Brain research on diverse learner needs across ages

The brain is developing continually throughout life, and its development is guided by both biology and experience. The interaction between genetic tendencies and experience determines the structure and function of the brain, hence, each brain is unique. Neuroscience has shown that the brain has a highly robust and well-developed capacity to change in reaction to environmental demands, a process called plasticity. In this process, some neuronal connections are made and strengthened; some others are weakened or eliminated. The extent of modification is subject to the type of learning that occurs, with long-term learning resulting in deeper modification. It is also subject to the period of learning, with infants experiencing remarkable growth of new synapses. But, plasticity is a core feature of the brain throughout life.

Despite the plasticity lasting throughout life, there are optimal or “sensitive periods” during which particular types of learning are most effective. For sensory stimuli (e.g. speech sounds) and certain emotional and cognitive experiences such as language exposure, sensitive periods come relatively early and are tight. For other skills (e.g. vocabulary acquisition), there are no right sensitive periods, and can be learned equally well at any point in lifetime. These sensitive periods are sometimes called “windows of opportunity”. If learning does not take place in these windows of opportunity, it does not mean that it cannot take place. Learning takes place throughout life, however, it takes more time and cognitive resources to learn outside of these windows of opportunity; and it is often less effective.

The adolescent brain experiences considerable structural changes well past puberty; adolescence is an extremely important period in terms of emotional development partly due to a hormonal increase in the brain, which may explain their unstable behaviour. In older persons, learning is found as an effective way to counteract the reduced functioning of the brain. More opportunities there are for adults to engage in learning, the higher the chances of deferring or delaying neurodegenerative diseases.

Brain research shows how environment is crucial to the learning process. Many of the environmental factors that favour brain functioning include the quality of social environment and interactions, nutrition, physical exercise and sleep, i.e. every day matters that people often fail to notice in terms of their influence on education. If we are to take advantage of the brain’s potential for plasticity for learning enhancement, our minds and bodies should be conditioned appropriately. This invites holistic approaches recognizing the close interdependence of intellectual and physical well-being as well as the close relationship between the emotional and cognitive.

The limbic system, located in the centre of the brain, is historically called the “emotional brain”. There is growing evidence that our emotions do re-sculpt neural tissues. When there is excessive stress or strong fear, neural processes of emotional regulation is compromised as social judgment and cognitive performance suffer. Although some stress is important to meet challenges and can result in enhanced learning, stress beyond a certain level has the contrary effect. Regarding positive emotions, one of strongest generators of motivation in people to learn is the enlightment experienced by the seizing of new concepts. A most important goal of early childhood education should be to ensure this experience of enlightening as early as possible, and create an awareness of just how enjoyable learning can be.

One of the essential skills of an effective learner is managing one’s emotions.  Self-regulation is one of the most important behavioural and emotional skills to have, both for children and adults. Processes such as focusing attention, problem-solving and supporting relationships are directed, or disrupted by, emotions.

Source: OECD. 2007. Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science. Paris: Author.

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