The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg

The Learning Brain, Memory and Brain Development in Children by Torkel Klingberg is a great introduction to neuroscience for any teacher interested in the working capacity and memory of her students. Just as teachers learn from their students when problems arise, scientists learn about brain function limitations through injuries, lesions, and viruses. These aberrant cases cover a range of topics on growth and development as well as gene activity in typically developing children and those with ADHD, Asperger’s, dyscalculia, dyslexia and more. Klingberg cites cases from the classroom and from neuroscience’s history to demonstrate the different memory processes and problems that occur in The Learning Brain.

Klingberg begins by explaining the important concept of Working Memory, the brain’s online, active part of our memory system used to do work in the present moment. Klingberg notes that Working Memory and Attention go hand in hand, as one cannot be working on a task without paying attention to it. Both of these functions utilize the front part of the brain located above the eyes, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in interpreting what the five senses take in as well as associating those sensations with prior experience. Therefore working memory includes holding information in the front of your mind, processing it and relating it to past experience by accessing long-term memory. This complicated process is part of our students’ daily lives during almost every hour of the day.

Teachers typically are most interested in semantic long-term memory, or fact learning. A vital brain structure of working and long-term memory is the hippocampus. Located in both hemispheres of the brain, the hippocampus is responsible for growing new brain cells, or neurons. These new neurons connect to existing ones strengthening the intricate web of connections. The more new cells, the more strongly connected the memories are in long-term memory. Yet long -term memory encompasses different categories: declarative memory, which can include episodic (personal experience), semantic (factual knowledge), and motor (muscle memory).

While lessons may be intriguing to students in the moment, Klingberg points out that neuroscientists have discovered it takes only a few days to forget about 80% of what was initially learned. Reviewing helps refresh memories, but an exact time sequence for review has not been determined. What has been discovered is the “spacing effect”, an prompt review soon after the original concept has been taught, along with repeated reviews spaced out evenly over time until about 90% of the input can be remembered consistently. Another important discovery for educators is that self-testing is one of the best ways to study, so instilling procedures for students to independently review information can be helpful to maintain concepts long-term. These practices strengthen neural connections and build a larger store of prior knowledge.

In addition to building long-term memory, Klingberg discusses the core concepts of math and reading and how they relate to working memory. Multiple, overlapping areas of the brain are active in math, reading, and working memory. Therefore children with strong working memory can have strong reading and math skills. Conversely, children with low working memories often have problems with math, reading and possibly attention. It has been found that about 50% of children with dyscalculia also have problems with reading and writing. Though there is great variation within these populations, Klingberg discusses cognitive training options and resources for teachers and parents to use. For example, the Number Race is a simple, online tool that can be used to detect dyscalculia in children aged 4-8 ( Other resources and topics to pique interest include stress, stimulating environments, brain training, music, and exercise.

Klingberg offers clear explanations of cognitive processes, practical resources, and foundational research articles for educators intrigued by the complicated processes of The Learning Brain.

Published by Oxford University Press, 2013


category: Book Reviews

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