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