IN SEARCH OF THE BRAIN’S ROLE IN LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT
‘’ Education should really be about discovering what a given person’s brain allows them to learn and then concentrating this learning in areas of strength’’
Michael Gazzaniga in Images of Mind, Posner and Raichle, 1997
The author sets out his efforts to discover and describe the contribution of neuroscience to the theory and practice of learning and development. The article describes key aspects of this journey and,
*Outlines the scope, development and some of the current issues that are being addressed by neuroscience with some pointers to the way ahead.
*Describes the methodology and illustrative results of a model and questionnaire designed to link actual behaviour, brain functionality, thinking preferences and success in selected occupations.
* The article sets out selected observations and propositions about the brain , uniqueness, thinking and learning drawn from over 30 years experience of employee development at all levels
* Key strategic perspectives and implementation issues in the areas described above are then summarised.
Neuroscience; Brain; Thinking; Behavior; Learning; Uniqueness; Development
INTRODUCTION AND HISTORY
The brain is arguably the most complex and least well understood of all human organs. Its typical size, weight, topography and the function of most of its component parts are known and can be described in reasonably accurate terms. How it works in terms of neurons, synapses and neuro-transmitters has been the subject of a great deal of research. The electrical and chemical processes the brain uses when processing information have been described. It is known that it needs oxygen and that interrupting the oxygen supply can damage its components and functions.
Clinicians know that blood clots and tumours can cause malfunctions or even death. Strokes or bleeds can destroy known capabilities such as speech, movement and indeed most human functions.
A whole range of ‘untypical’ human conditions such as Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Down’s Syndrome and Bi-polar Disorder through to depression and Alzeimer’s Disease are thought to be produced at least in part by ‘abnormal’ or ‘untypical’ workings of components within the brain. Significant knowledge has been hard won by researchers over recent decades. It has helped countless thousands of people to cope with life.
Historically, the early part of the twentieth century saw an interest in primitive electrical treatment such as Burger’s Electro-encephalography (1929) and awareness that the two ‘halves’ of the brain influenced or controlled different human functions. The development of the first scanners and experimental surgery to cut the corpus collusum as a treatment for epilepsy followed. The notion of the ‘split’ brain in the 1960’s and the Left and Right hemisphere brain concept was developed and led to Sperry’s Nobel Prize in 1981.
The development of advanced scanners such as Computerised Tomography scanning (CT scanning) and functional Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI scanning) led to an enormous growth in the study of the geography or topography of the brain. Finally, Positon Emission Tomography (PET) scanning enabled the production of three –dimensional maps that quantify glucose and oxygen metabolism. However, impressive as the advances are, the images produced do not as such represent the actual physiological mechanism triggered by the specific mental activity under observation. Knowledge of where the greatest mental activity occurs does not explain directly, or indeed at all, how the brain processes work.
The increasing sophistication of observation methods, albeit of very specific and limited activities such as cognition tests whilst undergoing functional MRI scans, led to a significant refinement of thinking about the brain. Sperry’s work in the 1960s and 1970s and extensive popularisation created a notion of ‘Left brain’ thinking that was typified as analytical and sequential and ‘Right’ brain thinking which was exemplified as intuitive and holistic. This notion has held sway in the popular press up to the present day (2009) in many contexts.
The advanced imaging techniques led Springer and Deutsch (1993) to identify three key issues, i.e.
- The brain functions as a system within which responsibility is distributed across a variety of locations.
- High levels of activity in a particular area of the brain say nothing about how the process operates.
- The sampling base for most imaging techniques is too slow and provides a static snapshot of a necessarily dynamic process.
Current thinking on where the brain processes information is that the processing is distributed and parallel. For example, if an individual describes a dynamic scene of a horse being ridden across a landscape, various parts of the brain in both the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere will be involved in processing the scene, colour, movement, word and sentence construction, activation of speech and many other elements of processing. Thus the process is distributed (around specific parts of the left and right hemispheres) and parallel in that it happens almost simultaneously.
Current knowledge identifies where certain activities activate reactions in the brain. There are two basic streams of knowledge. One is knowledge about what chemical activity occurs with neurotransmitters and how chemical can alter or control behaviour. Nerve cells communicate using electro-chemical messengers, i.e. neurotransmitters. Understanding of the composition and operation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and their role in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia has led to the development of powerful medications. Serotonin has a role in depression and drugs such as Prozac can facilitate serotonergic transmission by blocking re-uptake Andreasen,(2001 )
A second type of knowledge is that described by Fink, Marshall et al.(1997)who identified that ‘global’ thinking was associated with activity in the right hemisphere and ‘local’ thinking was associated with the left hemisphere.A further study ,Singh and O’Boyle ,(2004 ) covered a total of 60 right handed males O’Boyle concluded that ‘ various expressions of exceptionality such as giftedness in maths, music or art may be the by-product of a brain that has functionally organized itself in a qualitatively different way than the usual left/right hemispheric asymmetry’. The research supports the notion that ‘ the functional though not necessarily structured organization of the brain may be an important contributor to individual difference in cognitive abilities, talents and at very least information styles’ .
These two experiments are characterised by the use of small samples, limited activity under consideration and the need to carry out the activities within the confines of a fMRI scanner. They could hardly be described as addressing everyday activities or behaviours.
Whilst there has been an explosion in knowledge, up to and including the notion of mirror neurons, Ramchandran (2007), there is still a very long way to go to fully understand basic activities and their relationship to brain processing. Few studies address everyday behaviour. All studies are ‘static’ and limited by the attributes of the scanning technology. It is true that we can alter the chemical balance within the brain and control or ameliorate maladies such as depressive mood swings. However, little can be done to repair or develop the brain’s capacities and mechanism. After a stroke, patients can be taught to re-learn how to speak or walk. The extent of recovery depends largely on how much the brain has been damaged. In these cases the brain has to repair itself or enable substitute or replacement neuronal pathways to be used.
As our knowledge increases, specific initiatives to alter or repair components of the brain in a controlled manner may be developed. For example, stem cell use offers exciting possibilities. Each disparate piece of knowledge improves our capacity to understand the brain. Simple correlations such as the correlation between frequency of practising a skill and high levels of achievement can greatly improve sporting achievement.
In summary, understanding of the brain is developing on a broad front. It will continue to be necessary to produce and understand different theories of how the brain works. The means of measuring and testing theories empirically will have to be developed. Then it will be necessary to achieve ‘theories in use’ by applying them to major delivery systems such as state and private education and commercial and in-house learning and development. In addition, developments of particular use to the Health Service such as stem cell treatment could potentially provide the capability to repair damage and possibly correct ‘faulty’ development of the brain.
THE PERSONAL SUCCESS PROFILE
The author undertook a doctorate and substantial post- doctoral research to explore elements of thinking and learning. The work had the overall aim of exploring whether success in different occupations and activities could be demonstrated to correlate to the way individuals think and relate to people and task behaviour.
The initial impetus for the study was an interest in how the human brain functions. This was allied to a life-long focus on high achievement and individual development described in the author’s book, Ed Moorby- McGraw –Hill (1996). The original formal statement of the aim of the doctorate was to improve the understanding of what manifestations of ‘brain hemispherical processing ‘ are associated with high achievement. It concentrated on whole behaviours that would be used in every day interactions.
- A literature review of how the brain functions was carried out . Seven of the most widely used instruments available to identify brain functionality and learning styles were also analysed
- New models for thinking about high achieving behaviour were developed from existing research . The final version of the model incorporated the idea that brain processing was an iterative process of scanning and focusing on the environment. Output behaviours were considered as people orientated and /or task orientated, basically after Jung, (1971). The basic input-output model is shown below:
- Descriptions of behaviour derived from the elements of the model and the published research reviewed were used to develop an instrument. This was titled the Personal Success Profile. Factor analysis and reliability tests were undertaken . 18 questionnaires were completed on two occasions by the same respondents with a five month gap between completions in respect of a pilot questionnaire that was then developed as the PSP.A further review of the questionnaire produced the final research design. Birth order and handedness were added to enable further analysis. Provision was made to record respondents’ age and gender.
- The Personal Success Profile was sent to a range of potential ‘High Achiever’ respondents ranging across chief executives, University vice-chancellors, international sports figures, management ‘gurus’ and other occupations. The data obtained ( n=68 )was analysed to identify profiles associated with significant success . The model used was to identify Scanning, and Focussing behaviour and People and Task orientation. The frequency and preference for behaviours were identified.
- A ‘heterogenous’ sample was included to give a ‘control’ sample for comparison with the high achievers. Data for a sample of personnel practitioners was also collected to provide a comparison with a group of Personnel Directors.
- Analysis of the questionnaires led to the identification of specific preferences that were shown by the majority of individuals in specific occupational samples. A cut off of a minimum 60% preference was used.A further range of reliability tests were undertaken for the PSP where n = 20.
A second confirmatory Principal Component Analysis was carried out for the PSP where n=107.
- Discriminant Analysis was carried out on a sample of n= 104. The discriminant function analysis maximally discriminates the members of groups It tells to which group each member probably belongs (Kerlinger, 1992). Percentages classified correctly were over 80% for all except one group or category out of seven analysed .
METHODOLOGY – POST – DOCTORAL DEVELOPMENT.
The most significant steps were,
- a) Towards the end of the doctoral work, in 1997/8, it became clear that the Left and Right hemisphere dichotomy was not adequate or really helpful in the light of the increasing recognition of the distributed and parallel concept of brain processing. It was clear that labelling systems would need further exploration. One key requirement would be to produce an alternative metaphor or way of describing Left Preference and Right Preference that is closer to actual neurological processes Alternatives were explored and included,
Responsive – Calculated ; Context- Focus ; Global- local.
On balance it was felt that the notions of Scanning and Focusing as shown in the Input-Output model were most appropriate. The results of the Principal Component Factor analysis were revisited and fitted the concept perfectly.
- b) The coverage of the sample was extended to include a group of high performing call centre operators in an internet bank, a group of managers in a middle-eastern bank, and additions to various elements of the original sample. The overall data was updated approximately annually. The use of the PSP has recently been extended to staff in the Health service and a group of staff in school teaching and these studies are in progress.
- c) A ‘longitudinal’ study was carried out where N= 42. Test –retest data over a 4-6 year period was used.
- d) The PSP was re-designed at the request of an internet bank. The number of questions was reduced from 96 to 48. Care was taken to check that the accuracy of results was not adversely affected whilst the time to complete the instrument was approximately halved.
A comparison was carried out using the results for both versions of the PSP on a sample of n=42. It was found that the results were comparable for 93% of those tested. It was felt that the nature of the data was such that outcomes are indicative rather than definitive. Thus a respondent who ‘scores ‘ 35 for scanning would be quite similar to one who scored 37. Both would be quite different from a correspondent who scored 10 for scanning.
The following results have been selected to exemplify the rigour with which alldata was analysed. They are a small extract from an extensive array of results. The scores demonstrate a high degree of integrity in all aspects of the study.
1)The overall sample size was in excess of 400. It was made up of male and femaleadults in the age range of 20 years to 65 years. The great majority were in professional or service sector jobs. About 90 were ‘high achievers’ in jobs such as chief executive, vice chancellor or personnel director and activities such as international sports people or management ‘gurus’. 65 were in managerial position in banks. 41 were personnel practitioners. 23 were ‘high performing’ call-centre staff. The sample included General Practitioner and Specialist doctors, nurses , professional dancers, teachers and small business managing directors and chairmen. Thus the sample was quite large, very varied and adult in age and experience.
2)The results were very positive. A confirmatory Factor Analysis wasundertakenusing the PSP where n=107. For section one, the first10 factors identified made a cumulative percentage contribution of 67percent to the overall result. For section two, the first 12 factors contributed 69 percent to the overall result. The 4 factors with the highest Eigenvalues mapped precisely onto the main components of the model developed and indicated the validity of its components
3) Reliability of the PSP was tested using a sample of n=20 and a time interval between completions of 3 weeks. A summary of the results is shown below-
Analyses for Sections 1 and 2
|Correlation between forms||0.8735||0.5201||0.8140||0.5829|
|Equal length Spearman Brown||0.9325||0.6843||0.8975||0.7365|
|Alpha for Part 1||0.8771||0.8699||0.7847||0.8391|
|Alpha for Part 2||0.8852||0.6883||0.7873||0.5368|
N = 20 16 items in Part 1 16 items in Part 2
Reliability Tests for Sections 1 and 2 of the Personal Success Profile
Analyses for Section 4
|Correlation between forms||0.8739||0.9359||0.7713||0.5311|
|Equal length Spearman Brown||0.9327||0.9669||0.8709||0.6937|
|Alpha for Part 1||0.7454||0.7155||0.8354||0.5591|
|Alpha for Part 2||0.8261||0.8573||0.8406||0.6517|
N = 20 8 items in Part1 8 items in Part 2
Reliability Tests for Section 4 of the Personal Success Profile
4) Discriminant Analysis tests were used on a sample n=104 for the PSP. The following are examples of results,
Personnel Practitioners; Personnel Directors – 91% classified correctly
Academics ; Executives – 84 %classified correctly.
Percentages classified correctly were over 80% for all except one category. This category compared personnel directors and training and development directors that are similar roles. In fact some of the personnel directors had been training managers in their careers. Even so, 68% were classified correctly by the discriminant analysis of their data.
- A longitudinal study covering an average 5- year period for respondents showed that most individuals tend to express the same thinking and people/task orientation over time. A pilot test – retest where n= 42 individuals who had completed the PSP indicated no change of thinking preference in 88% of responses. Behaviour studied appears to be very stable over time. Using Pearson and Spearman Rho analyses, the correlations for PREFERENCES over 5 years on average were 0.905/0.906 respectively for Focus or Scanning preference. .
- Analysis of the data demonstrated a clear link between thinking style and people / task orientation and some specific occupations. For example Personnel Directors showed a 78% preference for analysing and focusing thinking with 96% showing a task orientation preference.
SOME OBSERVATIONS AND PROPOSITIONS ABOUT THE BRAIN, UNIQUENESS, THINKING AND LEARNING
The development and use of the model /metaphor for thinking and the data analysis led to the identification of a number of interesting propositions which are set out below,
- Thinking is a process whereby information is taken from the environment by the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. The information, or data, is processed by the brain . This processing is carried out through neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters.
- The out put of thinking is achieved by words and sounds, gestures and touch and non-verbal behaviour such as smiling or raised eye-brows. The nature of this output (and input) is strongly influenced by habitual preferences for focused or scanning behaviour. This is often described in a research context as’ local’ or ‘global’ behaviour. The input and output of thinking is also strongly influenced by habitual preferences for people or task orientation.
- Individuals may use the behaviours described by the processes shown in the model in any combination and at any frequency. Behaviours may be carried at any frequency from never to often. Individuals may routinely analyse situations or never do so. They may have a high preference for focussed and analytical behaviour and a high people orientation, e.g. highly successful call centre staff. Both frequency of behaviour and preference for a mode of thinking may be high, low or virtually the same.
It is the individual’s brain processing which determines this. It influences greatly what information is taken in and it determines what information is sent out. The brain , or the self?, determines where the output actions are directed, i.e. towards people or towards tasks.
4) Individual brains are very specific in what information they take in and how they process it. It is feasible that the brain either seeks out a suitable environment or so conditions its inputs and outputs that it propels itself to certain occupations and not to others. This clearly has implications for theories of learning and the application and development of learning in everyday activities.
5)Approaches to learning need to be specific to the individual ( or unique) learner to achieve optimum, or in some cases any, learning and development. The learner is conditioned by unique thinking processes as to what information he/she will take in and how such information will be processed Every learner has his/her own thinking style and preferences and their unique people and task orientations. These styles and preferences go well beyond simplistic analysis of learning styles. They are at the root of how a particular individual thinks. An individual may be disposed to being analytical, detailed and sequential and not intuitive and risk-taking in his/her thinking processes. It will be of little use to either tell the individual to be intuitive or in most cases to even try to develop intuitive behaviour unless their neuronal pathways and thought processing can be engaged.
Thus, for much of learning ,the mode of thinking is a pre-requisite. If you wish to bestrategic, those elements of the brain that are holistic and intuitive will have to be available to you. Otherwise, your approach to strategy is likely to be formulaic and limited.
6) Individual brains appear to seek specific environments and use specific types of output behaviours, especially to be very successful. For the brain to flourish or even to survive it needs to find the appropriate environment. The brain appears to have presets that are determined and very difficult to change from an early age (possibly as young as 3-5 years of age for some ). Thus very young children can display acute attention to detail and touch, or can display intuition and imagination. They may be highly numerate and focused. Or very literate and holistic. It is salutary to note that authorities such as Art Miller (1989) have estimated that 4 out of 5 individuals do not find the appropriate activity /occupation to thrive and be happy and successful in life.
- Reliable data can be gathered by self-assessment of frequency of behaviour andranking of relative priorities between behaviours. This data can be satisfactorily used to identify behaviours required for high performance, to differentiate between different occupations, to consider appropriate careers for individuals, to provide development plans and coaching and to help individuals both with self-awareness and planning their own futures. It can also be used for selection by matching the behaviour of a group of high performers with those aspiring to become part of that group.
9) Learning takes place through the repeated use of specific neuronal pathways and synapses. It really is true that practice makes perfect. Damasio (1997) argues that individuals perceive and remember what they consider to be of interest. It has to be salient and valued. Anything else is forgotten i.e. not re-membered. Rose (1997) argues that ‘ it is impossible to ask where in the brain a particular memory is located’ . Memory is a dynamic property of the brain as a whole rather than one specific region. Memory resides simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in the brain. Rose argues that memory is composed of two complementary processes, learning something new and later remembering the experience ( or skill).
SOME STRATEGIC AND IMPLEMENTATION ISSUES
This section summarises some of the main questions and findings from the research process. It then explores selected practical implementation issues.
Some key perspectives on the brain
-It is possible to identify specific and distinctive thinking style profiles for high performers in a range of occupations
-These profiles utilize a model that considers brain processes in terms of Focusing, Scanning, People orientation and Task orientation
-It appears that individuals have preferences for the type of data the brain takes in and the nature of any output behaviours
– There is evidence that for mature adults , both in high performers and in the general population, behavioural preferences do not readily change fundamentally over time.
– It cannot be assumed that training and development interventions can or will make a real difference to most individuals’ behaviour
-It is reasonable to propose that each and every brain has its own unique profile. It will be comfortable and efficient in dealing with certain data and environments and less efficient or even dysfunctional in others. For example, imagine Van Gogh working as an accountant. Or with a highly focussed and detailed artist such as Canelletto.
Some strategic and practical issues arising, considered in regard to four fields of activity , are
1-THINKING / (PROCESSING DATA/ INFORMATION)
Every individual seems to have a unique way of thinking. This probably results from a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. However, whatever the reason, it is almost certainly a fallacy to assume that all, or indeed most brains ,can be taught to think by a one size fits all educational process. This viewpoint is a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions (or prejudices) about thinking. Evidence from the PSP study suggests that preferences for Focusing and Scanning thinking are approximately 60%and 40% respectively across a sample of 400+. There is also a link, not yet formally explored, between Focusing thinking and Task orientation and also Scanning thinking and People orientation.
This ‘science’ or ‘arts’ split needs to be identified and used in policy initiatives . Of course, the proper identification of preferences and achievement are essential for any streaming process to be optimally successful.
Michael Gazzaniga’s quote that ‘ education should really be about discovering what a given person’s brain allows them to learn and then concentrating this learning in areas of strength’ should be expanded to encompass thinking styles. The way a brain is disposed to think will guide its data seeking behaviours, the processing of the data obtained by these behaviours and the output of an individual’s behaviour and conversation. For example, an individual who is detailed and analytical will seek data of this sort, will process it in a structured, sequential way and will generate output behaviours consistent with this input. This will often be with a task orientation though sometimes or for some individuals the output behaviour may be combined with a people orientation.
It should be recognised that some individuals will not have a clear preference and may routinely use both Focusing and Scanning behaviour and Task and People orientated behaviours. Those with a high capacity across both thinking styles and People/Task orientation will probably find most modes of thinking comfortable. Those with highly specific thinking patterns may not.
2- LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT
There are at least three key issues. Firstly, data available to the brain should, as far as possible, match the brain’s capability to deal with it. This presupposes either knowledge of how each individual thinks or sufficient choice within the learning experience to suit each brain.Thus learning focused on the individual and built around learning outcomes rather than syllabi and structured lessons would seem to be most appropriate. Examples of ‘good practice’ would be the tutor based styles exemplified by Oxbridge, Action Learning sets used in business, the Open University provision of a variety of media and materials in the U.K.
Secondly, repetition is essential to consolidate and indeed alter neuronal pathways. Thus practice in areas such as learning multiplication tables through to soldiers learning drill and footballers practising free kicks are all forms of ‘rote’ or repetition learning. Put a brain with a particular style, e.g. focus and task predomination with a learning experience such as 10,000 repetitions of a task and you may get a world class footballer.
A third key area is the ability of the individual enabling the learning experience. This person must, as Gazzaniga puts it, be able to discover what a given person’s brain allows them to learn. This implies that those responsible for enabling learning should (or must) have a brain thinking style that enables them to match the needs of the learner with the material that needs to be learned for a specific purpose.
Education is based on certain broad assumptions. It should ‘prepare people for life’ It consumes some 15 years of individuals’ lives (from 3-18 years )to provide basic processing abilities such as reading ,writing and numeracy. It may provide some optional learning across a range spanning languages, science, sport and many other topics.
The learner learns in part from formal education and in part by self-learning. Parents and Grandparents may have an important role. The reality of education is that the individual is probably the most important factor in learning, followed by the domestic environment and then the school system. Of course for the lucky few, a special teacher may assume a key role.
It is suggested that the following process needs to be followed,
A)– Know what behaviour an individual brain is predisposed towards.
- B) – Provide basic skills such as reading and writing using a multi-media, multi-faceted approach
- C) – Encourage a broad range of experience and observe how each individual adapts and performs for each element, e.g. music, sport, ball games, team games, individual games such as tennis and athletics.
- D) – Encourage the use of natural thinking processes. Try to adapt where behaviour needs to be but be aware of the effort usually required to achieve basic or fundamental change.
- E) – Provide one – to – one feedback wherever possible through coaching, tutoring, mentoring and performance improvement appraisal.
- F) – Look for and encourage specific talents in specific areas, e.g. science, art ,music,
The strategic aim should be to produce an education system that provides opportunity and experience for the specific brainpower or thinking processes of everyone in the system. This is an aspiration that does not appear to be being achieved currently for too many of those being educated.
4- TALENT MANAGEMENT
The underlying proposals about the thinking process pose some major challenges for what has become to be described as talent management. Earlier notions of succession planning, management development and recruitment have moved on. With the increasing recognition of the importance of the contribution of human intelligence in business, attention is being increasingly being paid to the attraction, development and retention of talent.
The fit between the environment and the thinking processes of individuals is a principal issue. Crude devices such as graduate recruitment can attract a pool of thinking ability. This has to be matched to specific occupations. Success at specific occupations can be objectively correlated to the thinking processes and preferences of individuals.
THE AUTHOR’S INTELLECTUAL COPYRIGHT IS HEREBY AFFIRMED
C- COPYRIGHT 2009 E.T.MOORBY
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The athor has over 15 years of senior HRD management experience with the Prudential Corporation, T.S.B. Retail Bank and the Air Transport Training Board. He learned his HRD skills initially with Ford Motor Company.
He is a Chartered Engineer , B.Sc.( Econ.) , M.Phil in Management and Ph.D. in neuroscience.
He has served as Chief Examiner for Employee Development in the U.K., is a published author (McGraw-Hill) and has consulted in Europe, Asia and Africa.