This little series of blogs shared by Dr. Susan Clayton looks at learning from a different angle – the biology of learning…
The COVID virus is, in a sense, currently in control of this planet. I realize some will disagree with this claim however agree or disagree this pandemic is creating new and different lenses for viewing life on the planet. Education is no exception.
Many parents, children and youth, teachers and administrators are not liking what they once thought was fine in schooling. Newspapers and magazine articles are filled with stories chronicling the struggles of parents, children, school leaders and teachers trying to make distance learning work. See here, here, here, and here. Unwilling to deal with either the fear of illness or a continuation of what many experienced in the Spring version of remote learning, a growing number of parents are organizing what have become known as “pandemic pods” or micro schools where their children can interact with smaller numbers of their peers and work under the guidance of the “pod tutors”.
Regardless of who you are and what you believe about COVID, amongst all our diversity is a common ground: we all have a brain and the growing understanding we possess about the way the brain works can make all the difference when we consider how to create cultures that grow learning.
Schooling in North America for the first 200 plus years did not have the advantage that we have today – the technology to see inside our brains – how our brains work and in particular for all of us who are part of schooling – how our brains learn. This technology – PET scans, MRI’s, fMRI’s are some of the familiar machines, has been on the scene for 30 years and is in a constant state of refinement. We have known since the mid 1990’s that the brain is not particularly suited to current models of schooling. Schooling pre-COVID and now in COVID is not paying attention to what neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience are uncovering about the brain’s way of learning. Let’s unpack some of the discoveries using 3 questions: what is learning; why learn; and how do people’s brains learn? The answers to these questions cut across all ages, all ethnicities and cultures.
What is learning?
Please take a moment and observe the 2 trees:
- What are you noticing about each tree?
- Describe your observations in ‘bite size’ phrases.
A few responses:
- Lego tree is human made
- Forest is nature’s work
- Lego is mechanistic; forest is organic
What is learning, mechanistic or organic; human-made or nature’s work?
How you answer the question becomes the filter for what you read in this post – this is how our brains work. What you believe about learning become(s) the filter for everything and anything you read and hear about learning. I invite you to take a moment and recall from your memory what you believe about learning: how do people learn? And then read on.
A few pieces of neurobiology – aka: terminology
The human brain has 2 hemispheres; the left and the right. We are not more inclined to one or the other rather, we use both together.
The human brain has 4 lobes: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and temporal lobe. There is 1 of each on each side of our brain.
A few of the incredible roles of each lobe:
- Frontal lobe – move parts of our body at our will; think about the past; plan for the future; make decisions now; focus our attention; solve problems; ability to be aware of our thinking, learning and doing – the frontal lobe is like our command center.
- Parietal lobe – this is our association center; we manage our spatial awareness and orientation to our environment
- Occipital lobe – our vision center – there are cells in this lobe for colour, shapes, lines, triangles…
- Temporal lobe – our hearing center and our language center. You may be familiar with “Wernicke’s area”, critical for our speech and comprehending what others are saying. And familiar with “Broca’s area” where we produce our speech.
Please do not miss the fact that our brain works as a whole. We cannot be labelled as ‘primarily visual learners’ or auditory or kinesthetic – it takes a whole brain to learn.
Consider this example. (I encourage you to not ‘jump ahead’ of each step)
- I am going to ‘say’ a wordin print… it is a very familiar object.
- When you hear the word please consider what your brain had to do to know what this object is. The space between the word and the explanation indicates your time to think about what your brain had to do to remember this object.
The word: apple
- Given that each one of you will have learned to recognize an apple, each brain will begin with the part that was first introduced to ‘apple’.
- For those of you who tasted an apple as your first experience with an apple, that would likely be the first sense that flew into action in a nano-second.
- Maybe your first experience was seeing an apple; if so, your visual cortex would have been the first to activate… And by the time you did this little activity those memories have been laid down so deep that when you saw the word ‘apple’ it took about a nano-second to bring ‘apple’ to your conscious level.
Learning what an apple is: what it looks like, tastes like, smells like, feels like, and hears like when you bite into it – requires our 5 senses, 4 lobes and 2 hemispheres. In other words, our whole brain. Imagine if you believed you were a ‘visual’ learner and your schooling experiences built on this ‘strength’ for leaning ‘apple’. What might you have missed out about ‘apples’?
Neurons are our brain cells, the ones that do the work of learning. These number in the billions and their connections amongst each other number in the trillions. All human behavior can be traced to the communication between neurons. Let’s focus on this communication, the making “connections” that form neural networks – places where we ‘store’ are beliefs, values, things we learned that have ‘stuck’.
Learning and Memory are different
Learning is the act of making (and strengthening) connections between hundreds of thousands of neurons. Said another way: learning is dynamic. By dynamic we mean learning is the on-going process of changing existing neural networks; deleting some, adding new networks and/or adding onto existing networks. Learning is about linking neurons in new ways.
The bottom line: no change in networks, no learning. Eric Kandal is neuroscientist who won the Noble Peace Prize for discovering how our brains form memory. This is what he tells teachers, parents and children: “The whole function of education is to alter the brain”.
Using the “apple” to illustrate: once the learner has grasped the basics of “apple” – shape, colour, feel, taste and smell, connections to this basic ‘apple network’ can be made. For example learners explore how apples grow – on trees. And then maybe uncover the fact that there are different kinds of apples – colors, shapes, tastes, smells and then uncover and explore the concept of ‘orchards’; what is required to grow quality apples… Each new piece of information about apples, develops and strengthens the ‘apple network’.
Memory is the ability to reactivate and/or reconstruct the previously made connections in learning. If you cannot recall the difference between the lego tree and the forest tomorrow, you did not form a memory for this information; it did not ‘stick’. If you do remember you will not use the exact same words you used today; the 24 hour break between learning it and recalling it will have made some changes. Memory is impacted by space and time and our moment to moment experiences with our environment.
Said another way: what went into memory will not ‘come out of memory’ exactly the same. I did not ask you to memorize the responses I presented.
Using the “apple” to further illustrate: the teacher presents a task for the learners: “You sell apples to grocery stores. The produce managers want to know all about the size, color, taste, feel and smell of the apples you are selling and what the farmer does to ensure quality. Prepare, in writing, what you will include in your conversation with store managers about eh apples you are selling”.
The task requires learners to reactivate their ‘apple network’, that is, recall the concepts such as orchards, quality, apple basics – and organize the information into a written presentation that reflects their belief in their product.
Every learner will have the ‘basics’ of apple: a fruit, grows on trees, blooms appear in spring, fruit is ready in late summer to early fall… but, every presentation will be different because each learner’s experiences with apples is different.
Memorization then is different from memory: what goes in is exactly the same as what ‘comes out’. Thinking is not required. Consider the times tables, spelling, phone numbers… we need these at our disposal but they are not what will help us solve complex problems. Solving problems requires thinking in new ways, linking neurons in new ways.
Each learner then would likely benefit from memorizing the basics noted above but the impact of the presentation will suffer if this is all the learner can do.
A simple, and flippant answer is “because we can”. On the more serious note, nature’s first goal for our brains is the survival of its owner. Natural curiosity is a key driver of learning for survival and once that is settled, our brains are ready for adventure with the goal of finding out who we are and who we are in this world. Learning is a personal journey played out in the collective of our families, our community, our planet. Curriculum tends to stifle the adventure. Parents, this maybe something you are seeing with your children. Teachers, you know this happens and children, many of you are so ‘done’ with having your journey shuffled off to one side in the name of curriculum, assessments and report cards.
Note: The next blog will explore the role of meaning and emotion in learning. Our brains have so much to do 24/7/365 that they are not interested in what seems irrelevant to their owner’s life.
Fascinating as usual. One idea that jumped at me while reading the post is the fundamental similarity between learning and creativity. Each involves this act of strengthening and making new connections between hundreds of thousands of neurons- that is, linking neurons in new ways. I like dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp’s definition of creativity: “Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them.” To be an effective learner (or to be creative) is not simply an exercise in reflection of past experiences, but more about a reframing of experience. Surveying the vast repository of experiences and linking these “facts, fictions, and feelings” in a dynamic process. The more detail, richness and examples we can bring to a concept, the more deeply embedded into our brain those new learnings and creative concepts become. Perhaps it can be said that one of the most important aspects of learning (or creating) is the exercise of discerning which neural nodes should be highlighted and which should be re-evaluated.
When surveying the memory repository, one will find that the perceptions that were once so critical and impactful to him or her may no longer be of service. Only the learner can dim these neural nodes that once served an important and critical function.
Accordingly, learning is most effective when powered by learner passion, interests, and needs (Rich Ten Eyck core values/beliefs). I gather that the determining factors that participate in this discernment process are part and parcel with the learner’s perception: opinions, beliefs, preferences, goals, sense of purpose, style, etc that the learner is acutely aware of. In other words, learning can only be effective if this discernment is entirely determined by what the learner perceives as ‘me’.
I think the great intellectual challenge of a new educational paradigm is changing identity at scale. This changing of identity is an act of creativity, an act of learning: the process of inner transformation is itself a creative process, for through the process of advanced inner development, you are literally creating a new self (Michael Piechowski, “Is Inner Transformation a Creative Process?).
This changing identity is really the bottleneck right now in learning and education. Many young people coming of age today do not fit into dominant models of higher education and muddle their way through these these years, not because they are not interested in learning but because what they want to learn is not easily and readily available at these institutions (Charles Eisenstein, “Technologies of Reunion”).
I am up for the challenge of helping change the identity of schooling and education by creating these “communities of practice” where young students can cultivate the interpersonal skills, sincerity, cooperation, and empathy as well as technical and tactical competence in order to lead an interesting and creative life. Young students do not need to develop a creative life in order to understand how planets move, but perhaps do need it to understand what moves humans. And that is what will be key to survival in a transformed world.