Education & Neuroplasticity

by Bob Doman

What do you remember from last month, last year, a decade ago, or five decades ago? I still have some vivid memories from college over fifty years ago, and none of them have anything to do with what occurred in a classroom.

I take every chance I get to speak with young people graduating from high school or who are attending or have just finished college.These talks help reinforce for me the value of intensity or the results of the lack of it in education.  I ask these young people whose education should be fresh in their minds very simple questions about everything from geography and science to civics and history. I’m no longer surprised when many of these “A” students cannot answer even the most rudimentary questions, the answers to which should be essential to simply functioning in our society. What happened?

All learning involves impacting and changing the brain. The mechanism for this change is neuroplasticity. The world of education has largely ignored the basics of neuroplasticity even though the fundamentals have been known for many decades.

Sadly, the term neuroplasticity has become synonymous with the simple statement – the brain changes.  This is true, the brain constantly changes based on the input it receives and how it is used. But to take advantage of neuroplasticity we must understand and pay attention to the fundamentals of neuroplasticity. The fundamentals are not difficult to understand, but as mentioned, are very rarely employed in education.

Targeted Input

The first fundamental of neuroplasticity is providing the child’s brain with input that is targeted to them. We optimize neuroplasticity when we provide the brain with targeted input. Targeted input simple means that which is significant, relevant, and which specifically fits the individual.  If we try to apply this to a typical classroom we are unfortunately far away from targeted. In a typical classroom of about thirty children, we have thirty individuals, each with their own experiential background, level of related knowledge, their own unique learning and processing abilities, and of course various levels of interest or lack of such in the subject. Classes are often being taught by someone who is merely following a one size fits all set curriculum and who may not have a real interest in the subject themselves.


The second component of neuroplasticity is frequency.  

We grow brain connections when we supply the brain with specific targeted input with sufficient frequency, often enough to produce relatively permanent change. One of the most glaring examples of the lack of frequency in typical education is in math. Only twenty-four percent of high school graduates in the United States are proficient in math. If they had in fact learned and retained what was “taught,” the proficiency rate would theoretically be very high. (The present Common Core math is a failure, as was the “new math” of the sixties from which it is based.) In truth math outcomes have never been good because there is almost never enough review, i.e. frequency. Case in point: the year students take Algebra, their overall math score tends to drop. Why? Not enough use of or review of previously taught processes.  The majority of what is taught in school is never to be seen again after the exam, the exam which is supposed to be an indicator of what was “learned.” Most students, even the good ones, do not approach the content with even the intention of really learning it.  The intention is to pass the exam, because they generally are not interested in or see the relevance of the material to them. If you don’t know the information weeks or months, let alone years, later one might question if it was in fact ever learned. What was the point? 


Going hand in hand with frequency is the third component of neuroplasticity–duration.  The input needs to come in over time to help grow those connections that change the brain and produce memory. That period of time generally takes us back to frequency, because in one session as we increase duration, we lose intensity. Short and sweet. The less targeted the input, the less the impact on the brain and the greater the duration needed to impact the brain. However, the more targeted the input, the higher the intensity and  the lower the requirement for high frequency and long duration.


Intensity, the fourth component of neuroplasticity, is extremely important and the least realized of the fundamentals of neuroplasticity in most schools, classrooms, and even homeschools.  Mentally go back to one of your classrooms, be it from elementary school, middle or high school, and hopefully to a lesser degree college. What did that classroom look like?  Kids half asleep, kids doodling, kids looking out the window, kids listening to what was going on in the hallway, some staring blankly at the teacher, and perhaps a few who were interested in what the teacher was saying and were paying attention. There rarely is much of any intensity. Intensity is student specific, a reflection of how targeted the input is, what you bring to the moment, to the class, to the subject. This brings to mind the paradox of some “learning disabled” children struggling with every subject in school and failing, but who can tell you the name of every major league baseball player and their stats. Often, it’s all about intensity, to what degree what is being taught interests, fits, or targets the student. Is what is being taught targeted to the student? Is what is being taught being presented in a way that involves and excites the student? 

The typical educational, curriculum-based model doesn’t really work, if measured by the time invested by both the school and the student (time which can never be reclaimed) and expense relative to what is actually learned.  Our brains demand something different.

Our brains only learn and change through the mechanism of neuroplasticity. Go back to those long-term memories and think about what they had in common.  The odds are the common component is intensity.  

Where is the student in the equation? 

When instructing parents or other educators, I always address intensity.  Do your best to target the student. Do your best to understand them, know them, interact, and observe them. I even suggest that they imagine a number in the center of the student’s forehead that constantly fluctuates, that rates their intensity on a scale of 1-10. 10 is such high intensity that learning is almost instantaneous; it’s an experience that happens once and you never forget it. The odds are you’re not going to see a 10, but you can shoot for a 9. Bring down the number to 7 or 8 and learning is occurring, but you are going to need a lot of frequency and duration to change that brain. At 5 or 6 the impact on the brain is getting to be marginal at best, and below 5 everyone would be better off taking a nap. This is real, and the truth is we are kidding ourselves and wasting our children’s time and turning them off to learning if we are trying to cram information into a brain that’s not being targeted.

One of the major issues related to focusing on curriculum and largely leaving the child out of the equation is that we miss the fact and the reality that we have the ability to actually change the student. We have the means to make every student smarter. We can develop short-term memory and then build on that foundation and develop working memory, which is now appropriately being called the new IQ. And then the working memory creates executive function, which is the higher-level cognitive function that permits us to control and orchestrate all our cognitive functions and behaviors. But the fact is that “education” ignores the individual to such an extent that these incredibly important fundamentals that affect how well we learn, think, and function in every aspect of our lives are lost. This is a travesty. 

We need to put the child, the student, at the top of the equation, not leave them out of the equation other than to give them a grade that reflects our failure.

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 37 No. 1 , 2024 ©NACD

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