The Biology of Learning And Implications for Teaching

    Science can explain how the human organism learns.  There may be a few details yet to be discovered, but we pretty much know now whatís going on neurologically, physiologically and psychologically when a person learns knowledge and skills.  It follows, that for optimal results, we should try to teach according to how the brain learns naturally (Jensen 1998, Caine 1994).  Good teachers have always taught in harmony with how the brain learns best, now we can all understand why their methods work.  


  Natural Human Learning 

     Humans evolved over a period of a few million years and have only been around themselves for about 150,000 years.  During this time we evolved natural ways of learning Ė namely, learning by doing and experiencing with the senses, the emotions, the body and the mind Ė learning in-context; which is basically the traditional apprenticeship model.  Since the advent of writing 5000 years ago, and especially since the industrial-technological revolution began 200 years ago, education has become increasingly decontextualized. This means learning about things outside of the context in which they naturally occur, i.e. from books and blackboards and teachers talking about things; i.e. more abstract and less concrete.  However, the way humans naturally learn and the biological mechanisms and pathways of this natural learning have not changed because genetic evolution doesnít happen that fast.

     We can say that biological/physical adaptation does take place with individuals who become truly literate and able to learn in a decontextualized manner because neural networks are built in the brain to accommodate it, but these neural networks are not passed on genetically to offspring.

     In spite of this increasingly decontextualized  form of education, good teachers have always continued to teach in ways that the human brain naturally learns. Now we have the science to explain why their methods work.  In addition, the apprenticeship model is still around in many fields, and on-the-job training is the norm rather than the exception in most areas of work..

     Thinking, learning & memory take place when information chemical molecules bind to receptor site proteins on nerve cells forming neural networks or circuits which then contain thoughts, memories, knowledge and skills.  But we donít know  yet how information is actually coded.  It takes place because neurons that fire together wire together.  And it takes place throughout the entire body via information chemicals called  neurotransmitters,  neuropeptides and hormones.


How The Brain Works

     We know that the brain contains functionally specialized information processing circuits that operate in parallel to each other. (Barkow, Tooby & Cosmides 1999,  Gazzaniga 1998, LeDoux 1996).  The brainís information processing and learning abilities are what allow the organism to successfully interact in physical and social environments in order to successfully survive and reproduce.

     The brain has been designed to learn, thatís its job.  Scanning information through the senses, processing and storing it, and retrieving it when necessary.  The brain has a natural ability to detect patterns and a natural need to discover meaning; it possesses various memory pathways; and it allows us to correct ourselves and learn from experience. The human brain comes factory installed with all of the features it needs.  It is not a blank slate and it is not a content-general processor.  Many evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists now believe that the brain contains many functionally-specific or context specific information-processing/behavioral circuits which do not dictate but strongly predispose us to think, feel and behave in certain ways.  The large number of these content-specific circuits in the human brain has also allowed it to develop content-general information processing abilities.     (Barkow, Tooby & Cosmides,  Gazzaniga, LeDoux )   In fact, we now know that newborns and infants possess many more innate information processing abilities than were once thought. (Baillargeon 1986, DeLoache 1994)

     We learn best when we are challenged and believe that we can succeed, and we learn worst when we are threatened and feel helpless.  Each of these two states comes with different configurations of neurochemical processes in the brain, physical responses in the body and psychological states of mind.  Feeling threatened or helpless causes stress, which in turn causes the body to create the hormone cortisol which reduces the brainís ability to perceive and think clearly and form the short-term memories that are necessary for the eventual formation of long-term memories.  Feeling challenged but up to the task, on the other hand, produces the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline which assist us to perform. (Caine)  Being successful and confident also raises levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin and puts us in a good mood, while failing and feeling inadequate lowers it and causes the psychological state of hopelessness and despair. (Cowley & Underwood 1997)

     Students experience various threats while at school.  Threats can be academic or social.  Teachers, authority figures and peers can all be threatening in various ways.  A studentís level of self-efficacy can influence whether they feel challenged or threatened.   Students can also come to school stressed out because of family or personal problems.  The question for school teachers and administrators is how can we orchestrate a low threat, high challenge environment?

     Learning physically alters the brain.  It has been demonstrated that learning facilitates the construction of neural networks in the brain that contain our memories of experiences, our knowledge and information, and our physical and mental skill procedures. Enriched and challenging environments produce more neural connections, while boring and sterile onesse these connections to whither and die. (Diamond & Hobson, 1998)

     The multifaceted human brain learns best when there is multifaceted input activating the brains pathways.   Learning is always embedded in a complex array of external environmental stimuli and internal neurological, physiological and psychological processes.

     Experiences, thoughts and memories are always embedded in emotions and corresponding physiological and psychological states. (LeDoux 1996)  During the course of a day we pass through hundreds of emotional states.  These are not necessarily the extreme emotional states like anger, depression, fear, or elation, but are typically less intense ones such as interest, enjoyment, contentment, anticipation, boredom, frustration or disappointment.  Emotions should be moderately activated for optimal learning.  When emotions become too strong, learning is inhibited.

     Our experiences, thoughts and memories are also embedded in the particular spatial and social context of the moment.  All life and learning are thick with context.  Good teaching should also be thick with context because that is how students learn best.  Contextual elements help get learning into the brain.  Knowledge, information and skills are formed within this complex milieu of context.  The more information processing systems that are activated, the more effective the learning.  It follows, therefore, that teachers should try to activate as many student brain pathways as possible when teaching.  Educational psychologists and intuitively good teachers have known for a long time that the more concrete the learning experience the more meaningful it is for the student and the more real learning takes place.  A learning experience becomes more concrete when the learnerís sensory systems and related information-processing systems are more activated by aspects of the immediate physical and social environment. 

     In conclusion, the objective of brain-based teaching is to activate the brainís natural learning processes, make connections between existing and new knowledge and skills, and help the student construct meaning and lasting memories.   Teachers can  achieve this in many ways.  Methods can include actual hands-on experience and apprenticeships, guided discovery, cooperative group work,  field trips, research projects, audiovisuals such as drama, music, video, CD-ROMS and other interactive computer software, the use of  controversy, anticipation and surprise,  guest speakers and more.  Even the humble lecture can be improved to activate more student learning channels.


The Development of Natural Intelligences

     Teaching is not only about the transference of knowledge and skills deemed important by the culture, it is primarily about the development of natural human intelligences.  Natural human intelligences are biologically-based independent cognitive (information processing) mechanisms.  The humans nervous system (like that of any animal) has been designed to selectively process certain types of the information about its physical and social environment and to selectively ignore others and to be predisposed toward certain types of thought, emotions and behaviors and not predisposed toward others?

     How many natural human intelligences are there?  Howard Gardner (1983, 1993) has posited 8 independent biologically-based intelligences and has made a strong empirical case for them.   These are verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.  Robert Sternbergís triarchic theory (1985, 1988, 1997) refers to three types of natural intelligence Ė critical, analytical and creative -- which are essentially ways in which we use other intelligences and can be applied across intelligence domains.  Gardnerís and Sternbergís theories are complementary.  When combined, they give us eight areas of intelligence and three ways in which to exercise it.  Natural multiple intelligence theory confirms what weíve always known: a well rounded education brings about more optimal development of a personís many possible competences.

     As presented by educational psychologists such as Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, natural multiple intelligences is simply a conceptually integrated and empirically grounded packaging of what we have known intuitively for ages: that there are clearly observable natural human competences (intelligences) that are biologically-based, content-specific and functionally related to everyday real life tasks which contribute to the survival and reproduction of the human organism.  When teaching practice exercises these intelligences and makes a clear connection between them and real-life performances, learning takes place more easily and effectively.

     The ideas of natural and multiple intelligences is central to any conception of teaching and learning.  It informs the pedagogical enterprise to its core.  It has become a powerful unifying concept in educational psychology and it is also a reflection of a trend in the social and behavioral sciences whereby our knowledge of the biological bases of intelligence and behavior are being integrated with existing and new theory and method.

     For teachers, a multiple intelligence perspective aids in student assessment.  The use of multiple intelligence theory allows teachers to learn more about the competence profiles of students and their preferred thinking and learning styles.  Teachers can better tune in to the strengths and weaknesses of students when they have a greater variety of things to look for.  Teachers will also develop a better understanding of current and potential student performance and will have an easier time devising instructional strategies to bring about optimal student learning.

     For curriculum development, the implications of multiple intelligence theory are obvious.  Good curriculums have always been designed to develop multiple and various functionally useful competences in students.

     We donít need to be cognitive neuroscientists or educational psychologists to understand how the brain learns best and apply that understanding to our teaching.  But we do need to actively experiment in our classrooms with methods that might  increase the immersion we are trying to attain with our students.


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Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Caine R. & Caine G. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. New York: Addison Wesley.

Cowley, G. & Underwood, A. (1997). ďA Little Help From Serotonin.Ē Newsweek, December 29, 1997 pp78-81.

DeLoache, J. ( 1994). Early understanding of the representative function of pictures. Cognition, 52, 83-100.

Diamond, M. & Hopson, J. (1998). Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Childís Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions  from Birth to Adolescence.  New York: Penguin Putnam.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gazzaniga, M. (1998). The Mindís Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching With the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

LeDoux, J. (1996).  The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The Triarchic Mind. New York: Viking.

Sternberg, R. J.  (1997). Successful Intelligence. New York: Plume.

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