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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
nese speakers, for example, typically do not discriminate the “r” from the “l” sounds that are evident to English speakers, and this ability is lost in early childhood because it is not in the speech that they hear. It is not known whether synapse overproduction and elimination underlies this process, but it certainly seems plausible.
The process of synapse elimination occurs relatively slowly in the cerebral cortical regions that are involved in aspects of language and other higher cognitive functions (Huttenlocher and Dabholkar, 1997). Different brain systems appear to develop according to different time frames, driven in part by experience and in part by intrinsic forces. This process suggests that children’s brains may be more ready to learn different things at different times. But, as noted above, learning continues to affect the structure of the brain long after synapse overproduction and loss are completed. New synapses are added that would never have existed without learning, and the wiring diagram of the brain continues to be reorganized throughout one’s life. There may be other changes in the brain involved in the encoding of learning, but most scientists agree that synapse addition and modification are the ones that are most certain.
Examples of Effects of Instruction on Brain Development
Detailed knowledge of the brain processes that underlie language has emerged in recent years. For example, there appear to be separate brain areas that specialize in subtasks such as hearing words (spoken language of others), seeing words (reading), speaking words (speech), and generating words (thinking with language). Whether these patterns of brain organization for oral, written, and listening skills require separate exercises to promote the component skills of language and literacy remains to be determined. If these closely related skills have somewhat independent brain representation, then coordinated practice of skills may be a better way to encourage learners to move seamlessly among speaking, writing, and listening.
Language provides a particularly striking example of how instructional processes may contribute to organizing brain functions. The example is interesting because language processes are usually more closely associated with the left side of the brain. As the following discussion points out, specific kinds of experiences can contribute to other areas of the brain taking over some of the language functions. For example, deaf people who learn a sign language are learning to communicate using the visual system in place of the auditory system. Manual sign languages have grammatical structures, with affixes and morphology, but they are not translations of spoken languages. Each particular sign language (such as American Sign Language)