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Understanding the brain, and learning about learning

27 June 2013

Learning how the brain functions can help us better understand how we learn, and has the potential to transform education, as Geoff Masters explains.

The brain’s most fundamental characteristic is that it enables us to learn from experience. Understanding the brain, and how the brain learns, will be a major area of research in coming decades. However, for our developing understanding of the brain to have an impact on teaching and learning, we need long-term, authentic collaboration between researchers in neuroscience, education and psychology and educational practitioners – with a focus on transferring and applying our understanding to the classroom and other places of learning.

By making use of advanced imaging technologies, neuroscience now allows us to see and understand the brain in action, and is revealing the brain’s true complexity: from individual neurons to complex circuits to system-wide interactions.

While advanced imaging technologies have made the brain more accessible to neuroscience, innovative technologies are also providing teachers and learners with new digital tools for teaching, learning and assessment. Tools of this kind have the potential to assist teachers to develop more diagnostic understandings of individuals’ learning progress and to provide automated feedback customised to individual learning needs. In the future, the combination of advances in technology and research into learning will enable the design and implementation of powerful new tools for supporting and monitoring learning.

The better we understand fundamental learning processes and the conditions that optimise learning, the more able we will be to develop effective teaching strategies. Advances in teaching effectiveness will depend on thorough understandings of the underlying biological aspects of learning. A crucial next step will then be to transpose these understandings into real environments that include social interactions and digital technologies in a program of comprehensive and long-term research collaboration.

The new national Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC), led by a consortium of researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute, the University of Melbourne and ACER, will do this by working together with teachers from across the country to understand learning in different settings and to explore how learning is best supported and monitored.

The SLRC will take a multidisciplinary approach to investigate what regions of the brain and neural processes are active before, during and after a learning activity, the cognitive processes that are involved and how social interactions impinge on learning activities. It will also investigate the implications for teaching and learning that derive from this deeper understanding of learning.

It is through multidisciplinary research collaborations, and collaborations between researchers and practitioners of the kind currently underway in the SLRC, that we will achieve deeper understandings of the nature of learning and of the conditions that enable successful learning.

With the infrastructure in place to support such collaborative research, and increased investment in understanding the fundamental biology and physiology of the brain, we can anticipate an exciting period of learning discoveries with the potential to improve learning for the next generation of Australians. ■

Find out more:

Professor Geoff Masters and other researchers from the SLRC will be speaking at the 2013 ACER Research Conference, ‘How the Brain Learns: What lessons are there for teaching?’ in Melbourne 4-6 August. For more information on the conference, visit <www.acer.edu.au/conference>

RD

About the author

Professor Geoff Masters AO is the Chief Executive of ACER. 

More [rd] articles by Geoff Masters

View selected works of Geoff Masters

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