09/23/2013 09:25 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Brain Science Holds Key to Instilling Love of Learning

We've all heard that effective teachers, involved parents and engaged student are critical keys to school success. But another instrumental factor is just as obvious (though complex) - a child's brain. And science is reading its cues.

Using tools such as brain imaging, researchers are getting an inside look at the cognitive functions that are responsible for a child's learning and memory, reading and self-control skills. Researchers have found that while genetics influence brain development, so do a child's socioeconomic status and life experience. Indeed, some brain functions are far more affected by life experience than they are by genetics.

Because the brain is constantly under construction, there is real hope that by altering those influences that can be controlled, the brain can be developed to meet desired outcomes. That has tremendous implications for learning and education.

Neuroscience -- which is the study of the nervous system -- highlights the influence that effort, deliberative and guided practice play on learning and ultimately the development of expertise. This can unleash the love of learning and a resilience that is required for a "growth mindset" to emerge. In turn, this mindset enables the learner to power through the challenge and fear of failure, enabling skills to develop and great accomplishments to emerge.

The National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, along with our district partners around the country, finds that sharing this understanding with students often facilitates a sense of trust that they are in control of their skill development. Belief in their ability to learn can lead to a "mindful" state of hopefulness. The determination that comes from hope can help students develop the confidence needed to accelerate their academic, occupational and civic trajectories.

Neuroscience reveals the miraculous workings of the brain: how memory is stored and where; how to retrieve it; how to grow brain cells through physical activity and mental stimulation. It also explains how neurotransmitters -- chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body -- work by sending signals that engage the left and right hemispheres, the prefrontal cortex (which regulates behavior and analyzes thought) of the brain along with the hippocampus (responsible for memory and organization.)

The brain has a neural plasticity that literally is shaped by life experiences -- for better or worse. For example, stress associated with prejudice, stereotype threat, feelings of failure, ambiguity attributes, inability to succeed, positional or marginalizing language, and feelings of low self-esteem can cause the hormone cortisol to be created and released. Cortisol can inhibit comprehension, resulting in underachievement, and cognitively predispose an individual to repeat the same things over and over, including patterns of poor performance and self-sabotaging behaviors, including violence.

But what happens if we help control the stress?

Brain cells build on what is known (prior knowledge), but they also can connect with new information, concepts and ideas when neurotransmitters stimulate neighboring cells. For example, dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, affects cognitive ability, focus and motivation. Oxytocin, the "love" and "trust" hormone, affects depression, reduces social fears and helps us to emotionally connect with people. Norepinephrine is a part of our fight-or-flight reflex, regulating attention, readiness and motivation. Serotonin aids executive functioning in the prefrontal lobes and helps regulate mood.

The brain is built during childhood, but it's important to recognize that it can be remolded or modified in adulthood, enabling the brain to adapt to any number of circumstances, grow new neural pathways with the help of neurotransmitters, or even develop bilaterally in one hemisphere -- when the left, for an example, is removed to control for epilepsy.

The regeneration of cells in the hippocampus, which medical researchers believed to be impossible several years ago, has been found possible when other cells are destroyed As mentioned above, the hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory for children and adults; as does the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions and self-concepts come together and can accelerate and deepen.

The classroom can be one of the positive life experiences that nurture positive brain development.

When students are provided with instruction that is student-centered and contains challenging content, guided reflection, outlets for self-expression, feedback, and connects to their frame of reference and prior knowledge, neuroscience tells us that cognitive dysfunctions can be mitigated and intellectual development can be optimized.

Learning is propelled when students are provided opportunities to demonstrate strengths and apply learning in meaningful ways, support to address weaknesses, strategies for developing critical thinking, and experiences that encourage them to be focused, engaged, vocal, tenacious, self-confident and self-actualized.

So the next time someone tells you that any student or group of students is destined to fail in school, don't believe them. Their path is in their heads. If they have belief, hope and tenacity, there is no telling how far students can go.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at