The science of learning

The work of cognitive scientists is becoming increasingly important to the work of teachers as we seek more effective ways to engage learners.  This week, I’ve started reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules.  Medina writes in the introduction that if you want to ‘create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.’  It speaks volumes about the historical chasm between brain science and teacher practice.  While we are moving towards understanding how people learn, we still see as Hattie says the essential nature of our profession in terms of autonomy – teaching they way we know best, choosing resources and methods we think will work etc.

One of the most illuminating chapters is on exploration.  Medina explains why understanding how babies learn gives us insight into understanding how humans learn at any age.  Babies and young children are naturally curious about their world and they learn through a process of  observation, hypotheses, experiment and conclusion.  As he says if children are allowed to retain their natural curiosity about the world around them, they can ‘deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101.’

The problem is our traditional model of schooling often breaks this cycle of curiosity.  Sir Ken Robinson believes this model of schooling dislocates people from their natural talents. Medina supports this by adding that by the time children get to school they understand that they can acquire knowledge about the world around them not because it’s ‘interesting, but because it can get them something.’  The ‘something’ is a higher grade or test score.

The good news is that many people retain their curiosity and remain life-long learners.  The challenge is how we cultivate this in workplaces and schools. Medina actually proposes a ‘learning laboratory’ where brain scientists and education scientists would investigate learning in real-world situations.

This lab would be similar to a medical school in that it would have a teaching facility, research program and staff who work in the field as well as teach. It’s probably no coincidence that Richard Elmore et al has taken the instructional rounds from the medical rounds model. This is the process of  observing, analysing, discussing and concluding.  For Elmore et al, this process is designed to bridge the ‘knowledge gap between educators and their practice’ in order to improve student learning.

What I found interesting about this idea is that teachers would be learning about brain science in learning spaces. They would be learning from cognitive scientists, applying it in real world settings and then working with researchers on what works and why.

In many respects, this idea reflects the early work of John Dewey who established a school for educational experimentation at the University of Chicago in the late 1890s.  Dewey’s lab was an opportunity to learn more about ‘the process of education and ways of improving the conditions of teaching and learning.’  It is a goal we are still committed to perhaps more so in a knowledge age where we have the tools and the opportunities to ensure learning is personalised, relevant and engaging for every learner.

I think Brain Rules re-confirms why it is critical that the art of teaching be informed by the science of learning.

6 thoughts on “The science of learning

  1. Brain rules was the first book I bought on “audible”. The author, John Medina actually narrates the book and provides side commentary. I enjoyed walking and listening to his amazing stories and explanation of brain science. Definitely worth a read!

  2. Thanks for the nudge on this Greg – I’ve had it sitting in my ‘books to be read soon’ pile, beside my bed, for a few months now. So tonight I shall get going. And based on what you’ve said, I now have high expectations!

  3. Every education, learning, or training professional should read Brain Rules. If you haven’t already, take the time. The insights provided on how the brain actually bio-mechanically operates are astounding. More astounding is the fact that almost everything we do to educate works at cross-purposes to how we are wired. It is possible to redesign to take advantage of our natural wiring to optimize learning impact. This is the guide.

  4. I am continuously amazed by the fact that we teach against what has been proven to be effective. Our nation must come around and realize that the answers are here, they exist and should no longer be ignored.

    We are taught ineffective methods of learning from childhood and then pass those methods on to the next generation. Just as many other negative cycles, it must be broken.

    Watching my niece grow up and experience these same issues in grade school has forced me to make this my number one mission both personally and professionally.

    1. Thanks for your comments Joshua. Last year I read a quote in the New Yorker magazine from the late American sociologist Daniel Bell: “Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues based on their individual merits. One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out comes the prepared formulae.” 21st century schooling is not formulaic as we know. We must respond with a new model of schooling that accepts diversity as the norm. Schooling in today’s world cannot be driven by ideology but inquiry. We are doing a great disservice not only to today’s learners but our teachers if we are not continually questioning the nature and relevance of what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. Good luck with your mission!

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