Educational neuroscience is a relatively new field, and one that is expertly explored in Programming the Brain: Pedagogical Practices and Study Skills for Enhanced Learning and Metacognition. A PhD engineer and academic who teaches computer science at Australia’s Central Queensland University, Dr. Chandana Watagodakumbar’s premise, intelligently and comprehensively set forth, is that just as computers are programmed to “learn” in a specific way, the principles of neuroscience can offer a useful modality for teaching humans.
Programming the Brain comprises an introduction to neuroscience and its implications for how we access knowledge; an examination of learning related concepts widely employed in schools; and a survey of these generally accepted teaching and study practices in comparison to types of education arising when principles of neuroscience are brought into the picture. Noting that “we see a physical growth of brain structures…due to learning,” Watagodakumbara examines the possibilities for teaching based around natural brain functions, which allow people to learn and adapt “on the fly,” as distinct from the currently accepted pedagogical approach that calls for explicit knowledge force-fed within a rigidly set time frame.
Utilizing terminology from three disciplines—computer technology, neuroscience and academia—Watagodakumbara begins his treatise by describing the physical structure of the brain and what happens when humans learn. He stresses the importance of memory in learning – mere grasping of facts is insufficient without memory that allows for regurgitating facts when tested, or intuitively evincing them in real life situations. One significant factor in the neuroscientific approach that is lacking in standard approaches is the inclusion of emotional parameters, in addition to the purely intellectual, which is core to the author’s emphasis.
The book addresses both average and gifted learners, stating that the latter often lose out in the current system, forced to narrow their creative focus instead of being rewarded for their broader scope of learning abilities. The larger message is that educators need to “slow down to take a deep breath,” reducing the emphasis on “fast learning” aimed at narrow employability specializations, and instead consider the integrative learning possibilities inherent within educational neuroscience – possibilities that can promote balanced emotions and greater general awareness. This reset offers the promise of education that is less specifically achievement-oriented and time-driven, and more fulfilling.
Watagodakumbara is passionate about his subject matter, couching it at times in language akin to a personal mission. In the view of the author, educational neuroscience is to standard educational models as organically-grown food is to fast food. The book is at times heady and technical, but given Watagodakumbara’s passion for the subject, he is ultimately persuasive about his thesis.
That said, more could have been done to gear this book to the layman. It would have been helpful to include more illustrative graphs and diagrams (there are a handful) for those new to these concepts, which would serve to break up the compact, almost encyclopedic material. The third part of the book is somewhat repetitive as well (though the author freely admits this in his introduction), as it necessarily recapitulates earlier sections to develop the final thesis. Nonetheless, the overall result is a statement of innovative, potentially groundbreaking theories that are both logical and valuable.
A comprehensive work of scholarship, Programming the Brain should be of considerable interest to open-minded, future-thinking learners and educators.
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