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Issue 74. Brain Activity July 20, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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I’ve been writing frequently about emotional responses to sensory experiences and how this relates to intercutural learning. Recently I came across an online course at Open University about Play, Learning and the Brain and decided to sign up. I love all the free, open-content course options out there these days and although this course focused on early childhood education, there seemed to me to be a relevance for learning in general, particularly experiential learning.

One of the first readings from Leslie Owen Wilson  really caught my attention because it listed a number of “core principles” that very much describe what I have found through my research over so many years with the AFS high school level exchange students.

  • The brain perceives whole and parts simultaneously.
  • Information is stored in multiple areas of the brain and is retrieved through multiple memory and neural pathways.
  • Learning engages the whole body. All learning is mind-body: movement, foods, attention cycles, and chemicals modulate learning.
  • Humans’ search for meaning is innate.
  • The search for meaning comes through patterning.
  • Emotions are critical to patterning, and drive our attention, meaning and memory.
  • Meaning is more important than just information.
  • Learning involves focused attention and peripheral perception.
  • We have two types of memory: spatial and rote.
  • We understand best when facts are embedded in natural spatial memory.
  • The brain is social. It develops better in concert with other brains.
  • Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by stress.
  • Every brain in uniquely organized.
  • Learning is developmental.

Owen attributes these principles to Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine, and several books can be found by this team on the topic of  “brain-based learning. ” Let me focus here on a few of the principles and explain how these relate to the process of learning through a cultural immersion experience rather than in a typical classroom setting.

Learning engages the whole body.

When we look at what is learned through study abroad or any type of cultural immersion, we know that this is not about facts memorized for a test but something much more akin to practicing a musical instrument or learning how to use a saw to cut wood. There is a physical element to the learning, and the muscle memory needed to learn exactly the best way to hold a saw to make a smooth an accurate cut is similar to the muscle memory of the tongue as it works to shape sounds in a new language, or the hand and facial muscles that are moved to use new gestures or facial expressions that are more typically French or Brazilian or Thai. As with much of physical learning, it’s not just a technical skill that is needed; that technical skill must be put to use in creating and expressing meaning, or in creating a physical product that will have meaning. And so the assessment of whole-body learning needs to be an assessment of that meaning, or that product. Is it simple or profound; beautiful or plain; functional or useless? In doing an assessment of this type of learning, we also need to understand the intent of the person creating the meaning, and how well that intention has been achieved.

We understand best when facts are embedded in natural spatial memory.

As a geographer, I am naturally inclined to think of spatial memory. Years ago I clipped a cartoon from somewhere that spoofed a recent attempt to promote a new projection for a map of the world — perhaps the Robinson Projection — by showing several projections that “National Geographic” rejected, including a map that placed the countries in alphabetical order and another that displayed the map on a peeled baseball. (An illustration is provided for those readers who are not so familiar with the way a baseball is stitched together.) I loved the absurdity of both these projections that totally ignored the location of the countries displayed and left the map reader totally lost!

Illustration for the "unpeeled baseball" map projection
Illustration for the “peeled baseball” map projection: Imagine a global map printed on the round baseball, which is then peeled apart into two “lengua de gato” lozenge shaped “maps.”

As a study abroad student ventures out into a city or village in another country, they may in fact become lost and they may not be able to clearly state which direction is north even if the sun is setting, but they are observing the patterns on the landscape and are identifying landmarks that are important to them. They will also notice what’s different and what’s similar about these patterns from the ones they normally see back home.  

While differences in climate and terrain will affect vegetation, much of the landscape for any student abroad is the cultural, social and economic creation of the host community. One of the most strikingly different cities I ever encountered was Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Here, location was a political decision in every sense: so different from the economic principles that drive location decisions in the United States. Here every activity has its own space: hotels in the hotel sector, entertainment in the entertainment sector, and neighborhoods in the two big wings of filled with identical apartment complexes, each with curved roads and 6 story buildings (parking underneath) lettered A through K, each with a tiny community shopping center big enough for one grocery, one cafe, a dry cleaners, and perhaps something else. Cloverleaf intersections and highways loop through these complexes, lacing together Asa Norte and Asa Sul, the north and south wings of the city that appear nearly identical visually. Yet since real people do live here, there are surely a myriad of small cultural and social differences between the north and south wings that would be well known to the insider.

How deeply a student observes these patterns, reflects on them, and tries to share them with others will lead to different levels of understanding and meaning.

The brain is social. It develops better in concert with other brains.

Learning alone is nearly impossible. Even the insights I may get while walking down the street emerge from thoughts about the input I have received from others, whether reading articles on line, talking to someone at the bakery, picking up my email, or talking with my husband. But it doesn’t stop with the input. I also need to explain my insights to someone else, ideally with feedback, before I have truly learned something. But I also believe that I have the potential to learn more from someone who thinks differently than I do, who has different priorities and values, than I do from someone who is very similar to me. When we are with friends who are similar to us, we may frequently say, “I know, I know” as they tell us of their feelings or situations they face. We agree with them, and we affirm their knowledge with our comparable knowledge. The “I know” response may be reassuring and comfortable, but as Basil Fawlty said to his wife Sybil in an episode of the TV show, Fawlty Towers as she chatted endlessly on the phone, “If you already know about it, then why does she keep telling you?” On the other hand, when a friend says, “I don’t know what you mean,” or “That’s never happened to me,” the conversation can either be shut down or go to unexpected places, depending on the quality of the relationship. Building those relationships and feeling comfortable around differences are are important indicators of the ability of a person to learn with others.



1. B. Goode - May 14, 2012

This is a very good point. Learning and educational training cannot be separated from brain function as the two concepts are certainly related. The specific tenets presented by the author are particularly interesting as well since learning does involve the entirety of the human body and brains developing better when in communication with other brains. In short, human beings are social beings and it is virtually impossible to extract the social dimension of learning form the entire educational process, especially when it comes to learning systems that span across cultures.

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