Friday, August 21, 2009

Cognitive Recovery Time

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently published findings in PLoS One that demonstrate the brain's need for a period of "down-time" after a challenging cognitive task in order to return to it's resting state. Barnes and colleagues continuously monitored their subjects' brain activity using fMRI, first having the subject relax for a bit more than 9 minutes, then having the subject perform a cognitive task for 9 minutes, and finally having the subject relax for almost 19 minutes. The cognitive task employed in this experiment was the widely used "n-back" memory game, in which subjects are shown two co-varying stimuli (generally a set of numbers that appear in different locations in a grid) and are challenged to respond correctly when the set of stimuli is a repeat of the set presented "n" times ago. In the version of "n-back" used here, the numbers ranged from 1 to 4 and appeared in a 4-quadrant grid; "n" was either 1 or 2 for different subjects.

Barnes et. al. found that the brain, like the heart, does not simply return to it's resting state immediately following activity. In this experimental design, the brain took approximately 6 minutes to return to its resting state following the task; although there was no statistically significant difference in recovery times between the n=1 and n=2 subjects, the data did indicate that the brain took more time to recover when the cognitive task was more demanding. As the researchers point out in the final paragraph of the discussion, these findings help to clarify further research questions, including testing the performance of subjects engaging in a new cognitively demanding task following a previous task, but before the brain returns to its resting state. For those of us involved in education as classroom teachers or as administrators in charge of the daily schedule of classes for students, this line of research should prompt us to reflect on how we structure the use of time within the classroom, as well as how much time we afford students to return to their resting state in between classes.

Barnes A,
Bullmore ET, Suckling J, 2009 Endogenous Human Brain Dynamics Recover Slowly Following Cognitive Effort. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6626.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006626

Monday, August 3, 2009

Keeping Adult Brains in Mind for Professional Development Success

David Sousa's "Brain-Friendly Learning for Teachers" from the June 2009 issue of ASCD's "Educational Leadership" serves as a good source of information for improved professional development activities. Sousa's premise is that planning and implementing ongoing professional development with adult brain research in mind will make these experiences more likely to be successful. Adults, Sousa argues (anecdotally), are most powerfully motivated to learn when the experience seems likely to increase their ability to be effective in their work. This is a major take-home point for professional development in education, which, in my experience, is often done in large groups and is rarely differentiated. Although there are certainly aspects of our roles as teachers that are shared no matter what the subject area, it's important to keep in mind (particularly at the high school level) that educators are passionate about the subject(s) they teach, and that methods for effective teaching can vary significantly across subject areas. With those differences in mind, good professional development should incorporate small group "break-out sessions" in conjunction with large group presentations and discussions, so that the nuances of subject-specific teaching can be addressed and participants will be more likely to feel that the experience is going to make them more effective in their teaching.

Sousa's subsequent suggestions break down into four influences on adult learning; though these factors influence learning at all levels, Sousa suggests that adults are affected by them more powerfully given their advanced development relative to adolescents and children. The four factors are: emotions, feedback, past experiences, and meaning. While my own experiences of "sit and get" professional development have done a fairly good job of bringing in prior experiences and presenting topics in a meaningful way, a consistent critique I've had (and heard from many others) is that it's not realistic - or good teaching practice - to expect that we'll understand new information when it's presented only once, let alone without the time to really "digest" or get feedback on our attempts at implementation. When expectations are unrealistic and when the experience is so homogenized as to be of limited utility, negative emotions can build and interfere with the learning experience. However, an individualized professional development experience that will receive ongoing attention is likely to induce positive emotions in participants, thereby increasing the likelihood that good learning will take place that day and beyond.