Neuroplasticity and Adult Learning

"It's all about neuroplasticity" by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It’s all about neuroplasticity” by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

CONCUSSIONS IN SPORTS

Last month, the University of Michigan athletic department was embroiled in a major controversy when the Head Coach of the football team decided to play his quarterback after he suffered what appeared to be a serious blow to the head or concussion during the game. The incident came amidst lawsuits from former football players against the National Football League (NFL), alleging the league denied that concussions lead to brain damage and the debilitating disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). These reports have tarnished the image of the NFL and led many families to start thinking twice about signing up their children for youth football leagues.

Keith Olberman’s commentary below provides an interesting perspective on the disturbing effects of repeated concussions on a player’s mental health:

WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?

The fallout from this debate has led to renewed efforts on the part of scientists, psychiatrists and neuropathologists to study the brain and understand how to effectively treat brain injuries. One area of brain research that has received particular attention is “neuroplasticity”. Not only does neuroplasticity provide hope in overcoming brain injury, but it also has implications on the brain’s ability to develop, grow and learn throughout our lives.

Neuroplasticity is defined as the “constantly changing mass of cell connections” (Hill, p. 75) that facilitates the brain’s ability to change and rewire neural pathways. Our prior understanding of the brain suggested that it stops growing during childhood years. What research has now revealed is that the brain is structured in such a way that it can adapt to the changing conditions around us.

"Neuroplasticity" by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Neuroplasticity” by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0

NEUROPLASTICITY AND BRAIN INJURY

So how does neuroplasticity help those who have suffered brain injuries? Well, in the case of former NFL players, especially those with “impairment in the areas of general cognitive functioning, information processing, reasoning, and memory”(Buczynski, 2011), studies have revealed that neurons in the brain “compensate for injury and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment” (Hammond, 2010). Furthermore, if there is damage in one part of the brain, then the “responsibility for that function is simply rerouted to another part of the brain” (Hill, p. 76). Practitioners are now using these concepts of neuroplasticity and the application of noninvasive techniques to reverse brain damage in players who have suffered concussions from high-contact sports (Amen, 2013).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ADULT LEARNING?

Interestingly, neuroplasticity is not limited to issues of concussions and brain damage. This is why it has become an increasingly popular field of study for psychologists and educators alike. If neuroplasticity boils down to the ability of the brain to change, adapt and grow, then surely it has implications on the capacity of individuals to learn throughout different stages of their lives and particularly into adulthood. Considering the brain is more flexible than we initially believed, it can be argued that aging brains of adults are primed for learning. The correlation between aging and learning therefore proves that “lifelong learning is not confined to childhood” (Walker, 2010). As McGuckin (2010) cleverly comments, we ought to revise the old adage from “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” to the case of “use it or lose it” (p. 4). Her observations signify something more profound: that if the brain is able to continue rewiring and adapting as it ages, adults should expose themselves to stimulating experiences and opportunities for learning throughout their lives. If we fail to challenge ourselves, Walker (2010) insists there can be adverse effects on the brain: “the brain’s function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function” (Walker, 2010).

"Lifestyle changes" by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Lifestyle changes” by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0

NEUROPLASTICITY REQUIRES BRAIN ACTIVITY

For neuroplasticity to take effect and the processes of rewiring in our brains to unfold, experiences and environments must be engaging and conducive to learning. Hammond (2010) characterizes these experiences as “brain activity” and highlights it as one of the key principles for brain reorganization. Such activity can be achieved through “challenging intellectual environments, interacting in social situations, or getting involved in physical activities” to trigger the growth of brain connections (Hammond, 2010). In a sense, we must be creative in finding challenging activities and enriched environments that augment brain restructuring. This means looking beyond the traditional means of the classroom and instead, exploring opportunities which allow learners to “experience new things, learn new concepts and stimulate the brain”, resulting in a malleable or “plastic” brain (Walker, 2010).

The video below provides a neat explanation of how learning new tasks or experiencing different emotions cause new pathways to be carved in our brains.

CRITIQUES OF NEUROPLASTICITY

Like many developing areas of research, the study of neuroplasticity faces a number of criticisms. A common critique is that neuroplasticity is susceptible to negative effects on the human brain. If the human brain is malleable and can be rewired, then negative factors in our environment can also affect the function and structure of the brain. The brain may be vulnerable to influences such as “ambitions and excesses of others, whether they are misguided parents, well-meaning cultural trendsetters or despotic national leaders” (Zuger, 2007). Another criticism is that if brain damage is extensive and the brain is unable to repair itself and reorganize its lost function, neuroplasticity has no relevance. Some critics cite “neuroessentialism” as another shortcoming of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that referring to the brain is an intellectual trend and people bring it up only to make their arguments sound more scientific. Finally, research in the field of neuroplasticity is relatively new. It is still too early to draw any major conclusions from its study. Researchers are still analyzing the science and the behavior of neuroplasticity, and therefore, basing educational theories and teaching practices on findings of neuroscience is premature (McGuckin, p. 5).

IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS

Despite the criticisms and shortcomings of neuroplasticity, its implications and future considerations still deserve due consideration. Clearly, brain injury is a serious matter and until the research in this field is developed further, the severity of concussions should not be overlooked. Officials in high-contact sports leagues, like football, hockey and boxing, must continue to consult the latest research and decide safety protocols for athletes. Although research by neuroscientists like Dr. Amen has shown an “improvement in brain function and cognitive performance” of former NFL players (Amen et. al, p. 5), further study is needed to determine the full impact on human development and the possibility (and extent) to reverse damage.

In terms of adult learning, it is clear that new research and knowledge of the brain “dispels forever the notion that adults have difficulty learning” (Hill, p. 78) and instead reinforces the idea of lifelong learning. This new knowledge has shaped my thinking in regards to adult motivation to learn. Adults can overcome feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of trust, and prior negative experiences based on the ability of the brain to continuously learn.

Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health” by A Health Blog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS OF ADULT LEARNING

In light of my revelations on neuroplasticity, I have learned about several prescriptive and useful recommendations for practitioners of adult learning. There is much to gain from the work of professionals who have been focusing on victims of brain injury. For example, Dr. Amen’s approach with former NFL players has shown how professionals can successfully work with retired athletes to alleviate some of the difficulties they face upon retirement. His rigorous program includes a “revised diet, regular exercise, limited alcohol use, eliminating drug use and cigarette use, getting enough sleep, as well as nutritional supplements…” (Amen, 2013).

In terms of adult learning, introducing the concept of a “growth mindset” to learners can help overcome feelings that we are not talented or smart enough. Practitioners can encourage adult learners to understand that change is possible and that we can do things that we thought could not be done before. Of course, practitioners of adult learning need to be mindful that effort and struggle are required in order to make progress. Unique experiences and inspiring activities are necessary in order to stimulate brain reorganization. Brain fitness, mental exercises, physical activities, volunteer work and educational travel are all examples of opportunities to promote lifelong learning in innovative ways. Practitioners of adult learning have a vast number of resources available to them to motivate adult learners and to advocate lifelong learning.

References:

Amen, D.G. (2013, February 2). Study Shows “Reversing Brain Damage” Among NFL Players Is Possible. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.amenclinics.com/latest-news/study-shows-reversing-brain-damage-among-nfl-players-is-possible-with-a-targeted-brain-healthy-protocol/

Amen, D.G., Wu, J.C., Taylor, D. & Willeumier, K. (2011). Reversing Brain Damage in Former NFL Players: Implications for Traumatic Brain Injury and Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43:1, 1-5.

Buczynski, R. (2011, April 13). Terry Bradshaw, the NFL, and the New Brain Science Research. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/terry-bradshaw-nfl-brain-science-research/

Hammond, K. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/wordpress/2010/06/neuroplasticity/

Hill, L.H. 2001. The Brain and Consciousness: Sources of Information for Understanding Adult Learning In S.B. Merriam (Ed.), The New Update on Adult Learning Theory (pp. 73-81). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGuckin, D. & Ladhani, M. (2010). The Brains Behind Brain-Based Research: The Tale of Two Postsecondary Online Learners. College Quarterly, 13:3, 1-7.

Walker, S. (2010, April 23). Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.scilearn.com/blog/lifelong-learning-brain-plasticity

Zuger, A. (2007, May 29). The Brain: Malleable, Culpable and Vulnerable. The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/health/29book.html?_r=0

Final Reflection: Assessment and Evaluation

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thelibrarianedge/9153251161/
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thelibrarianedge/9153251161/

In his article On Assessing for Creativity, Grant Wiggins argues that measuring creativity is a necessary step to bring about change in our schools. One movement making waves in schools across the country and contributing to the increased focus on creativity is “The Maker Movement“. The Maker Movement is ideal for assessing student learning, because it encompasses a number of learning dispositions, such as creativity, curiosity, collaboration, inquiry and risk-taking. These attitudes and skills are vital for students to tackle the problems of tomorrow.

I believe my school is making progress in implementing aspects of the Maker Movement. One of our more popular classes in the school is woodworking. Here young children, including toddlers and second graders alike, “bring their ideas to life, and create new things” (Thomas, 2012). Students use real tools and materials (of course, with adult guidance) to create products that promote self-expression and meaning-making.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/exploratorium/7024548211
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/exploratorium/7024548211

Our next step is to extend the making process beyond woodworking and incorporate it into the everyday classrooms. Maker kits could be a great start for our teachers to engage students with subject-based learning. My experience in Week 2 of the course proved that maker kits, such as the Makey Makey, can support other areas of learning as well, including language development and creative expression in the arts. I have observed that the Maker kits lend themselves well to inquiry, which is the foundation of the IB PYP curriculum adopted at our school. In evaluating the effectiveness of maker kits or other technological innovations, it would be prudent to measure its impact on the five essential elements of the IB PYP – namely knowledge, skills, conceptual understanding, attitudes and action. Progress in any one of these areas would indicate successful alignment and integration with the framework of the IB PYP.

EdCamps and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are examples of other innovative technological adaptations that could align closely with our school’s practices, particularly our strong commitment to professional learning and growth. One of the challenges we face at our school during the busy course of a year is the lack of time to dedicate towards professional learning. EdCamps and MOOCs, which allow teachers to address their individuals interests and passions, would serve as effective solutions for teachers motivated to continue learning and improving their practice.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/catdancing/4454015701/
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/catdancing/4454015701/

Reflecting on my experiences thus far, I think it would be fair to say that I have made decent progress in my work as an ed tech integrator. My understanding of the challenges and opportunities in integrating and repurposing technology for use in schools is perhaps one of the clear signs of my growth. I also realize the need to apply my learning from this course in my school setting and to share my understanding of innovative technological adaptations with colleagues and others in the community.

I recall being told at the beginning of CEP 811 that this course would be one of the toughest experiences as a Master’s degree student. Now, upon completion of the course, I can confirm that this statement certainly holds true. As described in the MAET statement on evaluation, this course pushes its students to the limits. I have never considered myself to be a creative person, but the experiences offered in the course have revealed some of that unknown potential within me.

When I began my first CEP course (CEP 810) earlier this year, I struggled with wanting to produce the perfect product. It took me a long time to overcome this need for completion and perfection. Over time, this changed and I slowly became more comfortable sharing my “unfinished” work in a public space. One of the key indicators of change this year has been my willingness to make mistakes and experience failure. I have a long way to go in this regard, but I know that being vulnerable and facing disequilibrium will only make me a better learner. I look forward to CEP 812 next semester when I hope to continue on my path of personal and professional growth.

References:

Day, K. (2013, 27 June). Chicago Public Library makerspace – visualization on wall [photograph]. Retrieved October 8, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/thelibrarianedge/9153251161/

Elling, L. (2010, 3 March). Puddle Reflection 9738 [photograph]. Retrieved October 8, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/catdancing/4454015701/

Exploratorium. (2012, 17 March). Open MAKE: Tools [photograph]. Retrieved October 8, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/exploratorium/7024548211

Thomas, A. (2012, September 7). Engaging Students in the STEM Classroom Through “Making”. [Web log comment]. Retreived from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/stem-engagement-maker-movement-annmarie-thomas

Wiggins, G. (2012, February 3). On assessing for creativity: yes you can, and yes you should. [Web log comment]. Retreived from http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/on-assessing-for-creativity-yes-you-can-and-yes-you-should/

EdCamp Reflection

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Last week I participated in an online EdCamp with my colleagues in CEP 811. The unconference model allowed us to select our own topics and engage in conversations. We were given roughly 15 minutes to present our topic related to a theme on educational technology. In order to prepare for the experience, we conducted research and brainstormed ideas to encourage discussions.

My topic for the EdCamp was “Literacies and Technologies”. I shared my thoughts on an interesting article I read and then opened the floor for discussion. Despite some time zone challenges (i.e. confusion with the time difference between the US and Thailand), I found the overall experience to be very smooth and fruitful.

I enjoyed seeing my colleagues “face-to-face” and having the opportunity to hear their thoughts on different issues. I was impressed with the interactive experience of Google Hangouts, including the ability to share documents from our screen while carrying our conversations. I also enjoyed the casual format of the discussion, in which we had the chance to share thoughts and ask questions at any point during the meeting.

I struggled with the flow and pace of the EdCamp. I noticed there were several silent moments during the discussion, which could be attributed either to the inability to connect with the topic or the unconventional online nature of the conversation. At times, I felt I was not prepared enough to contribute in effective ways to the topics. A lot of the information being presented was new and personally, I needed a little more time to digest the material before sharing my thoughts. This could have been remedied by conducting some basic research beforehand to become familiar with my colleagues’ topics.

If I were to do my EdCamp differently, I would focus on asking specific questions related to my topic. For example, instead of asking my colleagues a very general question, “What do you think?” I could ask a more focused question such as, “What is the role of teachers in incorporating technology into literacy?” I would also ask more questions to those presenting topics instead of only commenting or sharing experiences. I think the major difference with this EdCamp experience and others is that we were obliged to participate in sessions that may not have fallen in an area of interest for us.

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EdCamps have tremendous potential for professional development. It shifts the focus on learning and empowers teachers to take ownership of this process. Teachers are able to share best practices with other educators and to seek their input in an ongoing dialogue. EdCamps have the ability to unlock the true potential of teachers while fulfilling their innate desire for personal and professional growth.

For my own school, EdCamps would be a great opportunity for teachers to explore concepts that would help them become more effective in the classroom. I have noticed that professional development in my school tends to be a top-down process, in which administrators decide what teachers need to learn. EdCamps are a unique way to reverse this trend and allow teachers to take the lead through a more grassroots approach. I believe if we are able to follow the children’s needs and interests in the classroom, surely we can do the same for our teachers.

The first step I would take to organize an EdCamp is to conduct more research. I would need to find out if EdCamps exist in Thailand or Southeast Asia and then possibly attend one in order to gather more information. Creating a team of collaborators would be my next step and I could use the existing networks of international school teachers in this part of the world to achieve this. I would create an EdCamp event focused on a specific area of education – early childhood education – in which I could elicit the support of teachers from my own school. Finally, I would search for sponsors within our own community to assist with the costs of the event.

References:

Lasica, JD. (2007, 19 May). Unconference [photograph]. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlasica/506378526

Sarobhosa, Eliz. (2011, 20 August). DESIGN NERDS + Design Thinking UnConference [photograph]. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/rocketcandy/6064824254/

SimpleK12. EdCamp The Complete Guide: How to Start & Run Your Very Own EdCamp. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from http://edcamp.wikispaces.com/file/view/HowToEdCamp.pdf/272319586/HowToEdCamp.pdf 

Incorporating Universal Design for Learning in My Maker Activity

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Visual sketch of Universal Design for Learning (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/8527950743)

One of the most critical tasks of a teacher is to design teaching and learning practices in order to support a diverse body of learners. This week in CEP 811, we explored the principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and discovered how its framework can “enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning” (Rose, 2011). Through “flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that empower educators”, UDL is able to address individual needs (including those with special learning needs) and ensure progress in learning (Rose, 2011).

Our task this week required that we utilize our learning from UDL to revise our maker-thrifting lesson plan from week 2 of the course. Further exploration of the UDL Guidelines, including a useful set of technology tools called the Technology Toolkit, made me realize there were several improvements I could integrate into my lesson.

I have revised my lesson plan and included the changes in green.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 11.13.44 PM

During the process of imposing the UDL framework on my maker activity, I recognized a number of principles of UDL that I had already incorporated in the lesson. Some of these elements were apparent when I made my first revision to the lesson based on Vygotsky’s “Social Development Theory” and his ideas of adult guidance and peer collaboration.

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Vygotsky’s “Social Development Theory” posits that adult guidance and peer collaborations play a fundamental role in the learning process.

For example, the UDL’s guidelines on “promoting understanding across language” and “supporting planning and strategy development” were fulfilled by the inclusion of adult guidance and scaffolding in the lesson (Rose, 2011). Furthermore, peer collaboration and the “zone of proximal development”, which evolved into key components of my lesson plan, were highlighted by the UDL’s guideline to “minimize threats and distractions” and “foster collaboration and community” (Rose, 2011). It was interesting to note that the principles of UDL seemed to draw from the learning theories and professional knowledge that we explored earlier in the course.

At the same time, after reviewing the UDL Guidelines, I felt there were number of revisions that I had to implement to improve the effectiveness of the lesson in meeting the diverse needs of students. For example, the UDL guideline to “provide options for perception” demonstrated that I needed to find creative ways of introducing the story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. In addition to a print version of the story, I imagined that the lesson could improve if students explored the story through auditory means (e.g. listening to an audio version using an iPad and headphones) and through visual means (e.g. watching a video version on YouTube). As an alternative to both of these options, I planned to present the students with physical objects and props (such as a teddy bear, flashlight, backpack and a sensory station consisting of bins of mud, grass, water and ice), so that they could experience the story from a unique, “hands-on” perspective.

In order to provide options for deeper comprehension of the lesson, I will highlight the big ideas, key concepts and objectives of the lesson. The purpose behind this is for the students to become expert learners and determine “those features that matter most while avoiding those that matter least” (Rose, 2011, p. 19). This can be achieved by reminding the students and making explicit the conceptual understandings and learning outcomes of the lesson. For example, through large group discussions, the students will understand that one of key aims of the lesson is to use visual presentations to enhance our ability to express ideas. Furthermore, students will understand that the creative process requires us to solve problems, and think critically and imaginatively. These objectives will not only be highlighted at the beginning of the lesson, but also during the activity as students create plans to re-tell the story.

References

Cook, A.M. & Polgar, J.M. (2008). Cook and Hussey’s assistive technologies: Principles and practice (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier. Retrieved from Google Books.

Forsythe, Giulia. (2013, 4 March). Universal Design for Learning [photograph]. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/8527950743/

Rose, D.H. & Gravel, J. (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (V.2.0). Wakefield, MA: CAST.org.

Wilshaus, Remy. (2011, 16 March). Lev Vygotsky neemt vandaag ook deel aan onze conferentie [photograph]. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/remywilshaus/5531044853/