Jesús C. Guillén

Teacher and researcher 

"Executive functions are essential for success in life."

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We can all improve, we can learn throughout our lives, we share another story. It has been seen that babies in the first six months are able to differentiate phonemes, sounds of any language, from Mandarin Chinese to Spanish and English, through statistical and inferential learning in their brains. However, in the second half, they specialize in the sounds to which they are exposed; Around the eighth or tenth month, they only differentiate the sounds to which they are exposed at home — they have become cultural listeners. We have plastic brains, social brains, unique brains. Do we take these characteristics into account in education?

Neuro-education is a field of study, an integrative, transdisciplinary approach in which knowledge provided by neuroscience comes together. Due to the development of brain visualization technologies, we can analyze people's brain function while they calculate, create, cooperate, play, get excited or read. This is important, but that knowledge must be integrated with those provide it: psychology and pedagogy. What is the objective? Improve teaching and learning processes based on knowledge of brain function. We choose four issues that we understand as important. The first, linked to brain development, has been seen that the defect is harmful, not that the excess is beneficial in early childhood, from one to three and in adolescence. It has been verified that there is a process of reorganization at the base brain level; neuroscience has demonstrated that lack of social interaction and affection affects brain development. It has also been verified that disadvantaged socioeconomic status adversely affects the correct development of the cerebral cortex. It is not known exactly why — if due to stress, lack of stimuli, poor diet, lack of affection, but it harms. On the other hand, excess, stress caused by over-stimulation of babies can be very harmful, especially in regions of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, the home of the rational. This phase from zero to three is important. And in adolescence, there is spectacular brain reorganization, probably the reason why we see these impulsive behaviors in teenagers, this need for reward: it is due to that time lag in the prefrontal cortex maturing, which is the home of rational thought that does not stop growing until our 20s. With regard to the maturing of the limbic system, we believe that the best strategy to tackle adolescence is information.

"Executive functions are essential for success in life."

Neuroscientists are suggesting that teenagers do not need information, they are not aware of the decisions they make. They need self-regulation. And self-regulation is being worked on over time, with good emotional education programs. Neuroscientists suggest, for example, that when starting to read, phonology is very important. This correspondence between sounds, phonemes and letters and graphemes, more than the overall method being used. Or when beginning to learn mathematics. Years ago it was believed that we were born with a blank brain, a blank slate, but it has been proven that newborn babies have a kind of innate numerical logic: they are capable of differentiating different groups of small objects — two compared with three, with no need to count them. They are able to identify basic arithmetic, in a scenario you put down an object, you lower the curtain, they watch as you put down another, you raise the curtain and instead of there being two objects — the logical calculation — 1 + 1 = 2, there is just one, and are surprised because it seemed impossible. That research also suggests very relevant aspects related to emotions: cannot separate the emotional from the cognitive. With respect to attention, neuroscientists are showing us that it is not a unique construct, but there are different attention networks: an alert network, an orientation network, and one that is especially important: executive attention, which allows us to be focused on tasks, suppressing irrelevant stimuli. And what can we do in practice to improve this important executive attention for study and learning? As researchers are showing us, there is specific recreational software that works on these issues, but mindfulness if also importance, as is exercise; four-minute breaks, so that students can move, are enough to improve concentration during subsequent tasks.

From the point of view of neuroeducation, learning from, in and for life is essential. And what is the critical factor that research suggests to us? It has a name. It is called "executive brain functions." These are the complex cognitive functions that differentiate us from other species, which allow us to plan and to make appropriate decisions. They are essential for to perform everyday life well, and essential for students' academic performance.

Researchers have seen that executive functions are essential for success in life. If I don't know how to control myself, I will struggle in a traffic jam, but I will also struggle when trying to resolve a work conflict or a personal conflict, and I will find it hard to be focused trying to solve a mathematical problem. What is great is that all this can be learned; the recreational software that we talked about earlier, these computerized programs, visual discrimination tasks that allow us to work on that. But she believes after all these years that the best approach is to go beyond cognitive. We know what harms executive functions or their core points, the prefrontal cortex. What prevents you from making a good decision? Stress, bad health, loneliness. What can we do? Children and teenagers need to play, share, sing, dance, draw, move; we have to attend to the physical, social and emotional needs of students, or if you want, the disciplines traditionally considered as secondary linked to play, physical education, artistic education or emotional education. We are not saying that learning mathematics and reading is not important, but they would have to share a leading role with these other disciplines.

Jesús C. Guillén is a researcher and a postgraduate lecturer in neuroeducation at the University of Barcelona, and author of the blog: 'Escuela con cerebro'. He also collaborates with the postgraduate research group of the Institute of Education Sciences of the University of Barcelona, the Master's degree in neuroteaching at Rey Juan Carlos University and the Diploma 'neuroscience and emotions in learning' at the Villa María University in Argentina. For Guillén, neuroeducation is a step forward for active learning methodologies, as which promote the development of numerous life skills.