Contextual Cues in Helping Students Learn

In any given classroom, a student’s mental and emotional state is subtly influenced by a number of nonverbal signals known as contextual cues that inform the student body of “who we are, and what we are doing.” From the traditional school chairs and dry erase board to the color scheme and decor, a classroom is designed with dozens of contextual cues large and small that affect the social setting of the environment and encourage students to listen, focus and put their best effort forward. Today, educators are experimenting with the results of recent breakthroughs in how nonverbal contextual cues affect behavior and cognition that are likely to reshape the way the we think about learning spaces at every level of education.

Much of the most exciting advancements in educational techniques and contextual cues is related to how the human mind perceives spatial relations and how these perceptions effect how we think and learn in a particular environment. Ever since scientists found the part of the brain that processes facial images differently from other spacial object (a region known as the fusiform facial area), there has been rapid advancement in mapping out other contextual, object-specific responses in the neural wiring of the visual cortext. A particularly important study was released in the journal Science recently by David Cox and Ethan Meyers. They discovered precisely which neurons lit up with different objects and, more importantly, that this contextual processing of objects has a direct relationship with cognition in general.

These findings are beginning to have a dramatic effect on how educators layout their classrooms so that this contextual processing can be used to maximize a student’s ability to process and retain new information. It has long been understood that the mind can only process a certain amount of information at any given time, but it has now been proven that the mind can become quickly overwhelmed by objects and spatial reasoning as well. As a cluttered classroom causes more neural pathways in the visual cortext to light up, there comes a point at which this contextual processing becomes overwhelmed, resulting in a kind of cognitive washout in which it is particular difficult to maintain focus and learn. This had led to the adoption of learner-centered instructional spaces that are rapidly replacing the industrial model of 20th century classrooms.

In 2009, the Australian Ministry Council of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs officially adopted a policy entitled Learning Spaces Framework that calls for the complete overhaul of the nation’s public classrooms in favor of new layouts that take full advantage of the role that contextual processing enhances learning, memory and other cognitive functions. This program includes extensive plans for the re-purposing of existing learning space with designs that are inspired by the most recent findings of how contextual processing and spatial reasoning affect learning. As most of the public schools in the West have yet to formally adopt these principles through official policies, educators and researchers alike are viewing Australia’s ambitious new policy as something of a experiment on how effective these changes truly are on a massive scale.

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