Recently I’ve been reading Norman Doidge’s fascinating book The Brain that Changes Itself. One of its key themes is the ability of the brain to repair itself, and to compensate for damaged areas. New to me was the idea that areas of the brain could ‘invade’ other areas which were not used – as when sensory stimulus is removed with loss of a limb, for example.
Most of the book is not challenging to someone committed to constructivist teaching and learning. But in one short section he claims that changing approaches to teaching and learning have changed our brains. Doidge states that in earlier times education included lots of drill, memorising pages and long poems off by heart. He claims that this led to certain areas of the brain being ‘strengthened through exercise’, then goes on to claim that this allowed lawmakers and debaters to speak for extended periods of time from memorised speeches.
Now that rote learning and memorisation has little place in education, Doidge claims we no longer develop the skills needed for such feats. He then makes the witty observation that ‘many of the most learned among us… prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation – the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex’. This is perhaps the most memorable criticism of Powerpoint I’ve come across!
While I’d hate to see return to rote learning, Doidge’s comment did get me thinking about learning approaches with a new perspective. One conclusion which scares me somewhat is that as learning designers we have a big responsibility: not only do we make decisions about how learners learn and how they spend their time, we may even be affecting the structure of their brains. This raises some interesting ethical issues, especially in relation to negotiating learning approaches with adult learners. Perhaps more open teaching is one approach to dealing with the ethical issues.
Doidge, N. The Brain that Changes Itself. Viking, New York, 2007.
Left, P. Open Teaching. Accessed 23 November 2010 from http://www.verso.co.nz/professional-development/1032/open-teaching-sharing-responsibility-for-the-learning-process/
Neurotiker. Medial view of a halved human brain, labeled in Latin. Accessed 5 December 2009 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gehirn,_medial_-_beschriftet_lat.svg