Opinion: How knowledge of brain function elevates student performance

Opinion: How knowledge of brain function elevates student performance

by Dr Ragnar Purje

Daniel Coyle, writing in his book, The Talent Code, reported on how Carol Dweck, in her ongoing search to discover how to improve student academic performance and to also encourage high levels of self-motivated educational engagement, Dweck set out to test a hypothesis of two rules: “pay attention to what … children are fascinated by,” and, regularly “praise [the student] for their effort.” The key, and profoundly important word here is: “effort.”

Dweck also added a third rule; this was about the value of informing students about the importance of having an insight and an appreciation about the brain. This brain-based presentation of information for the students was, of course, educationally and pedagogically structured, and presented, at the developmental age of the students.

In terms of testing these three rules, Coyle reported that Dweck undertook what could only be described as being a profound and significant social, educational and behavioural study. This research involved the situation where Dweck (with the support of schools, and the education department involved), selected seven hundred identified low-achieving middle school students. Once selected, the students were randomly divided into two numerically equal groups.

The first, group (A), engaged in an eight-week workshop study skills program. The second, group (B), engaged in an identical educational study skills workshop, along with “something extra.” This “something extra” was an additional fifty-minute session for the group (B) students was information about the brain.

This brain-based material included material dealing with the anatomical structure of the brain, along with neurobiological brain function information. This “special” presentation also included facts, about how the brain responded when (“the brain”) was placed in an environment where complex enrichment, in the form of additional knowledge, work, and academic challenges took place.

In terms of results, within a semester, Dweck reported that the group (B) students – in terms of group presenting data – had significantly improved in their grades; along with the student social presentation of positive constructive behaviours, in relation to their application to their schoolwork.

It is important to note that, from the outset, Dweck and her supporting experimenters (prior to the study taking place), did not inform the teachers as to which group the students had been allocated to brain-based information lessons.

In terms of empirical information, the teachers reported that from their observations, there was a group that was advancing in their academic skills, knowledge as well as their presenting behaviours. And yet, even for this unofficial observational empirical evidence being reported (the teachers, when asked), were not able to provide any evidence-based educational answer, as to exactly why these observed positive changes in behaviour, and the associated academic performance, of this one particular group of students, was taking place.

In terms of observational commentary. The evidence from this study by Dweck, could perhaps be described as not only startling, or even educationally and pedagogically powerful.

In terms of observations and results, this brain-based information certainly appears to be extremely compelling. This study by Dweck, also appears to indicate that the information (about how the brain functions, and how “the brain” responds to challenges); that this appeared to lead to the situation where these “brain-informed students” intrinsically became self-motivated and self-directed learners.

This occurrence then resulted in the teachers observing that there was a group of students (without any additional support or encouragement from the teachers) began to apply themselves with greater diligence to their studies. As a result of this taking place, there was now a group of students who were not only achieving at a higher academic level, their behaviour was now, in terms of effort and attitude, notably praiseworthy.

Dr Ragnar Purje: (PhD; M.Ed.; M.Ed.(Guid.&Couns.); M.Ed.(Lead.&Man.); B.A.(Psych.); B.App.Sc.(P.E.); Grad.Dip.Ed; Grad.Dip.SportSci; Grad.Dip.Ex.&SportSci; Grad.Cert.(Comm.); Grad.Dip.(Health Couns.); Certi.IV in Assess.&Workplace Training); author of Responsibility Theory, is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at CQUniversity in the School of Education and the Arts; where, with the support of Professor Ken Purnell, Dr Purje, presents Responsibility Theory classroom behaviour management lectures to preservice and graduate teachers.