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How we Learn and why is it important – Part 2

This post follows the Part 1 on How we learn

Shouldn’t we examine learning through investigating the organ in our body that is mostly responsible for learning to happen?  Yes, I’m referring to the brain!

Our brain has about 86 billion neurons (as the number of stars in our milky lane). The neuron, the biological cell is responsible for our learning through connections that it makes to other neurons as we learn new information.

As we learn something new we link neurons together, the more we retrieve and practice what we learnt the stronger the neural links are. The more we extend our learning into other areas, the more neurons are added to the network of neural links.

Our long-term memory is stored in our Neocortex, a thin layer over the surface of our brain. It is the size of a napkin and can store quadrillion bites of information (that’s a LOT!) more information can be stored in our brain than the number of grain sands on earth. So how come we are not all walking geniuses? The problem is not with the storage but with the retrieving of the information.

Understanding the brain and how it is connected to learning in the way we store information and retrieve it, will make teachers and students work collaboratively better.

For example; We can all identify with test anxiety and arriving to exams after (we thought we studied well for) and we get completely blank! A research conducted in various countries found that students mostly learn for exams through re-reading the material. This type of learning can get us into the false pretense that we learnt well but its actually not the case. In order for us to come ready for an exam (or even a presentation at work) we need to be able to retrieve the information from our long-term memory. To do so, studying for an exam requires a long-term practice of retrieval of the information to build and strengthen the sets of neural links. The more we practice the better we become. Just as we know that when we prepare for a sports competition we need to build our muscles and practice daily so our brains need practice to gain the knowledge that can be retrieved when needed. Retrieval practice is not memorization; it is self-testing, teaching others, practice exams. Anything that requires us to actively work the problems ourselves to be able to master it.

Think of how this information can be implemented either in your teaching (if you are a teacher) or in your learning (as a student or avid learner). I highly recommend reading the book Uncommon sense of teaching or taking their Coursera (free) course to gain further insight.

My next post will be about slower and faster learners! Do fast learners do better in life?… not necessarily

How we learn and why is it important -part1

The following series of articles are based on a workshop I ran at Limmud on How we learn, career choices and procrastination- insights from Neuroscience

Many have wondered what the role of education is; is it, as the famous quote by Socrates ‘education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel’ or the statement known by Albert Einstein, ‘Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.’

Anyone in education would probably agree that nations have spent a lot of resources, infrastructure, and funding on developing curriculums and anything related to it, such as textbooks and workbooks. All to ensure that our young generations are equipped with skills and knowledge to become independent and contributing members of society.

Learning is in the heart of education and encompasses so much more than just ‘filling of the vessel’ and more of the challenge of ‘kindling of a flame.’ For generations, educators asked about how to motivate and stimulate learning in schools. How many of us have gone through our school years learning from one exam to another just to forget what we learned within a week or so. No wonder the quote by Albert Einstein kept us wondering what remains in our brain after schooling.

A new trend is emerging, though, towards learning beyond schooling and more towards lifelong learning. With an average life expectancy of 90-95 years, one must consider that the old paradigm that studies finish in our 20sor 30s is no longer applicable. We must keep adapting to the changes around us brought by the rapid pace of technological advancement. If retirement is still at the 60th -70th milestone, there are still quite a few years to be engaged.

If our intention is toward lifelong learning, we should probably find ways to improve it. And this is where neuroscience (the study of the brain) can bring insight into the way we learn.

It is also important to teach our students not only what we want them to learn or do but also effective processes for learning and productivity. As these are the key to long term success (even in difficult subjects and tasks). 

Watch this space as I explore the practicality of this notion of life long learning, sharing tools methods and attitude to assist us in this life long journey