The neuroscience of learning has a chequered past. In 2006 Bruer wrote a paper which said that Neuroscientists were “overzealous” in thinking that their work could solve societal problems around education, and advised them to “stop speculating” about the impact of their work and what it meant. Some educators still hold that ironclad scepticism of the neuroscience of learning today.
And yet mainstream society has been quite willing to accept complete myths about the brain. We do not only use 10% of our brains (we use 100%), intelligence is not fixed, there is little evidence for “learning styles” despite the persistent chatter to the contrary.
There are teachers right now still discussing how to tailor materials to fit a “visual” or “kinaesthetic” learning style, whereas as Frank Cofield puts it:
“We do students a serious disservice by implying they only have one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.”
These things are not harmless. Catering to strengths already developed without exploring and shoring up weaker areas is no way to broaden a child's capacity for lifelong and lifewide learning, nor to help them discover untapped areas of passion and purpose. Rigidity and linear thinking are not in the Learnlife lexicon.
The way we frame learning affects the way our learners set parameters for their own sense of agency, capacity and adaptability. They become the stories to tell themselves, and those stories become self concepts and before we know it, a self image is built on a foundation of misinformation. “I´m not good with numbers and I´m terrible with foreign languages”. Sound familiar?
We are getting there. From the fertile soils of education, cognitive psychology and the neuroscience of learning, the great revolutions of learning will blossom in the next ten years, but where does that leave us now? Is there fruit from this new hybrid breed that is already fit for consumption.
There is so much to say, but we are starting here with three things we feel it is important for parents and learners to know about the neuroscience of learning.
The neuroscience of learning 1: How you feel comes before how you learn
Open your books at page 10. What a great way to start a class. The problem with this, (ok there are many problems with this, but let's focus on one of them) is that we are not robots. If our learners are feeling anxious, uncomfortable, stressed or ashamed, learning will simply not happen. The limbic system holds sway, and that will take primacy every time over the creation or reactivation of memory. Wellbeing comes first every time, which is why it is not just a “class” or “workshop” at Learnlife, but is embedded in the fabric of the learning process.
The neuroscience of learning 2: The brain is malleable and not fixed
We have more or less the same amount of neurons in our brain as anyone else. Unless there is a special educational or physical need involved, we can essentially activate and build networks around anything we choose, from art to algebra.
The key is in what we choose, because passion and purpose will fuel this quest to light up and layer deep networks of neural connections around skills and interests, which will one day become mastery. When we accept that the growth mindset is a question of choice, learning guides can focus more on the bigger question - how we help learners to find their Ikigai and how we support them to build it.
The difference between “I can´t” and “I could, but I choose not to” is not just semantics. This is self confidence and agency; a path directed versus a life inflicted.
The neuroscience of learning 3: learning is stronger when we discover for ourselves
Learning is personal. Things make sense when we connect them to other things we already know or have experienced, and that means we need to be in control. There is nothing worse than a teacher “telling” a learner how something works in a way that makes sense to the teacher, as if that were the universal way to understand it.
This fallacy has lead to generations of children thinking they “can't understand” something or are “not good” at something. We learn by doing, by asking questions to fill in the gaps in our knowledge architecture, by failing and trying anew, by collaborating, and by guiding others.
The pathways we create in our own neural architecture will fit with our own unique experiences, and be more readily available to us when we need it. This is especially true when the pleasure of achievement and the “aha!” moment surges across the dendritic arborisation on a wave of dopamine or serotonin. Now you want to Google “dendritic arborisation” don´t you? Curiosity is the learner's best friend.
Support learners, guide them, respond to them, help them to question assumptions and look anew, or to find other connections to strengthen the context of their new knowledge. But “teaching” something is the bluntest instrument in the toolkit.
The neuroscience of learning will return
We love this stuff. Can you tell? There is a lot of speculation and emerging science in this field, but there is also a lot of robust evidence that is lighting the way to a more neuro-informed approach to learning. As learning guides, parents, thought leaders or changemakers, we must use any tool at our disposal to give a young person the best chance at becoming the best version of themselves.
“..though we can tell how a person is likely to feel, think and behave in a certain situation, we still cannot tell what a person is capable of. Hence the possibilities that a person holds in their neurons are immeasurable.”
― Abhijit Naskar, Good Scientist: When Science and Service Combine