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Why research into the brain matters for educators

By Jennifer Fink
April 1, 2017
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How do people learn?

That question has boggled scientists, philosophers and educators for millennia. How, in fact, do humans process, remember, retrieve and use information? How do they build upon existing knowledge to create new ideas and inventions?

The answers to those questions, after all, seem infinitely useful, particularly to educators charged with helping students learn. Yet for a long time, those questions went unanswered.
“Before about 1880, it seemed silly to try to understand how the mind worked, partly because the mind moves so rapidly and doesn’t really seem to be open to systematic investigation, and partly, I think, due to belief in free will. People thought the mind was what the soul directed you to do,” says Daniel T. Willingham, Ph.D., professor of cognitive psychology and author of Why
Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

The philosophers who had attempted to understand the mind’s functioning prior to then relied on their own “thinking about their thought processes” and introspection, Willingham says. And often, they used the most complicated machine of the era as an analogy for the mind.
Descartes, for instance, compared the mind to hydraulics, picturing thoughts and information as water moving through pipes. Later, Willingham says, “people likened the mind to a telephone switchboard, with all these wires interconnecting.”

The inclination to compare the mind to complex machinery persists to this day: How often have you heard the brain referenced in computer-like terms, with ram representing short-term memory storage and hard drives compared to long-term memory?

The problem with all of these representations is that none of them are based on actual, scientific investigation of the mind. So for centuries, teaching and learning techniques have been based on conjecture, speculation and anecdotal insight into how the mind works.|

All of that is changing. Thanks to advances in technology and rigorous scientific experimentation and observation, scientists now know more than ever before about how the mind functions. And increasingly, they’re disseminating that information to educators and others, in the hopes of optimizing learning and teaching.

The learning sciences defined

Learning sciences are an interdisciplinary science, informed by neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, sociology and computer science. In essence, they are the scientific study of how people learn – with a heavy focus on figuring out how to use those insights to facilitate learning in the real world.

Both the term learning sciences and learning science as a scientific discipline are relatively new; that may be why some educators are unaware of the learning sciences. But because this field of study speaks to the heart of education – how to best help humans learn –  it’s important for educators to develop at least a basic understanding of the learning sciences, says Mindy Johnson, an instructional designer and communications strategist at the Center for Applied Special Technology (cast) and ISTE member, while recognizing that the field is bound to change.

“Teachers need to understand that learning isn’t a static thing, and the learning sciences aren’t a static thing either,” Johnson says. “The purpose of learning sciences is to find new methods, new resources and new strategies for educators, but it’s also to develop new research. It’s important to make sure that we’re adapting what we know about learning.”

Learning myths debunked

Unfortunately, many commonly held beliefs about learning are wrong or misleading.

“The information coming out of learning sciences debunked some of the old models that everybody believed for a long time,” says Carolyn Sykora, senior director of the ISTE Standards program.

Take the old idea that some people are predominantly left-brained (analytical and verbal) or right-brained (intuitive and creative). “One of the key findings of learning sciences is that processing is much more distributed,” says Jim Flanagan, ISTE chief learning services officer. The left and right brain are interconnected, and humans, it turns out, do not process information predominantly on one side or the other of the brain.

In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? Willingham writes, “Learning style theories don’t help much when applied to students, but … are useful when applied to content. Take the visual-auditory-kinesthetic distinction. You might want students to experience material in one or another modality depending on what you want them to get out of the lesson; a diagram of Fort Knox should be seen, the national anthem of Turkmenistan should be heard and the cheche turban… should be worn.”

Learning science in the classroom

So, what is true about learning, and how can educators best apply those insights in the classroom?

That’s not a simple question to answer, in large part because the field is so new and ever-evolving. Yet some learning science-based insights are already making their way into classrooms around the world, such as the idea that brain development continues well into early adulthood, that the brain is actually quite malleable, with connections created and pruned throughout a lifespan. That learning science-infused insight underlies thegrowth mindset.

Learning science is also revealing important information regarding working memory, long-term memory and automaticity. Consider the example of learning to drive, Flanagan says. “When we’re initially driving, it takes a lot of working memory, but over time it becomes familiar and transfers into long-term memory to the point that you’re not even thinking about it. But there’s a process you have to go through for that to happen.”

That process is relevant to mathematics and to the debate over whether or not learners need to memorize math facts in the age of smartphones. It’s also a good example of how keeping up with learning sciences can influence teaching for the better. Educators, he says, should be asking “What does learning science say about how we develop automaticity? What are the steps?”

ISTE considers the learning sciences so important, they’ve incorporated them into the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students. The Empowered Learner standard states that “students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.”

In today’s day and age of instant access to information, “learning how to learn is really the key skill,” students need to develop, Sykora says. That’s why the standards include the learning sciences, and why the standard says, “informed by the learning sciences.”
“We recognize that it’s a rapidly moving target and that all of us will have to keep up with how to learn,” Sykora says.

The learning sciences will also be embedded in the 2017 ISTE Standards for Teachers, scheduled to be released in June.

Still not sure how or if learning sciences can improve education? Consider this explanation of learning sciences from Willingham: “There are certain principles of learning that are so deeply embedded in who we are as humans that you see them across all sorts of different classroom contexts, you see them across all ages, across different types of kids and across different subject matters.”

One such learning science-based principle is that the brain is not designed for thinking; it’s designed to save you from having to think.

That statement “seems like it’s going to have depressing implications,” Willingham says, but what learning science has actually revealed is that the brain builds all kinds of automatic responses as a time saver. Learning science is showing that curiosity is key to encouraging engaged thought, and has further revealed that humans “are intrigued by problems that we think are solvable,” Willingham says.

So an educator who wants to engage her students would do well to present them with solvable problems. This poses a bit of a challenge, because the learning sciences have also revealed that “the difficulty of the problem is enormously important,” Willingham says. Humans are not intrigued by, nor do they spend much time on, problems that are too easy or too difficult – and as you know, what’s too easy for one student may well be too difficult to another.

Further underscoring this difficulty is the fact that the learning sciences have found that background knowledge is also enormously important. A student with a passion for flight and aerodynamics – one who has spent hundreds of hours watching documentaries, reading books and experimenting with paper airplanes – is going to quickly grasp the concepts of “thrust” and “lift” when introduced in science class, while students who lack that background will likely take longer.

That’s where universal design for learning (udl) and personalized learning come in. “udl is really about removing barriers and providing multiple ways for students to be engaged, to find ways to access information and to represent it,” Johnson says. “It takes what we know from the learning sciences and translates it into actionable things educators can do for their learners.”

What students need to know

Students also benefit from understanding how learning happens because it can inform how they learn best, notes Randy Hansen, a professor at University of Maryland University College and a member of the ISTE Board of Directors. After all, in a world where students can get almost any information in any form or mode, understanding which is best for your learning style can make all the difference.

“Students need to know themselves and how they learn so they can progress through content more easily,” Hansen explains. “Teachers do that through reflective techniques and by asking students what works for them, but that’s teacher-led. Once we move into highly personalized classrooms, it’s going to be student driven.”

Teaching students about metacognition – the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes – is a good starting point, even with the youngest learners. “If a student tries in a situation and fails, as long as they reflect on it, it’s worth it,” Hansen says. It not only helps them figure out their learning styles, it starts the process of creating reflective qualities – a boon to all learners.

Can tech help educators apply the learning sciences?

ISTE’s Flanagan believes the learning sciences will help educators apply technology in education in ways that benefit students. The last few decades have shown educators (and others) that simply introducing computers and other tech tools into the classroom is not enough to advance student learning.

“We’ve been applying a lot of technology to teaching and learning for 30 years now. And we don’t have enough to show for it; for the dollars put in, we’re not seeing the return on investment,” Flanagan says. “We are trying to enhance learning, so we need to look at what the learning sciences are telling us. Only then can we reflect on what the right integration of technology is.”

So far, for instance, the learning sciences have revealed the importance of relevance: humans are more motivated to learn things that are applicable to their lives. Humans also learn best in social settings, which may be one reason why very, very few people (less than 7 percent) who regISTEr for massive online open courses (MOOCs) actually complete them.

Technologically, these courses represent tremendous opportunity because they make learning accessible to more people. But just because they use tech, doesn’t mean the approach to learning is going to be effective. Educators who focus on technology and ignore pedagogy risk a failed learning opportunity.

Flanagan and many others are hopeful that advances in learning science will begin to point the way toward more useful and beneficial uses of tech.

One possibility: short-cycle feedback. The learning sciences have shown that immediate, meaningful feedback fuels learning; showing someone a video of his golf club swing, for instance, allows him to make adjustments. In a classroom of 30+ students, it’s difficult to give individual, immediate feedback, but perhaps, Flanagan says, “technology can play that role – and play a more advanced role along the way.” Quite possibly, Flanagan says, in the future,“we’ll have programs that not only give you feedback but that understand your thinking process and help you understand where it’s right or wrong.”

Jennifer Fink is a writer, registered nurse, mother and educator. She is also the creator of, a one-stop shop for educators, parents and others who care about building healthy boys.