Neural Networks and the Common Core

Why the new Common Core Standards will lead to better teaching and learning.

By Bruce Anderson


X-ray of a head

Learning is a physical process—a change in the structure of the brain. What we know about how that process works can help us understand why one variety of learning assessment is better than another, and why one style of teaching is better than another. Neurophysiology tells us that good, fun, engaging teaching helps students build a rich and useful knowledge structure. That’s why the new Common Core State Standards, which will encourage this kind of teaching, will lead to better learning.

The Physical Nature of Learning—Making Connections

Learning creates changes in neural networks. Individual neurons (the core components of the nervous system) form connections with many other neurons to make these neural networks. The neurons and the connections between them, in this physical form, make up knowledge, skills, attitudes, and all the other attributes and capabilities of the brain. Learning depends on making connections, on elaborating the neural networks.

A Model for Understanding How Learning Happens

To understand how this process of learning works, you can think of a model that’s rather simplistic, but nevertheless seems to capture the essence of how the brain works and how learning occurs. Imagine individual nodes, which physically are localized networks of neurons. “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” The number 1492 is a node, a bunch of neurons linked together. That number, unlike most other numbers, has many connections (via physical neural networks) to other nodes, other ideas and knowledge throughout the brain (Columbus, Queen Isabella, Terra Incognita, and so on). That’s the nature of knowledge. But the aspect of this model that’s crucial for us, is the connections between the nodes. Those connections have strengths. Every time a connection is used, it gets stronger. If it’s not used for a period of time, it gets weaker, and may fail altogether. And nodes that are not connected don’t have a useful relation with each other. Learning consists of making new nodes, making new connections between them, and making the connections stronger. And different kinds of teaching and learning create different patterns of connections, which can be richer and more elaborate, or leaner and more sparse.

Why Testing Matters

Here is where the nature of learning and the consequences of testing meet. Since 2002, students and teachers in the United States have been assessed by standardized tests. These standardized tests have been, in the main, poor in quality and focused on rote learning. There has been a huge emphasis on this kind of testing, and the stakes for schools and teachers have been very high indeed. The current form of standardized testing encourages “teaching to the test,” and it discourages imaginative teaching that’s not tightly focused on testable outcomes.

Our understanding of how the brain works tells us that rote learning is the least effective way to educate children. Going back to our previous discussion, we find that rote learning is deficient because it doesn’t create rich and elaborate neural networks. Nodes and links are crucial, and rote learning creates relatively few nodes and relatively few links. The links it does create are very strong, because they’ve been rehearsed over and over. But they’re not attached to anything much, and so they’re not available for complicated learning tasks and applications in the real world. I believe that this is the primary reason that this kind of learning, and the current form of standardized testing that enforces it, has been so widely criticized by people and organizations like the NEA and Bill Gates.

The Common Core is a Better Fit for the Way We Learn

The good news is that 45 states have decided to adopt a much more highly developed assessment scheme, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Similar standards are likely to come for science and social studies. This is good news for neural networks, because the focus of the Common Core standards is to move away from low-level rote learning toward higher-level learning outcomes.

For example, in English there will be no prescribed reading list, and students will be able to read a wider variety of prose and fiction. In writing, the emphasis is on logical arguments based on claims, solid reasoning, and relevant evidence, rather than hitting the points on a simplistic rubric. In mathematics, pupils will be expected to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, model with mathematics, and achieve much more in the way of sophisticated mathematical thinking, as opposed to memorizing formulas and the like. The Common Core standards call for teaching that engages higher cognitive functions and causes the brain to form complex knowledge structures.

Teachers in 45 states are soon going to be released from the strictures of present-day standardized testing. And we know, from the science of the brain and how learning occurs, that teaching that conforms to the Common Core standards will be a better fit for how the brain works. Learning and teaching will be more fun and more interesting, and our scholars will be better prepared for the rapidly changing world they will encounter when they’re out of school.

Additional Lesson Planet Resources:

Adapting to the Common Core standards can seem challenging. Here are some resources from Lesson Planet that can help you make the change.

Collaborative Discussion: Common Core Basics for Back to School

The Common Core standards encourage a collaborative learning approach to speaking and listening in the ELA classroom. This article will show you how to train your students in sophisticated communication skills that will help prepare them for the new world they’re entering.

Dive Into the Common Core with Opinion Pieces

Talk about deep, engaging, cognitively intense learning! A new writing standard in the Common Core calls for pupils to learn to express and defend an opinion in writing. This article will give you lots of ideas for engaging learners in a skill they will need in a fast-evolving world.

Why the Common Core?

Besides building their brain structures, there are many reasons that the Common Core standards will benefit our pupils. This article will provide you with good background for the change, and why it’s being made.