From neurons to teaching efficiency and to your job
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From neurons to teaching efficiency …..and to your job. Helen Abadzi Education for All Fast Track Initiative (c/o World Bank) March 18, 2011. For the University of Michigan. Smart domains of knowledge for you to study. International agencies are deluged with CVs

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From neurons to teaching efficiency …..and to your job

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From neurons to teaching efficiency …..and to your job

Helen Abadzi

Education for All Fast Track Initiative

(c/o World Bank)

March 18, 2011

For the University of Michigan

Smart domains of knowledge for you to study

  • International agencies are deluged with CVs

  • When you finish your masters or doctorate in education what will you be able to say you can do?

  • Can you advise how best to train people at various levels?

    • Can you explain why some choices re better than others?

  • Can you do design evaluation studies, analyze complex datasets?

    • Can you explain whether the findings make sense given how people learn or think?

Cognitive neuroscience:Knowledge domain to help you interpret concepts:

  • Such as

  • Constructivism

  • Active learning

  • Child-centered learning

  • Teacher-centered instruction

  • Classroom climate

  • Quality of education

  • Zones of proximal development

  • A glimpse to a trove of knowledgeknown by a few

    • Low-income students tend to do very poorly

    • International agencies want to see financing converted to information

    • How to facilitate better retention, integration, use of knowledge under conditions unknown in higher-income countries?

    • Cognitive neuroscience offers the needed principles

      • Mainly cognitive psychology of the 1990s

    • Education faculties rarely teach this field

      The lecture will give you a sample

    What happens to information on its way to being learned?

    Knowledge taught in school must go through:

    Attention mechanisms

    Short term memory limitations

    Encoding through “rules” of cognitive networks

    consolidation into long-term memory

    The micro level features are reflected in macro memory features

    Education modifies brain architecture

    As a result of school work:

    certain proteins are made for permanent storage

    New axons and dendrites created

    Connecting parts of the brain that were not earlier connected

    Neuron synapses open and close in milliseconds

    Knowledge is stored in neuron assemblies

    spatio-temporal patterns

    Principle from neuron functions:We remember best the info we have used most recently and most often

    Neuron assemblies connect in spatio-temporal patterns to store information

    Feedback is needed for modification

    Neural networks

    Neuron assemblies

    Biological mysteries of memory

    • Aromas of rosemary

    • Chewing gum

    • Effort, physical activity

    • Glucose

    • Items presented within 30 minutes of humor

      • funny classes matter

    • Sleep

    • But emotions have inverted U relationship with performance

    Your mind contains these kinds of

    Conscious knowledge

    We can talk about it

    Unconscious knowledge

    Daily life



    Vocational skills, computer use,


    Word, Excel

    Imitating conscious or unconscious movements (buttoning shirt)

    Reading automaticity

    Knowledge encoded in movements

    Valuing certain knowledge

    Reward expectations

    “noncognitive” skills:

    Showing up on time

    Carrying out obligations



    noises deemed ordinary

    Short-term memory capacity

    Why speed is needed for comprehension

    (working memory)

    12 seconds at most

    About 7 items

    4 pictures

    Cognitive networks

    125 gigs

    semantic memory !

    Long-term memory

    Implication of short-term memory:Fluency must be the goal of all training

    • Students should be trained for fluency in reading

    • In math

    • in vocational skills (procedural memory)

    • In basic facts – so that they pop up in students’ minds

      • No time should be lost in searches

    Short-term memory capacity determines how we learn and act

    • Fluency must be the goal of all training

    • Automatic, fluent performance needed for frequently used skills

    • If we search the mind for answers, we forget the problems we tried to solve !

    After some practice, our mind groups letters into ever-larger chunks All sophisticated skills are built like this

    Implication of short-term memory:Fluency must be the goal of all training

    Practice shortens reaction time, we do things without much attention:


    Math calculations

    Vocationally related skills

    Gas chromatograph, computer operation, etc.

    Time, materials, homework must be used to bring about fluency

    So what is the most important goal in beginning literacy?

    Journey of an information itemWhen did Mozart live (1756-1791)?

    • An item going into your mind (e.g. Mozart’s birthdate)

      • Must first get attention, enters through senses

    • Passes through the short-term memory bottleneck

    • Ends up in the contents of the long-term memory bottle

    • Gets classified into existing networks based on specific “rules”

    • If not contemplated or used, it may be forgotten

    • With use, it gets reconsolidated, reclassified under networks of “deeper” meaning

    • After 10 years of use or 10,000 hours of practice, expertise arises, and the item resides in a modular network

    Attention is needed to learn anything

    Animals are set up to pay attention mainly to changes in the environment.

    The ‘default’ state is inattentiveness

    Attention requires conscious control

    Control develops throughout childhood

    Perhaps adding roughly a minute per year of age

    Being called on by a teacher influences performance

    Reinforcement on a ‘variable ratio’ maintains attention best (B. F. Skinner)

    A student who knows little and has little chance of being called upon will likely learn very little from schooling

    Bangladesh: How many paying attention?One student recites, rest unoccupied

    Teachers in Nepal interacting mainly with the front of the class

    How does knowledge get constructed?

    Biological tendency for network organizationCognitive networks under construction

    Items are usually categorized on the basis of meaning (particularly after age 12)

    Children in particular may classified items in series

    If information survives up to long-term memory.. “rules”determine which items will be retained

    Spoken rather than written info

    Imageable (picture superiority effect)

    Contemplated and connected to existing knowledge through meaning

    Encoded through multiple senses

    Somewhat distinct from others

    but not unheard of

    At the beginning or end of a session

    In small chunks at a time

    Reviewed at intervals spaced apart

    not crammed

    Generated rather than just given

    Crucial for remembering and forgetting:organization and links among items

    Information is recalled along the same paths on which it was encoded

    We remember information items by traveling along the pathways where they were encoded

    E.g. remember a foreign language better by reviewing your old books, going where it was spoken

    Places, time, smells, are encoded with the information (encoding specificity)

    Proust and the “madeleines”

    To be remembered, items must be attached to very specific “hooks”

    (encoding specificity), zones of proximal development?

    If we don’t know where to “hang” something, we forget it

    Can you remember…. Chloro(trephenylphosphine)gold” ?

    We need concrete examples to retain abstractions

    If we know where to hang something, we understand!

    From items we draw conclusions and find rules

    Precise fit of information items

    • A paradox:

      • Items can only be linked very specifically to other items (encoding specificity)

      • but once linked, rules are extracted from patterns

        • conclusions drawn

      • knowledge multiplies, easy to learn anything !

    • Cognition - interplay between remembering an item and deriving conclusions

      • Generalization, transfer difficult

      • Certain rigidity

    Prior knowledge




    New items attached

    The mind derives rules from items and events

    • People drop the details, remember the gist

    • Particularly for repetitive events, the specific information may be discarded

      • What did you see on the road while going to work three months ago?

    • People will reconstruct from repetitive events, develop “schemas”

      • “recall” false details based on likely events

    The more knowledge we have, the more we have hooks to hang new items

    • Fast reading, fast intermediate calculations reward learners

      • help create ‘self motivated learners’

    • Elaboration, practice reconfigure networks

    • 10 years of practice create expertise

    • Innovation, creativity – research ongoing on these issues

    Elaboration and use reconfigure cognitive networks into “deep structure”

    • Upon teaching, items may be classified through “superficial” characteristics

    • With elaboration and practice, items may be reclassified under underlying concepts

    • “surface structure” to “deep structure”

    • “deeper” principles help create analogies:

      • Generalizing: Transfer of learning to problems that superficially appear different

        • Have same “deeper” structure

    • “rote memorization” just connects items,

      • no elaboration

    Elaboration, contemplation:Crucial educational concept

    • “Contemplation” activities help transfer items to multiple or different classifications

      • Some such activities may be “active learning”

      • Really active processing

  • Students who get elaboration exercises connect knowledge

    • E.g. Connections to motor networks

      • Multisensory inputs

    • Knowledge “pops up” whenever needed

  • Some implications of cognitive network functions

    • Organization and links matter as much as the information itself

    • Knowledge is cumulative

      • Students need exact “hooks” with prior knowledge

      • Dropouts can’t just return without remediation

    • Students with primary school deficits can’t benefit from secondary school

      • They need remediation!

  • extra books benefit the best

    • Matthew effect

  • Poor-quality schools may just teach items in loose series

    Students may just recite or listen…

    The heroes of the revolution are…

    The principles of constitutional law are….

    2x2=4, 2x3=6, 2x4=8, 2x5=10….

    • Note: Information is recalled along the same paths on which it was encoded

    High-quality institutions offer activities to create complex networks

    Students recite +

    read long texts+

    manipulate +

    collect real-world samples +

    answer questions connecting various items +

    derive new conclusions from data +

    solve problems +

    practice for fluency +

    generalize into various circumstances

    Knowledge in the schools of the poor

    Less utility for employers

    Knowledge in the schools of the better-off

    More utility for employers

    Time is needed for consolidation:instructional time amount crucial

    • Teaching time increases the probability that cognitive networks will be built

    • High-income countries and schools put more at students’ disposal, so even if some tasks are inefficient, there is redundancy.

      • also repetitions, reviews etc.

    • Schools of the poor give less time to students.

      • May get few chances to create a sensible semantic network about a topic

    Instructional time is what the governments pay forBut only a fraction of the investment is actually converted into learning time

    Lack of textbooks translates into time wastage at all levels

    • Copying, dictation necessary

    • Limited practice, time, feedback

    • Due to a lack of knowledge and materials, teachers do very few activities

    • Teacher boredom: Could you spend 20 years in blackboard transcription?

    Efficient classroom activities

    • Brief lecturing with examples, analogies

    • Asking students at random to answer

      • variable ratio reinforcement best maintains attention

    • Elaboration, contemplation of the material

      • retrieval, recombinations, analyses

      • Selective use of groups

    • Textbooks, other structured material

      • Students should copy or take dictation only as a curricular activity

    Automaticity and working memory crucial in reading

    Minimum reading speed needed for comprehension

    45-60 words correct per minute

    (working memory)

    12 seconds at most

    About 7 items

    4 pictures

    Cognitive networks

    125 gigs

    semantic memory !

    Long-term memory

    35 words per minute

    Perceptual Learning: Visual complexity in various languages and scripts(Psycholinguistic grains)


    through, caught, bake, often, saw, sew


    Ils etaient, oiseau, mois, etant


    jomi – earth

    boithak – meeting

    koThin - difficult

    Can all students be engaged in this class? Why not?

    Do these students discriminate among letters of the blackboard from this distance?

    Setting the basis for efficient math acquisition

    Mathematics are innate to some extent

    Triple code in the brain: sense of quantity, number name, symbol

    Babies, animals manipulate about 3 items

    Addition and subtraction more “natural”, multiplication and division less so

    Magnitude processing, Weber fraction (some people better than others)

    Higher-level math is based on preschool and early grade tasks

    • Lower SES children start off and stay in poorer performance

    • Activities needed to connect the verbal and the visuospatial parts

    • Interventions needed since kindergarten:

      • quickly estimate how many things in a group

      • Build number line

      • Measure, compare sizes

      • Develop fluency of calculations

    Develop early the number line people have in their heads

    Instructional principles to applyFrom cognitive neuroscience to teaching practices

    Long-term memory consolidation (protein formation transfer from hippocampus etc)

    Input into short-term memory

    Neuron connections to encode information

    -Need for teaching methods that optimize classification and retrieval of info

    -Optimally spaced reviews

    • Students need feedback

    • Sufficient learning time

    • Retrieval opportunities

    - Need for fluency

    - Info must pop up in mind without conscious searches

    Interventions in countries of all income and educational levels

    • Fluency of basic skills

      • emphasis on achievement in grades 1-2

    • Prior knowledge needed for a specific topic (hooks)

    • Textbooks or a structured set of materials per student

    • Use of allotted time for instruction, practice, elaboration

    • Teacher training for appropriate (elaboration) activities

      • video-modeling methods more efficient in behavior change

    • Supervision of the relevant teaching activities

      • Frequent feedback and reinforcement to teaching staff, given the way the brain’s reward system works

    Countries need valid technical advice on learning efficiency

    • Which expert to believe?

    • Degrees in education do not guarantee knowledge

      • Often personal opinions, “Anglo-centric” views are given

    • Evidence-based expertise is needed!

    • You could learn this domain of knowledge and do a better job !

    Suggestion: learn better how to integrate psychology findings

    • Test hypotheses in dissertations and theses

    • Take 3 psychology courses before you graduate

      • Cognitive psychology

      • Perceptual psychology – for reading etc.

      • Neuropsychology

        • ALSO:

      • Social and/or motivation

      • Educational psychology? Depends on content

      • Tell your faculty you want such courses

    Thank you for your time!

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