Neurobiology of Teaching

The era of technology is bent upon manufacturing brains capable of holding too much knowledge and information. Talented minds infused with right spirit of entrepreneurship will make positive spillovers in the society is the fundamental idea. Consequently, knowledge and information has turned out to be the sole human resources capable of boosting economic, social, cultural enhancement of society. So nations championing quality education pump out mammoth share of national resources into education and its reformation.

Ever since the system of formal education came into extant, the classroom or learning environment has been the nucleus of any educational ecosystem which permeated the entire fabric of a society. The classroom where the transformation of knowledge from the teacher to the student took place was at the receiving end of all educational policies and reforms a society practiced. The structural set up (and the symbiotic relationship between teacher and student too) where the act of teaching and learning took place (ie class room) was the innermost layer of an educational system.

But novel findings in neuroscience recognize a subtler region in this system and invite the attention of teachers and educationists towards it. This subtler region that neuroscience discovered is nothing but unique, concrete, mechanisms involved in the learner’s brain. This does not mean that educational systems of former years were oblivious to the supremacy of brain in the process of learning and policies, reforms and teaching strategies followed by those systems were impervious to the functional operations of human brain. The point is, until recently nobody was aware of the exact nature of influence of brain on the process of learning. Educationists and psychologists had only vague idea of esoteric nature of the human brain engaged in the act of learning. But today neuroscience is capable of decrypting and documenting even the subtlest movement in the brain that accompany each and every process of learning.

Theories of learning beginning from Palvov to B.F. Skinner to Albert Bandura relied on concepts like reinforcement, motivation, reward, punishment etc to explain how learning took place and how it can be enhanced in class room setting. Teaching methods that came in tandem with the research findings based on these theories in educational psychology catered to the ideals of optimal learning environment and teachers committed themselves to figure out what helped a student to invest his head and heart into the learning experiences and harvest maximum from his class room hours. These attempts of teachers could not look beyond the predefined objectives like behavior modification, strengthening association between stimuli and perception, memory enhancement, concept formation, application of knowledge in required situations, habit formation etc. Classrooms where the teachers hadn’t any clue to what happened in the brain of the learner during the execution of predesigned learning plans literally lacked any concrete evidences that supported efficacy of teaching strategies and methods adopted in the contexts of teaching.

Neuroscience exhorts modern teachers to get prepared for a more meticulous, concrete exploration of learning situations. For example, it asks the teacher to pay attention to “dopamine” level in the brain of students instead of focusing only on opportunities for “rewarding” or “reinforcing” students to get him/her interested in studies. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released in our brain when we are rewarded, appreciated or approved. Each human brain is wired to go in search of experiences that increase the level of dopamine in it and repeatedly indulge in those experiences sometimes to the extent of an addiction. Centuries ago, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology described this nature of human minds in his “pleasure principle” and called it an instinct with evolutionary purposes. Today, modern science is unraveling its neurological underpinnings.

It is a fact that the teaching process of an educational system, especially in India, relies on the fundamentals of rewarding/punishing. All motivating, reinforcing attempts in teaching are nothing but some or other forms of rewarding. In this context, it will not be out of place to state that ‘success of teaching lies in teacher’s ability to increase the levels of dopamine in the brains of students’. A teacher toiling for novelty and excitement in his/her teaching methods is literally in search of effective stimulants that can raise the dopamine level of students while listening to the topic of teaching.

Usually a teacher is labeled as “ineffective” if his/her teaching strategies fail to catch the attention of students and sustain their interest in the subject. But now, in modern times one must think in the parlance of neuroscience that ineffective teacher is the one who fails to raise the dopamine level of students while engaged in the act of class room teaching. Given the fact that the events or life experiences that satiate the need for happiness, excitement, adventure, pleasure are sought after more and more and they raise the level of dopamine and other related chemicals in the brains of students, a teacher’s attempt to catch up with the young brains of modern world often turns out to be rather a tough, hazardous task.

The brain of an average student, sitting inside the classroom of contemporary society has already been brushed up with innumerable stimuli like drugs, porn clips, love affairs, social networks etc. Students have already had their heightened dose dopamine levels through such exciting life experiences that most of them sit facing their Math or science teacher with a predisposition to underestimate the dopamine surges meted out to them through Maths or science lessons. Inside a class room, filled with students who watch porn clips on a daily basis, are smitten by passionate love affairs, are whirling in the pool of drugs, are obsessed with the number of likes and dislikes in social sites, the efficiency of a teacher —if estimated in terms of his/ her capacity to raise the levels of dopamine or activate the reward circuits of students’ brain through the act of teaching —will be zero. Even most talented teachers will label these students as ‘hopeless cases’. These students can not go beyond a certain level or reach even near the educational objectives– intellectual, social, personal objectives— set by the respective educational system of the society.

What is the way out?. It is yet to be figured out. Many have put forward solutions as well as tentative solutions to be implemented from various moral, social, organizational, institutional platforms for handling evils of modernization. But nobody has ventured for an attempt in terms of intensification or reorientation of teaching and class room environment. At a glance, one may feel teaching as a profession does not have anything in its conceptual, theoretical stances that can be juxtaposed with the latest facts released from the brain researches. But there is scope for a new science called “neurobiology of teaching” which can integrate classroom environment, pedagogy and teacher personality with the chemistry of learner’s brain. This will open new avenues for collaborative research attempts where formulation of research problems in education will have hue and texture of neuroscience and other brain sciences. Then perhaps there might prop up a need for reorientation in the fundamental concept of teaching itself where it has to embrace all those possible areas of student involvement (not only the class room).

For example, social sites might prove themselves as a better platform for student-teacher interactions than the class room itself for the group of students addicted to internet. Equipping students to exercise their choice of freedom wisely, when confronted with myriad opportunities for meeting their need for pleasure, excitement and adventure might turn out to be an integral part of teaching irrespective of the subject the teacher is handling inside the class room. To state more explicitly, teacher specialized in maths should be a teacher specialized in raising student dopamine levels by the sheer effectiveness of “teacher personality”. Gone are days when subject expertise was the minimum criterion to enter into the profession of teaching. A ‘teacher personality’ inherent with a readiness for innovation on a daily basis is sine qua non for a teacher to teach the students of modern world. Activities arranged in the school level (eg. Counseling) with an aim to manufacture all those positive qualities in students must find its way into the classroom environment. The teacher student interaction within the parameter of the subject of study will not suffice. The interactive spaces meant for the exchange of knowledge and skill must undergo a transformation in which there is enough room for meeting the basic psychological needs of students. In gist, magnanimity of the teacher to assimilate the changes and requirements of the growing generation and reorient teacher-student relationship accordingly will be a crucial factor determining the efficiency of a teacher of 21st century.