I wrote most of these articles and conference reports while I was doing my M.Ed.(CI). Originally put up on the website TeachAsiaOnline.com (defunct since 2009), I have decided to archive them here as I think most of the information is still relevant and useful for others. (2012) I'm now picking up where I left off to write about more recent seminars I attended.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Brain-Based Learning in Thailand

Introduction *  Literature Review * Learning Theories * Thailand * The Gift Bag * Conclusion

Brain-based Learning has received a lot of attention in Thailand recently. Prime Minister Thaksin himself is involved in all kinds of new initiatives to create a new generation of more intelligent Thai children. “To improve the country’s competitive ability, we need more quality people”, Thaksin said. (Khwankhom)

The first time I heard the term brain-based Learning, I
wondered what other types of learning there are. Brain-based learning as opposed to what? After research, I now understand that brain-based learning offers children the learning environment that is suitable for the development stage of their brains.

In Thailand the Office of Knowledge Management and Development (OKMD) was set up to support the intellectual development of Thai children. Its latest project is a gift bag handed out to all newborn babies in the country through the National Institute for Brain-based Learning (NBL), one of the branches of the OKMD.

In this paper I will research the theories of brain-based learning and explore their application in Thailand. I will use the earlier-mentioned gift bag as an example to analyse how it complies with the principles of brain-based learning and examine the implementation strategy that is be applied in Thailand.

Brain-based Learning Literature Review
In his book “Human Brain and Human Learning” (1983) Leslie Hart claims we need to know more about the brain in order to create an effective learning environment. If we don’t know how the brain works, how can we know the best way to stimulate children to develop themselves optimally? He thinks the education system might even be brain-antagonistic instead of brain-based; if the learning environment would be incompatible with the development stage of the brain it might actually be damaging future development.
He promotes doing more research on the workings of the brain in order to create a more effective learning environment.

Caine and Caine
Caine and Caine wrote their book “Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain” in 1994. Supporting Hart’s idea’s about the need to know the working of the brain, they defined the 12 Mind / Brain Learning Principles as follows:

1. The brain is a complex adaptive system.
The brain functions on many levels, simultaneously and interacts with the environment. Therefore, education MUST come to terms with the complex, multifaceted nature of the human learner.

2. The brain is a social brain.
Famous people like Social Constructivist Vygotski have made us aware that people are part of society and learn through interactions with society. Learning, therefore, is profoundly influenced by the nature of the social relationships within which people find themselves.

3. The search for meaning is innate.
People want to make sense of their experiences, develop relationships and a sense of identity. They want to explore their potential.

4. The search for meaning occurs through" patterning".
In patterning we include schematic maps and categories, both acquired and innate. People want information that is related to what makes sense to them. Really effective education must give learners an opportunity to formulate their own patterns of understanding.

5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
What we learn is influenced and organized by emotions and mindsets involving expectancy, personal biases and prejudices, self-esteem and the need for social interaction. Hence an appropriate emotional climate is indispensable to sound education.

6. Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.
The brain consists of a left and right part, but both parts are active in every activity. The brain reduces information into parts and perceives holistically at the same time. Good training and education recognize this, for instance, by introducing natural "global" projects and ideas from the very beginning.

7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
The brain responds to information it is directly aware of as well as information that is further away, like for example the attitude and beliefs of the teacher. Educators, therefore, can and should pay extensive attention to all facets of the educational environment.

8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
Learning occurs consciously and unconsciously. Understanding may occur much later that the actual experience and sensory input. It also means that educators must organize what they do so as to facilitate that subsequent unconscious processing of experience by students. In practice this includes proper design of the context, the incorporation of reflection and metacognitive activities and ways to help learners creatively elaborate on the ideas, skills and experiences. Teaching largely becomes a matter of helping learners make visible what is invisible.

9. We have at least two ways of organizing memory.
There is a distinction between taxon and locale memories. The first is for recalling relatively unrelated information and is motivated by reward and punishment, the other allows instant recall of experience and is motivated by novelty. It is through a combination of both approaches to memory that meaningful learning occurs. Thus meaningful and meaningless information are organized and stored differently.

10. Learning is developmental.
There are predetermined sequences of development in childhood, including windows of opportunity for laying down the basic hardware necessary for later learning. That is why new languages as well as the arts ought to be introduced to children very early in life. In many respects there is no limit to growth and to the capacities of humans to learn more. Neurons continue to be capable of making new connections throughout life.

11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
The brain/mind learns optimally - it makes maximum connections - when appropriately challenged in an environment which encourages taking risks. That is why we must create and maintain an atmosphere of relaxed alertness, involving low threat and high challenge.

12. Every brain is uniquely organized.
Everyone’s brain is different, therefore it is important to appreciate that learners are different and need choice, while ensuring that they are exposed to a multiplicity of inputs. Multiple intelligences and vast ranges in diversity are, therefore, characteristic of what it means to be human. (Caine and Caine)

Atkinson and Shiffrin
source: Huitt
The model illustrates the Atkinson and Shiffrin’s Stage Theory about the workings of the human brain.

According to this theory, external stimuli trigger our senses, which either forget the stimuli or pass on the signal to our short-term memory. To make sure a stimulus is not forgotten, it must be interesting or activate a known pattern. It will stay in the short-term memory for only up to 20 seconds unless it is repeated. The short-term memory has a limited capacity; when presented with information, the learner has to pick up the important pieces only, and organise the information offered properly. Techniques like chunking or grouping of data can help. After this it will either be stored in the long-term memory or forgotten. To store it in long-term memory, the brain uses a variety of techniques that include elaboration and coding. When information is retrieved, it is usually moved from long-term to short-term memory, after which a response will be generated. (Huitt)

Rushton and Larkin
Recent findings are supporting teachers to better design classroom environments that encourage the child’s innate capacity to learn. Rushton and Larkin (2001) state that brain research will “help provide educators with strategies that can stimulate specific areas of the brain (i.e. the thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and the frontal cortex) in order to gain the learner’s attention, foster meaningful connections with prior understanding, and maximize both short and long-term memory” (p. 26). In their article, these authors compared developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) to several brain-researched principles that they extracted from the literature. (Rushton 2003)

New research on how the growing mind appears to bear out the value of … [the] Constructivist approach to early childhood education where environments are designed to gain the learner's attentions, foster meaningful connections with prior understanding, and maximize both short- and long-term memory through patterns and active problem solving. Each unique learner needs to feel challenged, but not fearful, so that stimulating experiences result in an exchange of ideas and promote deeper understanding. (Rushton 2001)

Rushton and Larkin’s list with DAP’s is quite similar to Caine and Caine’s “12 Mind / Brain Learning Principles” mentioned earlier, although the grouping is not the same.

After doing this research is has become clear that to me brain-based learning isn’t something new; it has been around a long time and is under continuous development, incorporating the results of ongoing research.

Based on the literature available, I would like to summarise the key issues for early-childhood brain-based learning as follows:

1. Multiple senses and intelligences
Learning should comprise a wide variety of stimuli that engages many senses and intelligences.

source: NBL
2. Windows of opportunity
The so-called windows of opportunity should be utilised in full. Refer to Figure 2 Windows of Opportunity below. There is a right time to learn certain skills and emotional control that optimises the development of the brain.

3. Social activity
Learning is a social activity; children should learn together with caretakers and peers and have the chance to interact with them and observe them as models.

4. Challenging but safe
Learning should be challenging and get the learner’s attention, but not threatening. The learning environment should be safe and stimulating.

5. Different stages of development
Each child is unique and develops different skills and emotions at its own speed. Therefore, the environment should allow for a wide range of stimuli from simple to complex.

Brain-based Learning within the Learning Theories
Brain-based learning is in line with the Cognitive Learning Theory. Cognitivists believe they can learn about cognitive processes by observing individual responses to different stimuli. They attempt to model “…how information is received, assimilated, stored, and recalled…” If we can understand how this works, we can use suitable teaching methods to help the learner process the information provided. (McGriff)

What the cognitive model in my opinion does not stress enough is the influence of the environment, which includes the parents, peers, caretakers and teachers, on the construction of knowledge and learning. Famous people like Social Constructivist Vygotski have made us aware that people are part of society and learn through interactions with society. (Caine and Caine) Children at a young age learn a lot through the modeling effect, as e.g. described by Bandura’s in his Social Cognitivist Theory, and interacting with the people around them. According to Bandura, the four steps for effective modeling are getting attention, retention (remembering), reproduction (doing it) and motivation. (Bandura)

Brain-based learning is clearly not in line with the Behaviourist Learning Theory as Behaviourists see the brain as a black box. However, in a child’s development I think there will always be a place for classical or operant conditioning to stimulate the right behaviour.

Brain-based Learning in Thailand
Brain-based Learning has received a lot of attention in Thailand recently. Prime Minister Thaksin himself is involved in all kinds of new initiatives to create a new generation of more intelligent Thai children. “To improve the country’s competitive ability, we need more quality people”, Thaksin said. In Thailand, brain-based learning principles were previously applied in the rural healthcare centres at district level since 1999 in the form of developmental toys and books for children. (Khwankhom)

The Office of Knowledge Management and Development was founded in 2004 “with key common objective to pull out new ideas and creativities from every strings of the brain.” (OKMD) Its eight branches are the Thailand Knowledge Park (a library), National ICT Learning Center, National Discovery Museum Institute, Thailand Creative & Design Center, Center for Promotion of National Strength on Moral Ethics and Values, National Center for the Gifted and Talented, Thailand Center of excellence for Life Science and the National Institute for Brain-based Learning (NBL).

“The “National Institute for Brain-based Learning (NBL)” will give each newborn Thai baby a gift bag containing a handbook on childcare for the parents. The objective is to help make the parents understand the needs of the child regardless of how smart of their children are, whether less or overly clever than their ages. NBL will provide all information and how to do a proper child care which will be able to help developing children’s brains according to their ages.” (OKMD)

At the moment the handing out of gift bags is limited to two pilot provinces Chiang Mai and Sri Sa Ket, but by the end of the year every newborn baby will be provided with a bag, about 700,000 bags per year. (Khwankhom)

The Gift Bag
The gift bag contains a blanket, tape or CD, toys and books.

The blanket has different colours and textures, with hidden materials inside that make sounds when touched. The blanket stimulates sight, hearing and touch. A tape or CD with lullabies will help the child to “learn the language through rhymes, vocals and rhythms” and will bring mother and child closer together. Toys (mobile, rattle) will stimulate the child’s motor development, sight and hearing. (Khwankhom) To read to the child, the bag provides a soft pictorial book made of plastic (it can even be used while bathing) and a book with rhymes, pictures and tales. Both will stimulate language development, sight and hearing. On behalf of the parents there is a manual to explain how a child’s brain develops and how to stimulate the child’s development, together with a book on the advantages of breast feeding.

The gift bag more or less matches what I defined as the key issues for early childhood brain-based learning (above).

1. Multiple senses and intelligences
The gift bag caters for three senses (sight, hearing, and touch) and several intelligences (e.g. musical, language, interpersonal).

2. Windows of opportunity
It fits the windows of opportunity for children of that age for motor development, vision, basic vocabulary, social development and emotional control, but not the windows of opportunity for mathematics and logic and second language.

3. Social activity
*If* the parents or caretakers (in Thailand most women of child-bearing age and their partners work (LABORSTA); their children are usually taken care of by grandparents or other family members) and child play together, the gift bag facilitates social interaction. Parents, peers and caretakers can model the required behaviour and ways to play with the toys for the children to copy. Also, the children’s motivation will increase by playing together; it’s more fun.

4. Challenging but safe
The contents of the gift bag will surely interest children with its bright colours and sounds, and offer them novelty and challenge *if* they are used in a safe and proper environment (e.g. not too noisy, fresh air, food and drinks provided).

5. Different stages of development
The gift bag offers quite a range of toys and books suitable for the range of 0 to 18 months. Different children will be ready to play with certain toys when they’re ready for it.

Implementation strategy for the gift bag
To ensure a smooth and proper implementation of the gift bag, I would like to highlight the following key issues:
  • With the gift bag a manual is provided to explain how a child’s brain develops and how to stimulate the child’s development, so the information is there. However, I wonder how many parents or caretakers will read the book. Most people don’t read the manual when they buy something new, and I would be surprised if many people would actually read this book. It will not be enough to hand out the bag; the receivers should also be instructed on what to do with it.
  • Also, I think the biggest challenge is to convince parents and caretakers to play with the contents of the gift bag together with the children. It is much easier to hand over the toys, books and blanket to the child and let the child enjoy itself with it. That would however defeat one of the main purposes, i.e. to stimulate the child and make it a social activity playing together, bonding and modeling. Therefore, it is vital to make sure that the caretakers actually read the book and make time to sit down and play with the children.
  • According to the Nation, the Public Health Ministry will follow up on implementation by sending out caravans carrying health personnel on home visits to the parents and babies around the country. (Khwankhom) I agree that a home visit is necessary; it’s the only way to check the actual environment of the child and give advise on improvements. It would be best if a first home visit takes place soon after birth; especially the book and the lullabies can be used from the baby’s first day. A repeat visit after a few months would be a good idea, so that the caretakers can receive feedback on how they are doing and what they can improve.
  • This raises another question however, because there’s already a mechanism for newborn health care in place in Thailand. 92 % of pregnant women receive at least 4 antenatal visits and 98 % of the babies are born in hospitals or health centres, of which there are almost 10,000 in Thailand. (WHO) It would be easy to provide the gift bag in advance in hospitals and health centres that are already there. Their staff should do the follow up instead of the caravan mentioned above; they know their customers already. 700,000 newborns a year, about 2,000 a day, will mean 1-2 home visits per health care centre per week, so they may require more staff. The 2 % of children that are not born in hospital and 8 % of women that do not receive antenatal care should be invited to visit a health centre before the child is born or may be visited at home if that is not possible. In these cases the gift bag is the second priority; proper health care for themselves and their newborn is more important.
  • Either way the health personnel will have to be properly trained, not only in how to use the gift bag, but also in the theory of brain-based learning and most importantly, how to motivate people to use the gift bag.

After the Gift Bag
This gift-bag program provides for the first 18 months of children’s life. What is going to happen after these 18 months? Will brain-based learning find its way in a curriculum for kindergartens? In the Thai Education Act (ONEC) there is no curriculum for kindergartens. The curriculum for schools on higher levels is supposedly child-centered, which implicitly covers part of the theory of brain-based learning. Activities of the branches of the OKMD seem to be directed at extra-curricular, out-of-school activities. Where is the integration of brain-based learning in regular education?

And, will there be a chance for children that are too old for the gift bag (over 18 months) to somehow catch up, or will they be regarded as a lost generation? If we have to wait until the newborn babies are part of the work force, Thailand will have a long wait. I hope the government will quickly come up with a plan to also educate the older children according to these brain-based principles. But even then it is doubtful that it will work soon; the Thai Education Act of 1999 has still not been fully implemented 6 years after date. Maybe that should be done first to see whether and how education improves, and whether Thailand can produce the “quality people” it requires.

Even though Brain-based learning is not a new theory, it is under continuous development and research keeps finding out more and more about the workings of the brain. As the theory develops and more facts become known, parents, caretakers and educators will be able to stimulate and teach children more efficiently and effectively.

The Thai government has made a start with free gift bags for newborn children, a good idea that follows the principles of brain-base learning, but it will need a proper implementation to be successful. A follow-up strategy for children over 18 months is the next vital step. The future will tell whether this approach can contribute to an increasingly intelligent, higher quality Thai population. How that will to be measured is another question.

Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Ciffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1977.
Brain Based Learning (NBL). 2005. NBL. Web. 14 August 2005.
Caine, R. and G. Caine. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Country fact file on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health situation : Thailand. February 2005. WHO. Web. 22 August 2005.
Hart, Leslie. Human Brain and Human Learning. 1983.
Huitt, W. The information processing approach to cognition. Educational Psychology Interactive. 2003. Valdosta State University. Web. August 2005. 
Khwankhom, Arthit. Infant gift sets launched to spur mental development. Bangkok: Nation Multimedia Group, 29 July 2005: 2A
McGriff, S.J. ISD Knowledge Base - Cognitivism. 27 October 2001. Web. 16 July 2005.
National Education Act of B.E.2542 (1999). Office of the National Education Commission (ONEC). Web. 15 July 2005. 
Office of Knowledge Management and Development. About OKMD. 2005. OKMD. Web. 14 August 2005.
Rushton, Stephen P., Janice Eitelgeorge and Ruby Zickafoose. “Connecting Brian Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning Theory to Brain/Mind Principles: Implications for Early Childhood Educators.” Early Childhood Education Journal. 2003, Vol. 31, No. 1.
Rushton, S. & E. Larkin. “Connecting developmentally appropriate practices to brain research.” Early Childhood Education Journal. 2001, 29(1): 25–33.
Total and economically active population, by age group. 2004. LABORSTA Internet. Web. 14 Aug 2005.

(c) cafavier, 2005-2011

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!