If you read my colleagues’ recent blogs, you know that we at McMillan have embraced the Fish Philosophy to bring more joy and productivity to our work. As a result, a lot of fish images, fish jokes, and fish stories have filled our inboxes. One recent image caught my attention – it was a fish tank on wheels that was being “driven” by a goldfish. The image was from a study done by Ronen Segev at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. As the goldfish changed position within the tank, the Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV for short) changed course in response. Over a series of trials and rewards, the fish learned how to navigate the vehicle towards a goal, a brightly colored box painted on the floor. With further exposure and practice, the smart little fish was able to dodge obstacles and increase his speed towards the goal.
As happens on the internet, this study led me to another, this one conducted by neuroscientist Kelly Lambert at the University of Richmond. Her study was similar, only she used rats instead of fish. As you might guess, the rats were also quite good at learning to drive, but her study included another layer of investigation – the contribution of the environment to learning. The driver rats were divided into 2 groups and housed quite differently. One group lived in very simple, standard, uninteresting cages. The other group had much greater stimulation, think Disneyland for rats, in the form of space, toys, and structures. The groups were tested to see if their environments resulted in different learning outcomes, and they did. The rats from the more enriched environments showed superior learning to the less “privileged” ones. Lambert concluded 2 things. First, the higher-performing rats were demonstrating neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and grow, much like our fish friends. Second, the increased environmental stimulation strengthened the neurons within the rats’ brains and allowed them to form new ones, contributing to enhanced learning.
As an educator, the growing body of research regarding the brain’s neuroplasticity gives me great hope. The brain, as it takes in new information and experiences, adapts and grows, forming new neural pathways. The more a neural pathway is used, the stronger it becomes. The fish experiments remind us of the importance of positive reinforcements and repetition in learning. As we see in the driving rat research, a more stimulating environment also leads to enhanced learning. Novelty is the brain’s friend. The relevancy of these findings has obvious implications for human learning – explicit instruction, a nurturing, stimulating environment, and opportunities for guided practice and application are key. It sounds simple, so let’s just do it.
But of course, it’s not that simple; there are some hurdles to overcome. Not all students learn at the same pace, so we may need to adjust the amount of time, guidance and practice afforded. A learning environment that doesn’t provide for these differences can and does impede the learning process. Students who find learning or the social experience of school more challenging often encounter stress and anxiety, which interfere with attention, information processing, and memory. Further, these students may not be receiving the encouragement and positive feedback that we know lead to optimal learning. Finally, under-resourced schools with limited materials and larger class sizes often lack the stimulating environments that the brain finds so critical to engagement and achievement.
While the research is exciting and promising, its application to the classroom is often hindered by a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and inequities beyond the control of the most dedicated educators and parents. But we know what works. Let us keep the lessons learned from our fish and rat subjects top of mind the next time we have the opportunity to impact our children’s learning experience and environment. Returning to our Fish Philosophy, we are encouraged to choose our attitude, to take responsibility for how we respond to the challenges we encounter, big or small. I choose to embrace the goal of a better educational experience with the enthusiasm and commitment that gave rise to the Fish Philosophy initially. I will keep swimming in the direction of quality, equitable, and nurturing teaching and learning for all our children, and I invite you to swim with me!