Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences
Conscious Data Processing
will be helpful to take a quick look at how the brain processes information
from the environment before we consider the specific implications of
how the environment affects learning.
Sousa (2001) and Patricia Wolfe (2001) explain in detail how the brain
takes in information from the environment and processes it. The graphic
below and what follows is a summary of their explanation.
brains take in huge amounts of information from the environment
daily. Think of all the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and sensations
that are taking place around you at any given moment. The information
by our five senses. Our brain
screens all of this data through the sensory
register, represented by the window in the graphic,
to determine what is important based on our need for survival and our
past experiences. Most of the data is deemed unimportant
and is filtered out and dropped from attention and processing.
Imagine if our brains actually processed all of the activity happening
around us. We would simply be overwhelmed. The sensory register
passes on data that is considered important to the immediate
memory, sometimes called short-term
memory, pictured by the door.
better, picture yourself sitting in a crowded subway or bus. You
don't look at each person thinking that
you will need to recognize them should you meet them again. But
if suddenly a familiar face appears, the
sensory register determines from past experience that this is important
information and passes it on to the immediate memory, represented by
the door, which opens to begin processing the data.
the brain makes a decision about how to handle the data. Responses to
the data are processed in hierarchical order. If
the brain perceives threat, other data processing takes on a lower priority
so that the brain may deal effectively with the threat. If that
familiar face in the subway belongs to a persistent stalker (allowing
our imaginations to run a bit wild here), our brains tell us to take
action to protect ourselves, since survival is a top priority of the
to look at a more familiar situation, take our perception of sound as
an example. As we sit listening to a lecture, there is usually
background noise in our environment which our brains decide not to process
because it is deemed unimportant. Our listening focus is on what
the teacher is saying. But should there be a loud siren or unfamiliar
noise, the attention quickly shifts from the lecture to the loud noise,
especially if some type of threat is perceived. At that point,
it would be difficult for us to recall what the teacher had just said
(and it might even be difficult for the teacher to recall what he or
she just said, too). In addition, the perception
of threat causes a fight of flight response with physical changes in
the body: glands release cortisol
throughout the body which can result in depression of the immune system,
tensing of the large muscles, blood-clotting, and increased blood
pressure. Stress, which could be defined as an on-going perception
of threat, causes the same reactions in the brain and body. Over time,
these physical reactions can increase one's susceptibility to illness.
Any time we experience
a sense of danger, whether physical, environmental, academic or emotional,
our bodies and brains react with this fight/flight syndrome.
So data involving threat receives the highest priority for processing
in the brain.
Sylvester (2000a), who has studied brain research and its impact on
learning theory, explains
the prioritizing process in a slightly different but useful way in
Brains in a Cultural Classroom. Click here
to read what he has to say.
data receives the second highest priority for processing in short term
Emotions can quickly take over
rational processing. Most of us have had experiences with extreme anger
at one time or another. Obviously, one cannot reason with an overwrought
individual. Sousa says, "When an individual responds emotionally
to a situation, the older limbic system
(stimulated by the amygdala)
takes a major role and the complex cerebral processes are suspended."
(p. 42) Conscious rational processing shuts down during highly
charged emotional events. However,, emotions are not entirely bad when
it comes to memory. Events
that associated with strong emotions,
whether good or bad, are usually easily recalled.
Aromas, food, songs can all trigger powerful emotional memories.
Because emotions are linked to past experiences, new experiences that
are similar evoke the same emotional response. In Teaching
with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen (1998) points
out that the brain is overstimulated when strong emotions are
present. Emotions give us a more activated and chemically stimulated
brain, which then helps us recall things better. Emotions can
either enhance learning or inhibit learning. According to
Sousa, "How a person 'feels' about a learning situation determines the
amount of attention devoted to it. Emotions interact with reason
to support or inhibit learning. To be successful learners and
productive citizens, we need to know how to use our emotions intelligently."
LeDoux is the pioneer in research on emotions
and brain functioning. Click here
to read a short quote about how he explains the process.
next stage in processing information from our surroundings occurs
in working memory,
represented by the gear. This is where conscious
processing takes place, whereas the previous processing of data was
unconscious. Information in working memory receives our attention.
However, we are unable
to process much data in working memory.
Adults generally have the capacity to work with five to nine pieces
of data at any one time. Sousa provides us with a good
example of how working memory functions.(p. 45) Try it by clicking
on First Number below. Look at the number you see there for seven
seconds and then turn away and write the number on a piece of paper:
Now check and see
if you got the number right. Try it again with the second number: Second
You probably found
that you could remember the first number quite easily, but that you
weren't as successful with the second number. Because the second
number had 10 digits, most people do not have enough working memory
capacity to process that many pieces of data. However, through
a process called chunking,
we can make it easier to remember a lengthier series of numbers.
Try one more time to see how you do remembering this number: Third
This number is the
same as the second number, but it has been chunked into the familiar
pattern of a telephone number. This makes it easier to remember
all ten digits.
In Peter Russell's
study done in 1979, (as cited in Sousa, 2000) it was determined that
adults are generally able to retain information in working memory for
ten to twenty minutes before boredom or fatigue cause the brain to loose
focus. In order to continue dealing with the same data, it's necessary
to change the way the person is dealing with the data.
final stage in information processing is moving information into long-term
storage, represented by the chest of drawers. Information that is not
moved into long-term storage is forgotten and can never be recalled.
We've all had the experience of talking about an event in the past.
Others seem to remember things about which we have absolutely no memory.
Those particular things did not move into our long-term storage and,
as far as we are concerned, never happened. Again
the brain prioritizes data to be stored. Information
that has value for survival is quickly stored, while emotional experiences
also facilitate the storage and recall of information. Next
in priority is information that seems important because of past experiences.
In particular, the data must make sense, and more importantly, it must
be meaningful in light of past experiences to be moved into long term
storage. Emotions and past experiences make the connection
between what we consider relevant and what we remember. For example,
contrast your experience memorizing a random list of words and remembering
what you had for dinner last night. It will be much easier to
remember what you had for dinner because it is more personally relevant.
This has enormous implications for learning. The section
on Constructing Meaning will be concerned with this aspect of brain
functioning. Information must be meaningful to be retained. Click
here to go to this section of our model.
process of moving information into long term storage
usually occurs during deep sleep. Most newly acquired information
is lost within 18 to 24 hours. If new information cannot be recalled
24 hours later, it is quite likely that it has not been stored and can
never be recalled. When a memory is placed in long-term storage,
physical and chemical changes actually occur in the brain. New
neural pathways are formed and existing pathways are strengthened.
Sousa states that our capacity to store information is limitless:
we have about 100 billion neurons, each of which has thousands of dendrites,
which form neural pathways between the neurons.
the process of encoding information in long-term storage, the memories
are broken into components and stored throughout the brain. One can
also say that memories are "filed" in different ways. Memories
can be classified in two ways: nondeclarative and declarative.
sometimes called implicit memory, includes procedural memory, motor
skill memory and emotional memory. Procedural
memory consists of things like typing, riding a bicycle
or tying a shoelace. They are performed without conscious thought
or attention once the procedure has been learned. Motor
skill memory involves many of the things we do every
day: our morning grooming and breakfast rituals, driving to work.
How many times have you arrived at work in the morning, only to realize
you don't really remember driving to work, as if you were on automatic
pilot. Emotional memory
is often called "flashbulb memory" because emotionally laden events
are easily retrieved. Examples include the Challenger disaster
or the assassination of JFK. Declarative
memory, also called conscious or explicit memory, on
the other hand, involves the recall of facts. In educational settings,
we are most concerned with declarative memory. There are two types
of declarative memory: episodic memory and semantic memory.
Episodic memories are
connected with events that occurred in our lives at a specific time
and place. Semantic memory
deals with facts and information not directly linked to events in our
lives. Episodic memory is retained more easily than semantic memory.
practice and review, the connections between the neurons become stronger
and stronger and the information is more easily recalled.
Again, this has enormous implications for the
way we present information to our students.
is experience; everything else is just information." -- Albert Einstein
square drawn around the chest of drawers in the graphic at the top of
this page represents our cognitive belief system. All of the information
that is in our long term storage determines how we perceive the world
around us. The combined information helps us understand what is
happening around us, helps us make decisions, and determines our values.
Within this belief system are beliefs about ourselves, our self concept.
If the sum of an individual's past experiences is positive, that
person will have positive beliefs about himself. Or if the sum
of the experiences is negative, the individual will have a low self
esteem. People who have frequently experienced failure tend
to block incoming data with a potential for failure right at the sensory
register stage of processing, closing off receptivity to new information.
it appears that the end stage of brain processing, that of developing
a belief system and a sense of self, is influential in determining what
happens at the very beginning of the process. The implications of
this process on learning and teaching are indeed significant. Since
the beginning point of the process is the reception of input from the
environment, changes in the environment can have a very really affect
on learning potential. So let's look more carefully at the environment
in our classrooms.
to the next section, Creating a Learning-Centered PHYSICAL Environment