Experts have described this as a ‘golden age’ of discovery in the area of learning science, with new insights emerging regularly on how humans learn. So what can educators, policymakers and any lifelong learner gain from these new insights?
To find out, last week we gathered a panel of experts at the intersection of brain research and teaching practice to hear their latest thinking for a live taping of the EdSurge Podcast. The setting was the SXSW EDU Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas.
Our panel included:
- Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University who works to translate the latest brain research into practical advice for teachers and learners. She also teaches Learning How to Learn, one of the most popular Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
- Andrea Chiba, a professor of cognitive science in the program for neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego. There, she also co-directs the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center.
- Olav Schewe, consultant based in Oslo, Norway, who has worked with universities and companies to advise them on how to use insights from neuroscience to make better learning programs and tools. He is also the author of books on effective learning, including “Super Student.”
They noted the growing pace of scientific discovery when it comes to understanding our brains.
“For literally thousands of years, we never really knew how the brain operated and how we actually learned,” said Oakley. “But now we can see inside the brain. And so in the last decade, there has been … just an enormous vault forward in understanding how we learn.”
The challenge, though, is getting those insights to teachers in ways that fit into their practice, the experts noted.
The stakes are high, especially amid growing concerns that some schools continue to use teaching practices that learning science has shown to be ineffective, such as in the case of reading instruction.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What do you see as the most exciting insight or area of research as far as what research is revealing about how we learn?
Barbara Oakley: Most people in the know are aware of the concept of retrieval practice, that building sets of neural links by pulling ideas from your own brain is important. But for decades, many educators have said that the idea of “drill and kill” [of pushing students to memorize key concepts] is bad. But drill is actually how we learn music … and how we learn a language … and math.
Andrea Chiba: There’s one thing that teachers probably know better than scientists, but that now the science is meeting practically, and that is that there are huge individual differences in brain maturation. And so what you’re good at now may not be what you’re good at later — and we have to recognize that. And brain development is protracted where the frontal cortex is still developing into your 30s, and I think that’s really important to keep in mind.
And the next thing is that the brain is dynamic, and it’s always trying to meet the demands of the outside world and the inside world — and that those two meet in similar brain structures. The idea that emotion and cognition are separate is just really passe. The truth is that the very same brain circuits process both, and they flip the dynamics of the brain on a moment-to-moment basis. And so we can’t expect people to be very uniform in their processing because it’s just not the way the brain works.
What’s an example of that flip between emotion and cognition?
Chiba: We all have those moments when we’re trying to function optimally, and we may not be fully regulated. Like maybe right now if someone asked me someone’s name, and I felt a little pressured and couldn’t remember it, I would know that name, but I would blank on it [and wouldn’t be able to say it]. And it could be that I’m just over my optimal peak of arousal. And what that does is it actually shuts down your cortex a little bit for focused attention and functional learning and upregulates it for quick reactive thinking. And so you’re always playing with this balance, so you want to kind of hit this sweet spot of learning for everyone.
What about you Olav, what are you seeing as most exciting from your research?
Olav Schewe: So I think we’ve all heard and know about long-term memory. What isn’t spoken as much about is working memory, and understanding working memory is helpful both for students and for teachers.
You can think of long-term memory as storage space — and you can store a lot there. I think the latest estimates from neuroscientists was that if you took all the books in the world that have ever been written and you were able to memorize all of it, you’d fill up a few percentage points of your long-term memory. There is just so much space there to store things.
But then we have another memory in our brain, the working memory, which works differently and is involved in thinking and learning as well. And the working memory is tiny compared to long-term memory, and it also differs from person to person. So some people can have a larger capacity in their working memory than others, and that has implications for how quickly they can turn around and think.
And this has implications for a lot of the things that go on in school. For example, there used to be this saying — and maybe people still preach it — that all students need to take notes at all times. That’s a sign that students are learning.
But actually research is showing that if a student is already struggling a little bit in the classroom because the material is difficult, their working memory might be working at full capacity. And then if you push another task on the student, say, not only do you have to sit and listen intently and think, you also have to take notes, it overwhelms the working memory and the learning goes down. So there are actually situations where it will be better to take fewer notes — and that’s because of working memory. And I think understanding these different parts of our brain is so powerful — for students to understand themselves and to be able to make better choices in their own learning.
If scientists make great discoveries about how people learn, that still doesn’t make much difference unless people are applying them where it matters — in classrooms. What’s some of the work that’s going on to do that?
Chiba: Yeah, one of the most difficult things is that everybody has different demands in their jobs, and it’s really hard to take the time to meet in the middle. But I think it’s important. There were six U.S. science of learning centers funded by the National Science Foundation that did a lot of work on just very basic questions of, ‘How do humans learn?,’ ‘How do animals learn?’ ‘What are the basic principles of learning and how do we inform education with that?’
And when those sort of went their ways or ended their National Science Foundation funding, a group of us decided to start the Global Science of Learning Education Network because this was propagating around the world. And so the idea is to really elevate the level of knowledge about the science of learning around the globe and then try to create networks that actually reach into communities, figure out what the communities need with respect to learning and try to inform that.
Right now we’ve just been disseminating information via seminars and things like that, but we have some working groups that are international, and a group that just started that I’m very excited about ‘knowledge brokering.’ [That’s looking at] what is the process of getting knowledge back and forth between these sectors? Because it’s very difficult and it’s not like things are always gonna be right. We need feedback loops so that we keep iterating and refining as we’re engineering the knowledge and the experience and the pathway.
How do we as an education sector try to combat the unintentional spread of misinformation when it comes to learning science, as has happened with practices now referred to as the reading wars?
Chiba: I think it’s a problem with every career right now, actually. And I think that’s why people don’t trust science anymore, when science is so very important.
Anytime you have information, you have misinformation, and then you have unintended overgeneralization of knowledge. And so I think part of it has to do with teachers becoming educated enough in [learning science] to become fluent, to have conversations. There has to be a back and forth so that the information can be understood on both sides. Because if you don’t understand the needs of the students in a particular setting, then you really can’t translate your science there either. So I really think as a community, we need to have people that work in between the scientific community and the education community so that we build a pipeline of communication. And it’s sort of missing. It’s all of our responsibility, actually.