Brains, Sleep and Learning II
Bill Long 11/25/06
Dr. John Medina's Twelve Rules
The purpose of this essay is to see how Dr. Medina, the head of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, has refined his thinking since 2003 on "brain" rules. His nine rules appear in the previous essay; I will give his twelve rules here and show the way that his thinking has evolved. Then, I will offer one gentle suggestion/critique of brain work.
Twelve Brain Rules
Let's begin by seeing how he takes over, refines or discards the nine rules from 2003.
1. Meaning Before Detail. In 2003 he posited what I argued were really two rules, that we need to understand the "big picture" before the "little pictures" make sense, and that learning happens when we connect emotionally to the material presented. In 2006 he has refined this as follows. "People more elaborately process and prepare for long term storage information that holds their attention. Maintenance of focused attentional states may be directly proportional to the emotional content of the presented subject material." Though his emphasis on the emotional content of material is the same, he seems to have morphed his interest into looking at the problem of long-term storage of information--how it is done and what are the mechanisms enabling it to happen. This seems to be the rage in brain research today--how memories are made, retained and then stored in the deep freeze of our brains. I am sure no one yet knows how this happens, but those are the questions they are asking.
2. Every Brain is Diffferent. He keeps that principle in 2006, with only a few word changes, though they may be significant. "Every brain is wired differently from every other brain and acquires information in ways unique to that wiring." If this in fact is true, then each person needs a unique Individual Education Plan, as I have previously argued. The purpose of early years in public school then should be to figure out how each person's brain is "wired" (is there a test for this?) and then give students material to learn that is keyed to the way the brain is wired. For some it might mean the learning of American history by pictures. For another it might mean the introduction of one sentence of material, followed by discussion. For a third it might mean the making of objects that were made by children and adults of other times. I think we will not really focus on the implications of this statement (rule # 2) until later this century.
3. People are Natural Explorers. The 2006 rules is identical. "Humans are natural explorers, displaying at infancy an ability to acquire information through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas."
4. Sleep is Important to the Learning Process. The words in 2003 are identical to the rule in 2006.
5. Repetition is Critical for Memory. He has refined this in 2006 as follows: "Memory is not fixed at the moment of learning. Elaborate encoding, timed repetition, and internal rehearsal are critical components for the successful creation of long-term memories." This is another indication that his interest in memory acquisition and retention is growing. In fact, this brain principle and the whole subject of retaining ideas stands in tension with his earlier interests on the development of children's brains. Indeed, I think that the growing edge of brain work now ought to be on adults; Medina may unwittingly be entering into that area.
[Rule 10. This is absent from his 2003 list but present in 2006 and relates to 5. It shows that Medina's growing edge may be on the issue of memory. "Memory is not fixed at the moment of learning, but takes a surprisingly long time to develop its permanent form." I think things are even more complex than this. It may be that there is no permanent form of memory, but it always "develops" or evolves. My proof? I have written two autobiographies. The second "repeats" the first 39 years of my life. I didn't consult the first when writing the second. I noted that though certain memories stayed the same, others had "develped," some had receded, and I remembered some of the same things in different ways. Writing autobiographies every decade or so would help to refine this point.]
6. We are Visual Learners. In 2006 he repeats that thought. "Half of the human brain is devoted to the processing of visual information; visual processing is a critcially important component of human learning." No wonder Google bought YouTube. We not only need millions of books online whose copyright has expired, but we need loads of images to help us understand the words in books.
7. Focused Attentional States Facilitate Learning. His point here was that long stretches of "linearly supplied information" (i.e., college lectures) don't facilitate learning. This, interestingly enough, doesn't appear in his 2006 rules. Maybe he was only waging a war against lecturers in 2003. In any case, the battle has mostly been won. Lectures are fewer and further between these days.
8. Exercise Aids Learning. The same thought appears in 2006.
9. Stressed Brains Don't Learn Very Well. The point is similar in 2006, but he has dropped the evaluative statement (don't learn very well) and added: "Stressed brains do not learn in the same way as non-stressed brains." This might open him up to the idea that stressed learning does give valuable insights. After all, those who grew up in Civil Wars definitely have different approaches to knowledge than those of us who had peaceful childhoods.
Medina's Three Other New Rules
Since he doesn't repeat one of his rules (# 7) in 2006 and since I have included one 2006 idea (Rule 10) above which isn't in 2003, this leaves us three more "new rules" that he developed in the intervening years. They really aren't so much new rules as perspectives on the brain. Here they are:
A. As a Biological Tissue, the Human Brain was Subject to the Same Evolutionary Pressures as All Other Biological Phenomena. This insight is informed by researchers who want to see the evolution of brain over time as central to their work. Thus, the brain is not a "static" entity; it changes too.
B. The Senses did not Evolve in Isolation from Each Other. The Human Brain simultaneously Processes Information Supplied from a Wide Variety of Sensory Inputs. Again, this reflects recent brain research, which looks at the brain as an integrative center of learning.
C. There is Great Difficulty in Making Generalizations about How the Human Brain Acquires Information. Gender Related Learning Issues, if they Exist, Serve as an Example of this Difficulty. Ah, the more you probe, the deeper the questions and confusion becomes. Medina is evolving towards tentativeness.
One Suggstion--And Conclusion
I think the relatively recent emphasis on brain study (in the past 20 years) is a wonderful case study on how the scholarly world becomes convinced that a new area of investigation is in and then pours tons of money into it. It is driven by hope--hope that if we truly understand the brain we might "cure" autism, or might aid students in learning. But I sometimes wonder if the same kind of hope we have isn't much different from the hope of psychoanalysis about 100 years ago--that by understanding our past, our oedipal and "electral" desires, we might become "free" from the guilt and limitations of our upbringing. Hope fuels the human spirit, even the scholarly spirit.
Finally, however, one suggestion. I hinted at it earlier, but will mention it again. I think that our society will, sooner or later, grow interested in what most of us are--adults--rather than what most of us spent only a few years in being--children. Research will gradually shift to the learning issues of adults; how we retain and develop information; how we learn to reason morally from information that we have, etc. I think we will find that age 50 is a crucial ledge that hasn't yet really been understood. It is not simply a "passage," as Gail Sheehey might have it; it really is a higher plateau than we have ever stood on previously. But that is the subject for more reflection in another essay or two...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long