5 Reasons Why Neuro-framework Scaffolding Helps Learners

Is Neuro-framework Scaffolding even a “Thing”?

Well it is and it has been a ‘thing’ for a long time but may not be known as such. These days with ‘neuro’ being the cool kid on the block, the terminology is contemporary. What it refers to is the guided development of skills by optimising the functioning of the structures of the developing brain involved in learning. It is what children are particularly good at doing for themselves. Until, that is,  they go to school to get educated!

Neuro-frameworks for learning are structures within the brain that develop over the learning years of a child and young adult. By understanding these frameworks we can scaffold our approach to teaching and learning to optimise the development and functioning of these structures.

This is where I come in. Here are the five reasons that I live by when developing my education game material.

Possession is not functional
Imagine the scenario where everyone agrees that 21st century kids need to use 21st century devices in order to perform better so all school children are provided with digital devices to use in school. Great. Does that mean that the box is ticked and the problem is fixed? No. The device in itself is not going to do anything to change their learning. It is what is contained within the device and how the students interact with it that counts.

Similarly, just because a child possesses the structures for learning does not mean that learning happens. Learning material has to be written and delivered in the way that it will be received, processed, transmitted and stored for easy retrieval by the learning frameworks within the brain.

School teacher and teacher educator turned neuroscientist, Professor Paul Howard-Jones, is convincing in his talk on the early research on the educational benefits of using digital technology particularly in relation to video games. He makes the case for how to effectively use video games in teaching and learning.

The learner’s interaction with the digital content is important.

One size does not fit all
There is no one size fits all in learning although for some reason our education systems have operated on that maxim for a couple of centuries. Sir Ken Robinson says in his Changing Education Paradigms talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms), that our system was designed as a production line to produce factory workers not creative thinkers. We need to challenge this model and individualise learning.

Most teachers already go to great lengths to differentiate their teaching to help all their students. But the differentiation should not be confined to a year level curriculum or based on the perceived ability (or inability as is often the case) of the child but on the special blend of all conditions that the child brings to the table on any given day. This is different not just for each learner but for different days and times. So as educators we need to read the signs and know how to manipulate the material for our students according to their needs not ours.

This may seem like it is too much to ask for one teacher of a class of 30 kids but it is actually quite easily done because of the technology we have. As mentioned earlier it is what you do with a device that makes all the difference. Many games use artificial intelligence (AI) paradigms to change the way the material is delivered according to responses that the user is making to ensure that there is continued interest in pursuing the outcomes.

In fact, educator and linguist, Professor James Paul Gee identifies 13 principles of effective learning that are inherent in game design. These will be looked at in a future blog post.

The pedagogy of games works very well in neuro-framework scaffolding.

To err is divine
I mentioned earlier that neuro-framework scaffolding has been around for a long time. It is used by children when they learn to walk and to talk and to do most things. That is until they go to school and then the rules change to something that the brain does not compute. What is missing in most schools is the positivity of failure.

In nature failure is a positive force. Children are always making hypotheses about their failures. Toddlers uses this to their advantage. If they fall over they hypothesise that they lifted their back leg up too early. They test this hypothesis and make incremental adjustments in numerous attempts until “Hey Presto! They are walking”.

In the 19th century school system, however, failure was turned into a negative force. In this system learners are given a grade or mark on one attempt with no recourse for changing it. It is no wonder that most children do not co-operate with tests and homework – it seems meaningless. To do something once and let that outcome stand is totally counter-intuitive to the intelligent beings called children.

Learning is about countless trials each one getting closer to the perfect outcome. It is about taking the time to hypothesise about what needs to change for the next attempt. It is believing that you can improve and can deal with any challenge. Professor Carol Dweck calls this having a Growth Mindset.

Neuro-framework scaffolding helps build this growth mindset.

Repetition requires a desirable purpose
Do you recall the time when you learnt to drive a car. There were a lot of steps to remember – clutch, gear, speed, brake, mirror – and they needed to be done in a particular order depending on the stimuli coming in. Learning Maths is probably easier (and safer) than learning to drive yet there are more people who say they are good drivers than those who think they are good at Mathematics. Why is this? One reason is that learning to drive is done in a meaningful (real world) environment whereas learning Maths is generally done out of context. The skill being taught in a Mathematics lessons often does not have a purpose attached to it. It is like asking someone to learn to change gears at a desk without any reference to a car.

In order for a learner to want to repeat a task, they need to want it. As Professor Howard-Jones says, offering extrinsic rewards alone are not enough. The reward has to be something that the brain intrinsically wants. What the brain wants is a win especially against the odds. The possibility of a win releases dopamine which in turn helps to build neural connections. To make a child want to acquire numeracy facts we need to associate acquiring numeracy skills and any repetitive tasks with winning.

This can be done very easily in the classroom through linking skill acquisition with challenging quests.

Automaticity breeds concepts
Automaticity as the name suggests is when responses occur automatically or without apparent thinking. Achieving automaticity requires repetition so that retrieval from where the skill is stored becomes an almost unconscious event. But to ensure that the skills are stored requires a desirable purpose. Wanting something releases dopamine. Dopamine helps to build the neural connections involved in memory retrieval. Repetition creates a superhighway to the storage system which is what makes the retrieval occur so readily.

Driving a car is possible because many of the initial skills happen without having to think about them. This allows the driver to focus on the higher order thinking of processing the stimuli around them and making decisions about how to react. The same can be done with learning Mathematics but we are not scaffolding it in a way to make it meaningful and desirable.

The neuro-framework scaffolding involved here is to initially guide the learner to step out a dirt track to the storage facility through providing them with a purpose to do so. By making the journey desirable the learner will make repeated attempts at accessing and retrieving the information and the path turns into a road and then a highway and then a superhighway. At this point the information is said to have automatic retrieval. This automaticity helps when the information received needs to be used to build conceptual knowledge of the topic. For example, instant recall of the multiplication tables makes it easier to work with fractions which makes it easier for the learner to build on their concept of fractions. Each skill in a topic is built on a previous level of thinking and the thinking levels up so that prior concepts about the topic are tested and advanced. Just like in the car example, automaticity allows the learner to combine a myriad of skills instantaneously to make conceptual analyses of situations.

The levelling up of skills to solve increasingly more difficult problems is what happens in a video game.  Neurologist turned educator, Dr Judy Willis explains the neurobiology of why video games offer a very good model for learning at her TEDxASB Talk at the American School in Bombay.

Well-designed educational games can ease the workload of teachers.

In a nutshell
Neuro-framework scaffolding is a tried and trusted method used naturally by learners through trial and error hypothesis testing; the key principles of a) targeted content, b) individualisation, c) failing forward, d) repetition for a desirable purpose and e) acquiring automatic skill responses for concept building need to be addressed when scaffolding the teaching and learning so that each individual’s framework is optimally utilised; we need differentiated material delivered in a timely manner; we need to allow learners to believe that they can improve and give them plenty of chances to do so; game design principles are particularly good at catering for the steps above and can be easily implemented in classrooms through the development of pedagogically sound educational video games.

That is why we need to help learners by using educational games that incorporate neuro-framework scaffolding.

Edu-fy is developing one such game. Straylings will be available for trials in the not too distant future. To be in the running for trial participation please contact asha@edu-fy.com.au .