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The Neurobiology of Learning plus Tools and Suggestions for Optimal Learning

We have adapted this article from the original which you can find here. All quotes are the words of Dr. Friedlander, lead author of the research article. He is executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and professor of biological sciences and of biomedical engineering and science at Virginia Tech.

We have added some notes under each paragraph with suggestions of learning materials you could use in your discussions with children. These apply whether you are a parent or an educator. Hope you find them useful. Feel free to email us at info@how if you have questions or would like to understand more about this field. And now, let’s dive into the subject.

Research on How People Learn The Intro to the Article

“Behavioral approaches, functional brain imaging, and computational neuroscience have revealed strategies used by our brains to acquire, store, and retrieve information. Adding to the molecular and cellular approaches is knowledge of how the underlying brain hardware changes during learning and forming memories, there has also been progress in higher-order, human-based studies of cognition, including learning and memory. Scientists use MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) of the living brain combined with computer modeling to make clear the strategies the brain uses and the underlying biological processes.

Learning leads to functional and structural changes in the cellular networks, chemical communication or synapses between neurons at a variety of sites throughout the central nervous system. The functional changes in communicating between individual neurons and networks of neurons are accompanied by substantial changes in the structural circuitry of the brain. This was once thought to be hard-wired in adults.”

“One of the most exciting advances, as a result of optical imaging of the living brain, is the demonstration that there is growth, retraction, and modifying connectivity between neurons,” says Friedlander, the chief researcher. “We have also seen that the mature brain can generate new neurons, although, this research is so new that the functional implications of these new neurons and their potential contribution to learning and memory formation remain to be determined,” he said.

If you want to explain to your children neuroplasticity, and you find it difficult, here is an expert from the How People Learn book. Author, Olimpia Mesa, has succeeded to explain the complexity of the brain through lovely stories, metaphors, and beautiful illustrations that bring science to life and make the inside of our minds visible. A free chapter with illustrations can be also downloaded here.

“Everything we know now and will learn in the future is a result of capturing the information around us. Information is brought to the brain through elaborate systems. Let’s imagine that our brain consists of millions of imaginary roads, with millions of imaginary cars travelling on them very quickly, all the time. These machines carry information to different areas of the brain.

When you learn new things, it’s like transporting information in cars on roads, heading for specific houses. Similarly, when you want to retrieve information that you learned a while ago, it’s like sending a car to that particular house, collecting the information, and driving it on fast roads to take it to where you need it.

Brain scientists call these roads in the brain neural connections and the houses are called neurons. The human brain contains more than one hundred billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to about one thousand of its neighbours. These trillions of connections form the entire network of roads in our brains. Every time you learn something new, the brain creates new neural connections. In other words, the brain develops continuously, creating new roads and new routes for the cars to follow.”

Suggestions for Optimal Learning

Here are the ten key aspects of designing learning recommended by this prestigious panel of brain experts. They believe that more effective teaching will result by incorporating these suggestions for optimal learning into instructional design.

1. Repetition

“Learning needs to go deeper. Repetition, not repeated the same way again and again, but presented and tasked in a clarity producing variety of ways. This will result in the learner requiring less energy for mastery. The different techniques you use, if they ensure the students learn material clearly will release the higher-order pathways available for additional cognitive processing. However, the researchers suggest that the repetitions must be appropriately spaced.”

To help children repeat without being bored or frustrated you can encourage them:
Engage in discussions of their experiences using a reflection tool. Here is a resource we have created for both children and adults – the Reflective Thinking Routines kit.
Create visuals to encapsulate the essence of learning. We usually create mind-maps, timelines or poster, and collages of all kinds, some templates can be viewed here.
Use key information and ideas through play, it makes practice content for mastery joyful while new neuropathways are formed. Check the video tutorial on how to create a learning game together with your children.

2. Reward and reinforcement

“The brain has an intrinsic reward system, self-congratulations with the realization of success. An important factor is the realization that accomplishing an immediate goal is a step toward a future goal. The students who find learning joyful, activating this intrinsic reward system, facilitate their learning process.”

The How People Learn Game was designed with this important scientific facts in mind. Children play and for the good answers to the questions cards they get reworded with a brain-chip. Additionally, the game was constructed in such way that it doesn’t create competition, but team work instead.

3. Visualization

“Visualization and mental rehearsal are real biological processes with associated patterned activation of neural circuitry in sensory, motor, executive, and decision-making pathways in the brain. Internally generated activity in the brain from thoughts, visualization, memories, and emotions should be able to contribute to the learning process.”

To activate visualisation, memories, and manage emotions during learning we recommend for each child to keep a Learning Journal. Here are some reasons on why children should use a learning journal:

To draw or doodle and make theoretical concepts visual.

To provide a live picture of their growing understanding of a subject or experience.

To demonstrate how their learning is developing.

To keep a record of their thoughts and ideas throughout their experiences of learning.

To help them identify their strengths, weaknesses, frustrations and preferences in learning.

4. Active engagement

“There is considerable neurobiological evidence that functional changes in neural circuitry that are associated with learning occur best when the learner is actively engaged. Learners working as editors and even tutors for each other evoke neural reward pathways.”

Through our program for educators Teaching for How People Learn, we encourage learning design that always includes practice in partners and groups, multi work stations as set up. In the EMBEDDING phase of the learning cycle we encourage learning beyond the classroom and extend the learning into their own lives and integrating it by using it in the real world, not just the world of school.

5. Stress

“When the authors of this research speak of stress, they do not mean detrimental stress, rather “A small, interactive teaching format may be judiciously employed to moderately engage the stress system.”

Through carefully designed learning instruction, parents and teachers can show children how learning happens out of the comfort zone, but not in the panic zone. More details on stress and child development in this article, plus a list of beneficial stressors.

6. Fatigue

“Research suggests that it is important to have appropriate downtime between intense problem-solving sessions.”

From our experience, in classrooms with both adults and children, fatigue happens when lecturing is too long, too formal, no body movement is encouraged for more than 40 minutes, no input is required from learners (they only listen for more than 40 minutes), no peer interaction.

Reduce lecture time, include small group work, ask learners to work on graphic organisers and visual representations of the content and they can work for hours without fatigue.

7. Multitasking

“Multitasking needs to be relevant and an integral part of the learning design. But be aware it can be a distraction from learning, unless all of the tasks are relevant to the material being taught.”

Very often we are asked about studying with music playing. You can explain to children that, actually, when they are listening to music, part of their brain is not focusing on their studies. Instead, it’s enjoying the music. Children like it because it is not tense, the brain is not working as hard mentally. That’s why it seems like they can study longer while listening to music. The reality is, it can take much longer to learn something while listening to music. It’s a much better idea to study in concentrated bursts, focusing on only one thing: learning. Then, children can use music as their reward when their studies are done.

8. Individual learning styles

“Neural responses of different individuals vary, which is the rationale for embracing multiple learning styles to provide opportunities for all learners to be most effectively reached.”

Our only advice here would be to use this information carefully. It is helpful to know about learning preferences, but sometimes it is detrimental to a child’s learning and development to keep her/him in the same type of learning, the preferred type. Children could benefit greatly from going outside their comfort zone and try new ways of exploration. A careful balance in instructional design and facilitation is required to implement successful learning tools in the classroom.

9. Active involvement

“Doing is learning. And success at doing and learning builds confidence.”

“Who does the work, does the learning”, Olimpia Mesa often says. If you are a parent or a teacher and you find yourself lecturing and explaining something to children for more than 30 minutes, it’s you doing the learning, not them. They may look at you patiently, but their brains are elsewhere a long time ago. Are their brains learning during your long lectures, they do, but not what you might want them to learn. They may learn that you really care about your subject.

10. Revisiting information and concepts using multimedia

“Addressing the same information using different sensory processes, such as seeing and hearing, enhances the learning process, potentially bringing more neural hardware to bear. This to process and store information.”

Usually, elementary school teachers use these scientific findings beautifully. What we have observed, in working with both schools and corporate clients, is that the more children grow, the less learning facilitators use these important scientific facts. Visual processing of concepts, metaphors, learning materials like flashcards, play cards, learning boardgames and other multimedia tools simply disappear from the classrooms once children grow.

A Final Note

The researchers recommend that (medical students) learners be taught the underlying neurobiological principles that shape their learning experiences. “By appealing not only to students’ capacity to derive pleasure from learning about medicine but also to their intellectual capacity for understanding the rationale for the educational process real motivation can be engendered. They become more effective communicators and enhance their (patients’) learners success at learning the information they need for managing their own health and treatments as well.”

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