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Applications of Brain-Based Research to Second Language Teaching and Learning: Part 1
by Mary Ann Christison
This article is adapted from the author's plenary speech at the 32nd Annual TESOL Convention in Seattle, Washington. The informal nature of the presentation has been retained. Part 2 will appear in the June/July 1999 issue.
The topic of brain-based teaching and learning has intrigued me for the past several years and has received much attention in educational circles. Brain-based teaching and learning focuses on how the brain learns best and how language teachers can learn to understand and use this knowledge to help second language students learn English quickly and efficiently. In effect, we are talking about creating second language curricula that are brain-compatible.
I would like, first, to focus on some of the factors leading to this surge of interest in the human brain. For years, the only way we acquired information about how the brain worked was from autopsy examinations. Although these studies have been important, they provide only limited information about the human brain. Recent technological advances, however, have made it possible for us to study the living brain, and that is exciting.Brain Biology 101
Few of us can recall much about brain biology from our studies because, at that time, we probably did not believe that the information about the brain related much to our career goals as teachers. My goal here, however, is to convince you of the relevance of brain biology to your work as language teaching professionals.The Importance of the Limbic System
The cognitive side of learning usually receives a great deal of attention, but the affective side of learning is also important. Neuroscientists are just now mapping this important component of learning (Jensen, 1998). We know that blood flows to different parts of the brain, depending on the mental activities in which a person is involved. For instance, when we feel angry, threatened, anxious, or fearful, the blood flows from the neocortical area in the brain to the amygdala in the limbic area. This is called downshifting (MacLean, 1990). The limbic area of the brain is not the area of logical thought and decision making. These processes takes place in the neocortex. When downshifting occurs, the neocortex does not get sufficient glucose to function properly, causing the amygdala, in essence, to hijack the brain--which prevents us from making rational decisions.Emotional Intelligence
In Emotional Intelligence, Goleman (1995) explains this feature of the human brain and why it is an important concept for the students we teach. For example, when we are angry or fearful, we should not, at that moment, make decisions about how to act. We need to have decided on a course of action before we find ourselves in these situations. Teaching students about how the brain functions and how to manage emotions has enormous implications for the problems of violence facing schools everywhere. Establishing violence-free schools where children feel safe begins with giving children tools to understand and manage emotions.
Goleman (1995) states that one's emotional quotient (EQ) may be more important than one's IQ in determining success in life. His support for this claim is based in part on research studies conducted at Harvard in the 1960s (Shoda, Walter, and Peake, 1990). This research, called the Marshmallow Study, involved a group of 4-year-olds who were given the choice of eating a marshmallow immediately or waiting to do so.
The diagnostic power of how a moment of impulse was handled by these 4-year-olds did not become clear until many years later, when researchers tracked down these same children as adolescents. "The emotional and social difference between the grab-the-marshmallow preschoolers and their gratification-delaying peers was dramatic" (Goleman, 1995, p. 81). Those who had resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow immediately, at age 4, were now, as adolescents, more socially competent and self-reliant, were superior students, and had dramatically higher scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) tests. In fact, for those children who had waited the longest, there total scores were, on average, 210 points higher than those of the children who had grabbed eagerly. A delay-of-gratification test at age 4 is twice as powerful a predictor of what SAT scores will be as the IQ test is at age 4. IQ becomes a stronger predictor only after children learn to read. The importance of emotional self-regulation should therefore not be underestimated.The Brain and Memory
Memory is often described as being one fixed thing. But memory is not a fixed thing or a singular skill; it is a process (Jensen, 1998). There is no one location in the brain involved in memory formation or one single pathway through which memories are retrieved. Our ability to recall information often depends on which pathway we access: procedural, episodic, semantic, and sensory.Procedural Memory
Each time you participate in any endeavor, a certain number of neurons are activated. When you repeat the action, these same neurons respond again. The more times you repeat an action, the more efficient your brain becomes. Eventually, you need only trigger the beginning of the sequence of an action for the remaining pieces to fall into place like clockwork, almost without having to think about it. This type of memory, developed through repeated actions, is called procedural memory. We use this type of memory many times throughout the day in brushing our teeth, tying our shoes, and getting dressed. Dissecting the different pieces of a task you have in procedural memory and being able to teach others how to perform that task are two very different and difficult things that take time and effort. This is why the best skier is not always the best ski instructor.Episodic Memory
Another kind of memory is episodic memory. Events recalled in memory are often emotionally charged--positively or negatively. Emotion is a hook that helps us remember events and episodes in our lives. However, memories of episodic events may not be completely accurate. Although we should not trust the accuracy of episodic memory for this reason, it does provide important clues to teachers concerning the retention of information. We remember events when they have an emotional hook. If we want to help the students in our classrooms remember important information, we need to hook the information to a positive emotional episode in the classroom.Semantic Memory
Semantic memory is the type of memory most frequently used in the classroom. When we ask students to learn new vocabulary words or memorize grammar rules, lists, or details of specific content, we call on semantic memory. Semantic memory is used for remembering concepts and general knowledge. Unlike episodic memory, semantic memory is independent of context. When we remember information in semantic memory, we do not remember the time, place, and events surrounding the learning of this information. We remember the information itself.Sensory Memory
Another type of memory is sensory memory. A great deal of what we recall is automatic. So much information comes to us simultaneously that to handle such a large influx of information without becoming overwhelmed, our brains have learned to sift and sort information. The sensory receptors act like a sponge; the conscious mind acts like a sieve, trying to get rid of whatever it considers irrelevant. It must respond quickly because more information is coming in all the time. Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of is an individual process. What is dropped from sensory memory in this process is gone forever.Factors That Affect Attention
As language teachers, most of us have been taught that one important challenge we face is to retain students' attention. We have spent hours designing lesson plans and creating activities to do just that. Jensen (1998) suggests a different paradigm for teachers: Getting and keeping attention should be the exception, not the rule.
There are four basic factors that affect attention: novelty, need, emotion, and meaning. The use of novelty in the classroom for short periods is often effective in getting attention. Generally, the brain does poorly at sustaining high-level attention. External attention can be sustained at a constant level for perhaps only 10 minutes. Striving for constant attention from our students can be counterproductive. Novelty wears off after a few minutes but can be quite effective if used as a springboard for learning. Novelty can be the external stimulant for learning new information, but students must internally figure something out and make sense of it (Dudai, 1997). The brain continues to process information long after we are aware that we are doing it. This is why great ideas often seem to pop up out of nowhere. As language educators, should teachers use short, focused, divergent activities followed by diffused activities, such as reflection (Jensen, 1998).
Another key factor affecting attention is need. For instance, suppose you are very hungry and want to eat at a buffet. The buffet is free, but you are required to have a ticket. To get a ticket for the buffet
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Emotion is another important factor affecting attention. I have principally talked about the impact negative emotions can have on the learning environment and how learning to understand and manage emotions plays an important role in determining success in life (Goleman, 1995; Gardner, 1983). It is also important to examine the scientific links between emotions and learning. We know that emotions play an important role in the recall of episodic events, but what if emotions play a much larger role? LeDoux (1994) states that emotions not only have their own physical pathways in the brain but also drive attention and create meaning. Emotion actually helps reason focus the mind and set priorities. There is a link between the physical pathways in the brain for transmitting emotions and the chemicals the brain produces for everyday learning and memory (LeDoux, 1996). If we are to consider the important findings in this research, then we must concede that emotions play a much larger role in learning than previously imagined and that emotion is a key factor in both attention and learning.
The fourth important factor relating to attention is meaning. The brain is a pattern-seeking device. It seeks its own patterns and constructs its own meaning. The meanings the brain constructs are based on background and experiences. This concept has important implications for ESOL teachers. I have often heard teachers complain about their students' inability to understand grammatical patterns within the English language. There are many complex reasons students might struggle with a second language, but, clearly, we cannot ignore the fact that some of the difficulties they experience in the language learning process may be seeded in how we approach the teaching. If we want students to see the patterns that we have decided are important, we must make certain they know what those patterns are. Having done so, we must also be open to the different ways these learners process this information and construct meaning. The ways in which they process information may be evidence of more sophisticated cognitive processes than those we originally had in mind. We must also avoid constructing meaning too loosely. Meaning must always be equated with understanding. For example, I can tell you some interesting facts about the human brain, such as that it contains 100 billion nerve cells, 1 trillion supporting glial cells, and 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. These are impressive numbers. But for how many of us do these numbers carry meaning?
There are two conclusions I would like to draw from this discussion on factors affecting attention. We cannot teach anyone anything new unless we link the information to something students already know, or unless we create the experience with them.References Dudai, Y. (1997). How big is human memory, or on being just useful enough. Learning and Memory, 3, 341-365. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books. Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. LeDoux, J. (1994). Emotion, memory, and the brain. Scientific American, 270, 50-57. LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster. MacLean, P. (1990). The triune brain in education. New York: Plenum Press. Shoda, Y., Walter, M., and Peake, P. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978-986.
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