What's the brain got to do with it?
HGSE Professor Kurt Fischer
What does the brain have to do with learning? HGSE professor Kurt Fischer offers a powerful explanation: behavior and the brain change in a repeating pattern that appears to involve common growth cycles. From birth until about age 30, new capacities for thinking and learning coincide with these growth cycles in the brain.
What does it mean for the brain to go through a growth cycle? Consider the brain's outer layers, known as the cortex, which supports reasoning and thinking skills through its massive network of connections with the rest of the brain. Whenever neurons fire, a small amount of electrical energy is released, which can be measured using EEG (electroencephalogram) technology. The amount of electrical activity in the cortex, and the strength of connections between its parts, show periodic spurts. Fischer noticed that these spurts occur at the same time as news skills emerge, say in musical performance or spatial reasoning. So, during each cycle, spurts of electrical activity and growth in connections support a new level of development.
Just as physical growth shows dramatic spurts, learning also jumps in fits and starts, often even falling back temporarily during the learning process. This doesn't mean that learning is fast or easy: it can take months or years for children to master new skills. Development involves a recurring growth cycle. A child doesn't learn skills and concepts just once – he or she relearns them at successively more mature levels.
Cognitive spurts in clusters of skills only show up when children enjoy optimal learning conditions, such as the support of a good teacher or mentor. The figure below shows how students' ability to think abstractly differs depending on whether support is available. A child's ability even in a single skill can vary depending on the support available. Removing instructional help, such as when a teacher shifts from working with a student to having the student work alone, leads to a natural, rapid drop in performance.
In other words: don't count on your cortex to do the work for you. Sustaining the highest level of performance supported by brain development takes practice and help from others.
Fischer, K. W., & Rose, S. P. (1998). Growth cycles of brain and mind. Educational Leadership, 56(3), 56-60.