Networks are all around us and in many contexts, they form the basis of the 21st-century reality. The social network technologies permeate our offline social lives and we are quite dependant on networking infrastructures to stay connected to the world and others. One could say that to flourish in the context of the 21st Century, you have to be an expert at navigating and understanding networks. Networks are nothing new and humanity has relied on them for millennia, and with the help of technology, we have increased the scale and speed at which we can connect and transfer information. It is fascinating that technology has only recently evolved to the point where we have the opportunity to study what could be considered the oldest human network – the brain.
This article is based on the work of Fernanda Tovar-Moll and Roberto Lent titled The various forms of neuroplasticity: Biological bases of learning and teaching. One of the inherent characteristics of a network that makes it valuable is its ability to change. When the information or people in a network change, the nature of the network adapts to reflect these changes. Networks would be very ineffective structures if they did not have this ability. Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to permanently or temporarily change and adapt to new information, is fundamental in the process of learning. The process explained by the concept of neuroplasticity is essentially what enables us to learn new skills throughout our lives and therefore keep building learning networks in our brains. Tovar-Moll and Lent use a grounded approach to explain how we should think about learning networks, building from learning neurons to circuits and eventually to networks as discussed below.
The first and most basic component of a learning network is the neuron. Neurons are single nodes in the brain that have the ability to learn. Put simply, they learn by receiving information from other neurons through synapses.
Neurons are able to learn, but they do not do it alone. As Tovar-Moll and Lent mention, even the simplest and most basic forms of learning involve quite a number of neurons to be connected with synapses to essentially form a learning circuit. Remember, we have billions of neurons in our brains, therefore even a simple circuit can include hundreds of thousands of neurons to remember a certain piece of information.
Learning circuits by themselves are already quite impressive, but learning networks are even more complex. As Tovar-Moll and Lent explain, if learning and memory are only a series of circuits, it means they will be limited to specific functional domains of the brain. In other words, if students see or read something, that memory and information will forever be secluded to the visual processing part of the brain. We know this is not the case and that learning networks are formed across the entire brain and between different functional domains of the brain. Tovar-Moll and Lent use the following example to explain the complexity of a learning network: “Take, for instance, a little girl trying to learn how to write. While sitting at a desk, she has to coordinate posture with the movement of her arm and fingers in order to hold the pencil and display the right symbols on the piece of paper. Furthermore, she must control her performance visually, listen and attend to the commands of the teacher, understand their meaning, think about them, and transform her thoughts into written words. Practically all functional domains of the brain are involved in the task.” This example is a good illustration of the complexity involved in forming neural pathways that connect the different neurons in a learning network to ultimately learn and remember information.
What does this mean for my classroom?
Educational Neuroscience is regularly critiqued for being too vague and not tangible enough to be used in classroom settings. While it is certainly true that an educator does not need to be a neuroscientist to teach effectively, a basic understanding of how students’ brains learn is crucial for effective teaching. Here are a few important tips for the classroom:
- Students are constantly forming new networks and building upon older learning networks. If you want your students to succeed, you need to help them build strong neural pathways in their important networks. One of the best ways to strengthen neural pathways is active recall exercises. During these exercises, students have to access a certain learning network, retrieve the information from a neuron or neurons in the network and recall that information. When this process is repeated, the neural pathways in that network is strengthened and, in turn, students can remember the information better;
- Everything matters. Learning networks in the brain are highly adaptive and reactive, and therefore any activity or lecture in the classroom will influence their learning networks. Educators have a big responsibility to design lesson in such a way that these learning networks are nurtured and strengthened.
Our brains are fantastic and highly adaptive organs constituting vast learning networks that enable us to learn and remember. Educators play a crucial role in the formation and nurturing of these networks. In addition, a good understanding of how the brain functions will allow you to make, propose and implement better decisions in terms of your educational processes and methodologies.
If you would like to learn about the fantastic brains of your students and how they work, consider enrolling for our Teaching for Brain-based Learning course. Additionally, if you think your students will benefit from a greater understanding of their brains, you can enroll them for our Learning Hacks course.
Nicolas Matthee is an educational researcher at ITSI. His work focuses on Cognitive Psychology, Educational Neuroscience, and Pedagogy. He further specialises as a Ritual Studies specialist with a focus on Ritual, Liturgical and Thanatological Studies and how they relate to different technologies and cyber contexts.
He is a research associate at the Department of Practical Theology at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria. Non-academic related expertise includes game and 3D graphics development for computer and mobile environments.