How the brain works in teaching and learning
Updated: May 31, 2022
There is nothing as fascinating and challenging as understanding how learners learn and how tutors teach.
And while you would have no second thoughts about studying carrots and the best environment if you were to grow them, or studying dogs or cats if you were to train them, it is remarkable that so many people involved in teaching and learning know so little about humans and the brain. What is it in our behaviour, brain structure and cognition that we need to know before we start teaching or learning?
This latest article on learning follows earlier blogs which we have posted by:
Anthony Davies (a series of 3 blogs) on https://www.traintheteacher.org/post/seeing-yourself-clearly-as-a-teacher
Frank Doogan as a commentary on The Brain by David Eagleman https://www.traintheteacher.org/post/how-does-the-brain-effect-language-learning
A report on a lecture to MyIT by Dr Leo Hoye https://www.traintheteacher.org/post/seeing-the-words-in-the-world-of-other-languages
The biggest question we have to ask ourselves is what happens in the brain when we learn?
Different kinds of learning
The most fundamental distinction we want to make is what Geary1 refers to as Primary Biological Knowledge and Secondary Biological Knowledge. The claims in relation to both of these are they are different in how the learning takes place.
Why is this important? Sweller2 makes it clear that while primary biological knowledge is DNA driven and which we 'activate’, it is both very complex and achieved with ease.
Hard study works
He goes on to say this ‘ease’ is not something that works for secondary biological knowledge. While there is a myriad of factors that influence learning outcomes, his contention is that the secondary biological knowledge we gain in schools can only be achieved through lots of practice and hard work, and when this is transferred into long term memory, it is the driver of culture and civilization. In short, our culture is what we remember, and we learn this through instruction and at school. This is a beautifully pithy understanding of the importance of education.
Let's return for now to primary biological knowledge and see what that is, and look at some of the evidence for the claims there are for it. We will return to some of the many examples of primary biological knowledge in future blogs, but for now, our examples are:
• interacting with others
• how we move in a physical environment
Interacting with others
Social interaction is not something we start generating systems for after we are born. It is something built into our brains, and clearly, we are making the assumption that it's built into our brains because it has evolutionary purpose.
"Being socially connected is our brain's lifelong passion," said Lieberman, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "It's been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years." 6
The social brain
Of particular interest may be Lieberman's September 2013 TEDx talk on the social brain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNhk3owF7RQ
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We hope this blog has raised awareness of the many biological underpinnings to what we learn, and how we learn. When we have better knowledge of humans and the brain, we will be better tutors and better teachers.
1. American Psychologist © 1995 by the American Psychological Association
January 1995 Vol. 50, No. 1, 24-37
Reflections of Evolution and Culture in Children's Cognition
Implications for Mathematical Development and Instruction
David C. Geary
University of Missouri at Columbia
John Sweller - ACE Conference/researchED Melbourne
4. Linda Palmer, project scientist at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine
7. Lieberman's September 2013 TEDx talk on the social brain: