

As a general rule, to keep students of primary school age alert and engaged, brain breaks should be scheduled after 10 minutes of concentrated learning. For upper primary to secondary students that time could be increased to longer intervals depending on the complexity of the material.

Simple physical movement, stretching, drinking water, or changing to an activity that stimulates another sensory system or neural network can also often provide a fresh outlook. During these breaks, the newly learned material then has the opportunity to go beyond short-term and working memory while students replenish their supply of neurotransmitters and the amygdala cools down. Unless the break is enforced, these students will eventually reach neurotransmitter depletion and behave in unpredictable ways they may later regret. Planning and enforcing these brain breaks can prevent an overstimulated amygdala from limiting new information intake for the high cortical processing these students can achieve.




How can co-design partnerships between educational practitioners and researchers be fostered to develop and sustain innovative learning environments?

Highly effective teachers develop intuition and experience with which they interpret their observations and responses to their interventions. It is not surprising then, that the strategies that educators have found most successful have been supported by the increasing pool of mind, brain, and education research.

Educators who understand the why and not just the how to of their most effective teaching strategies have the motivation and positive expectations to best utilise and expand these strategies and have the foundational knowledge to creatively use their skills and the correlations from current and future neuroscience research to increase student engagement, motivation, perseverance, retention and graduation.


How can teachers productively create teaching and learning environments that support the needs of learners of diverse linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds?

Differentiation allows students to work at their achievable challenge level. By providing learning opportunities within their range of achievable challenge, students engage through expectation of positive experiences.

Providing individualised levels of an achievable challenge takes effort and can be time consuming. It is important to realise that educators will not be able to do this for all students all of the time. Teachers will need to find their own level of achievable challenge with regard to how much and for which students more individualised attention, by differentiating each unit of study, will be provided.

It is important to recognise goal achievement, so teachers should start out with one or two students for whom to provide more individualised levels of achievable challenge.

Consider selecting students whose behavioural response to the stress is a type of acting out that is disruptive to their classmates. Individualising instruction and homework will help better serve these students and will allow teachers to more closely monitor and measure the efficacy of their efforts.

A way to think about the individualised achievable challenge for students is an opportunity for students to recognise their capability to be successful at an ambitious goal.

For example, pre-testing can also be an important concept in the classroom to determine where students are, developmentally, and allow teachers to discover what students do and do not know about an upcoming lesson.


In general, what do you believe will be the biggest topics in education and learning in Australia over the next 2-3 years? ​ ​

The limitless potential of neuroplasticity is best achieved for students to reach their highest potential when learning is individualised for interest, mastery, achievable challenge, and with corrective and progress feedback.

Incorporation of these practices into education is strongly supported by neuroscience research and is critical for the success of today’s students in life and learning now and in the 21st century they inherit.

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