Do we know what is going on in the brain?

by Professor Derek Bell

The growing evidence in support of metacognitive approaches to learning is very powerful but our understanding of why and how some strategies work and others don’t is far from understood. In short, our knowledge of what is going on in the brain during learning is still very much in its infancy. Despite the popularity of some schemes, which claim to be based on evidence of how the brain works, the truth is we just don’t know and it is too early to give definitive answers to the many questions that arise. Therefore we must be cautious in attributing particular behaviours to specific events in the brain.

However, our current understanding of brain function and development does help to explain why metacognition assists learning. For example, the brain processes different sorts of stimuli (visual, auditory, sensory) in different places. Therefore, in order to recognise and interpret an event or experience, the brain brings the different sets of information together to provide us with the ‘complete picture.’ This underlines why we need to provide children with a range of stimuli, but it must not be confused with the misleading idea of ‘learning styles’ that, despite claims to the contrary, is not supported by any firm evidence.

Another example, particularly relevant to the ReflectED project, is the way in which the brain deal with reasoning. Using neuroimaging techniques, the indications are that when faced with a problem, at least two main areas of the brain are involved. One deals with things we already know and the other deals with, among other things, the processes for interpreting evidence and developing new explanations. When faced with a new situation, the tendency is to make an automatic response based on our ‘prior knowledge’ (some psychologists and neuroscientists refer to this as System 1). This ‘automatic’ response often gets in the way of logical reasoning- especially when the evidence doesn’t support the prior knowledge. More considered responses and alternative explanations involve the second region of the brain (referred to by some psychologists and neuroscientists as System 2). This is a much slower process; in other words ‘we need to think about it.’

Assuming the above is true, it helps to explain some of the behaviours we see when children engage in learning new ideas. Added to the fact that different parts of the brain become fully developed at different ages, it also provides insights into why young children find some things more difficult to do than older children.