I know that I have been off the radar for a while with posting on the blog, but I have been working on something. Last year I ended up in an MRI machine with them looking to see if anything was wrong with my head. The neuro specialist was a really fascinating man and he asked me about my job. When I explained what I did he came up with a striking comment:
I don’t envy you he said, how any one can educate another is beyond me. Each brain is different which makes standard exams or curriculum’s a little insane.
Then in December I attended a conference and one of the presentations that I saw had used Bloom’s Taxonomy as a basis for a new publication. Then the question sprung in my brain, with all of our new awareness of neuroscience, brain imaging how valid is Bloom’s Taxonomy. This has led me into researching ELT and neuroscience over the last couple of months, hence the silence. I am no where near that answer but I thought that I would share in this post some fascinating discoveries so far on this research adventure.
In order to make sense of the whole field I thought it might be useful to include a diagram of the brain and the various functions that we could all refer to as I sometimes get lost and need to go back and look at exactly which part of the brain they are talking about.
The brain diagram:
If you want to check out some brain basics interactively then here is a website that you can visit the FINR 3D Brain Atlas.
Neuroscience and ELT
Now that we have the brain basics underway, the study that I am going to mention that refers to ELT are pioneering in a very new field, which means that this post is more about awareness of what is out there right now not necessarily curriculum changes or systems of learning as no one has conclusive data or applications as yet.
Our first stop on the brain journey is to Janet Zadina. She is an educator who became interested in neuroscience and then retrained as a neuroscientist and has been appearing at some ELT conferences discussing the brain. Her article is entitled, Implication of Neuroscience Research for Teaching a Foreign Language. The area I want to explore is sound, cognitive load and multiple pathways addressed in this article.
1-Sound: In order to create a a second neural network for a foreign language sound is essential. As the brain develops even from 7 months this sound distinction between two languages becomes more difficult. Zadina reports that the neural commitment to a learned structure may interfere with the processing of information. However, she also cites an exaple of Japanese learners of English being given extensive computer training to recognize the distinction between ‘l’ and ‘r’ and finally under neuro imaging seeing same parts of an English speakers brain for these two sounds light up in the same place.
2-Cognitive load: Zadina also reminds us that the cognitive load on a learner of a foreign language learner is more intense than when processing in your L1. The reason for this she explains is that 2nd language learning involves parts of the brain beyond “traditional language areas”. The frontal lobe in particular is heavily involved. Less fluent speakers will use the frontal lobe more. Also Zadina cites the notion of “parallel activities”. There is a suggestion that when working on the L2 both languages are active. The brain therefore is working harder, which means our brains fatigue more. Her solutions to this which I wish to investigate more in my own teaching, are:
- make sure there is fluency in one task before introducing another
- introduce one new idea at a time
3-Multiple Pathways Model
Zadina explains this as a model that has three basic assumptions:
1-Brains activate multiple pathways in learning
2-Brains are very diverse
3-(we need to) teach from a variety of approaches
What are these multiple pathways?
1-Sensory motor: Visual, auditory & motor (speech & kinesthetic)
She particularly emphasizes the use of images as being important to the brain to aid memory. The most effective combination she explains is to couple auditory, visual and speech processes together. The speaking activity will activate the motor cortex.
2-Language: Fluency can enhance “overall thinking” skills.
3-Reward, survival and pleasure: This pathway is what helps us survive and keeps us alive. She states:
real learning is pleasurable to the brain
and what gives the brain real pleasure is detecting patterns. Therefore lessons that are more like puzzles might be advisable here. This immediately makes me think of much more discovery learning.
4-Social: Mirror neurons seem to activate when we see someone doing something the same as if it were you. Therefore she emphasizes modeling in the classroom and learning by doing.
5-EMOTION: No this is not a typing error. This is a brief touch upon the subject of emotion as it is really important and one I want to follow up on in another post. Zadina says this is one of the most important as “learning is state dependent”. She asks some important questions for our own reflections on this topic:
How can you make your lessons more exciting or memorable? How can you create a more positive emotional state environment in your classroom?
This I am thinking about more and more as this seems to be key with learners and through my own learning experiences.
6-Attention: There is a direct connection between emotion and attention. Emotion drives attention and in return attention drives learning. Therefore we need to capture and sustain learners attention. She asks us to consider how we could do this?
7-Frontal lobe: as this is actively used as a pathway in learning then she asks us to consider how we can adjust lessons to reduce cognitive load. A very important issue and one I know I really need to consider in my EAP context.
The ultimate goal is to try and incorporate all of these pathways in every lesson. However, what I really like about Janet Zadina is that she is not pushing us to implement all of this now as any new research she advises needs to be approached with caution. However, I do agree with her that this does provide much food for thought and has created much pleasurable thinking and now my brain is on the road to discovering how this might be possible.