Having worked in education as a teacher and trainer for a rather long time, I find it unusual that we can talk about teaching without thinking about learning. However, in my experience, there still seems to be a very limited focus in teacher education programmes on how we learn. Personally, I believe that our job is not so much about teaching as about making learning happen, in and beyond the classroom. But how much do we teachers actually know about learning?
Moving towards learning-centredness
Until the 1980s, education was pretty much fixated on teaching. Maybe it was assumed that learning was an automatic outcome of teaching; however, I’m sure we now know better. In the 1990s, the view shifted more towards a focus on learning. This led to many new insights and resulted in providing learner-centred teaching, which many training courses are still focused on. But to truly empower our learners, shouldn’t we move towards learning-centred teaching? One of the main reasons is that learning seems to be more important than it has ever been in our modern age. Not only our learners, but even teachers need to continually upgrade their skills in order to keep up with the ever-changing demands of our fast-changing societies.
Teaching in changing times
Over the last 20 years technology has advanced massively and due to the use of brain imaging a lot more is known about how the brain responds to instructional strategies. However, for the most part we are still teaching the way we taught. Interestingly, our teaching interventions seem mostly based on intuition or assumptions of what we think works, according to Willingham (2010), and these are often wrong in serious ways. Even though research has shown that there is no direct correlation between teaching and learning – as many other factors play a part in what learners retain from lessons – there certainly is agreement that what teachers do and know influences learning (Freeman, 2002).
Learning – how does it happen?
Learning, in simple terms, means memory formation. Learning involves making physical changes in the brain that allow information to be stored and then retrieved later on. Every time we learn something new, changes happen in our brain. Neuroscience and cognitive science have now been able to more clearly identify which methods work – for the brain – and which don’t. Both Zull (2002) and Willingham (2010) state that these findings could have a positive impact on learning in the classroom. Now there is an enormous amount of knowledge about the brain which might not be essential for teachers, however as we are in the business of learning it only seems logical that we need some understanding of the biology of learning.
As Hart (in Tokuham-Espisoa, 2013) puts it nicely: ‘Designing classroom activities without understanding the brain is like designing gloves without having an understanding of the human hand.’ So, gaining more insight into how the brain learns could help us to create the optimal conditions for learning and thus more effectively facilitate the learning process. Isn’t that what our job is all about?
Neuroscience and cognitive science have given researchers more insight into how the memory works, which in turn suggests the use of certain strategies to make learning more effective. Little of the science of learning seems to have made it to our classrooms yet, but by better meeting the ‘brain’s learning preference’, we might well be able to make learning stick better.
1) Attention – to remember or to ignore?
We defined learning as ‘memory formation’ and the first step in forming any kind of memory is paying attention. Nowadays, overwhelming amounts of ‘information’ surround us, from the background hum of the AC to the voice of the teacher next door. In order to stay sane, our brain ignores 99% of the information perceived, in a process called selective filtering. And here lies the challenge with our modern-day learners, who seem to have acquired a habit of multi-tasking. Our human brain cannot multi-task on cognitive (thinking) tasks (Medina, 2008); we need to give our undivided attention if we want to learn something. Only what we pay attention to can be stored, remembered and thus learned (Crea, 2017). So how do we get the brain’s attention? New information is more likely to be attended to if it has relevance and meaning to the learners, or if it is novel or unusual and contains an emotional hook. In short, the brain does not pay attention to boring things!
2) Prior knowledge is like candy-floss
The brain makes sense of new information through relating it to prior knowledge. New information is ‘stuck’ to already existing knowledge with new neural connections to anchor the new concepts. So our brain is very much like candy-floss! The more prior knowledge we have, the more we can stick our new knowledge to it and the easier it is to store our new learning. This is why decontextualized teaching often fails. If learners can’t link new information to something they already know, it ‘floats‘ in the brain and can’t find anything to stick to. Activation of prior knowledge before reading, for example, is so important because we are trying to create an opportunity to find a context they can stick the new information to. What’s the best way of doing this? Creating associations between what you are learning and what you already know is the key. When beginning a new topic, get learners to think about what they already know; this can even be done in L1. The aim here is to wake up the parts of the brain that are already logging information about this topic. Discussions or using high-interest images on the topic are effective ways for activating prior knowledge.
3) Combine your input modes; learning styles still have their use!
Even though over the years categorising learners according to visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles has become recognised as an over-simplification (Weale, 2017), this does not mean that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic input no longer have value for the learning process. Sensory integration has a positive effect on learning, as our senses over centuries have evolved to work together.
Providing input in a multi-modal way, using various senses, means that new information goes into the brain via multiple, diverse pathways. This leads to the same information being stored in different areas of the brain (Medina, 2008). Because of this, more and stronger connections – such as visual and auditory – are being formed, which is called ‘deeper learning’. Possibly the most impactful discovery for us educators so far is the importance of imagery for learning (Zull, 2002). Human beings are biologically programmed to draw more information from pictures than text, as nature has built the ability to see and interpret the visual world into our brain. Paivio’s dual-coding theory (cited in Brown, Roediger III & McDaniel, 2014) confirms the impact images have on storing and recalling information. Showing a picture and telling a story meant learners remembered 65% of the story after three days, as opposed to just 10% recall after three days when the story was presented without suitable images. So, selecting interesting images and linking new vocabulary to these can enhance learners retention of the new information.
4) Forget it! Making learning harder to deepen learning
As already mentioned, the ability to ignore information is necessary or we would suffer from information overload. Remembering key information we choose to pay attention to, because we need to have it readily available, is not only helped by revisiting it later, but also by forgetting it! This might sound counter-intuitive, however research has identified learning benefits from forgetting. Distributed or spaced practice (Crea, 2017) means that we leave space between revisiting newly stored information: we allow learners to process what they learn and then allow them to forget it a little. Instead of revisiting it the next day, we revisit the new information every two days, then every four, then every eight, and so. In this way the neural connections in our candy-floss weaken a bit, which means the brain needs to think harder to retrieve the memory, which strengthens the connection each time that material is ‘found back’. How big the gap between revision should be isn’t clear yet, but Webb & Nation (2017) states that 15 minutes spread across several days at progressive intervals will lead to longer retention than 15 minutes spent all at one time.
5) The key to learning principle
‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.’ Henry Ford
For all these ideas to have any impact, we need to have one essential belief in place. For more effective learning to happen, in fact for any learning to happen, it is paramount that teachers and the learners themselves believe that they can become better at something. Intelligence is not fixed; your brain is an amazing organ which can change and rewrite itself throughout life (this is called neuroplasticity), and it will develop, provided motivation, support, effort and ability are present (Dweck, 2006). If you believe that learners can’t develop as they do not have ‘talent’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who believe that they are not ‘good at’ something will not put much effort into their learning because what is the use if you can’t improve? And as a result, they indeed do not progress much. Try to foster a growth-mindset in the classroom; using the word ‘yet’ can highlight to our learners that learning requires time and effort. But if they can’t do it yet, that doesn’t mean they never will!
There is a lot of research and evidence out there on how teaching in a more brain-friendly manner could enhance learning-centredness, and the above ideas are just a fraction of those. But I hope this blog provides you with some food for thought and a willingness to reflect on your own practice. Who knows what will happen when you tweak your current practice? By creating conditions for learning that are much more aligned with the brain’s learning preferences you might improve your learners’ learning opportunities and see them advance their learning! The ultimate goal of what we do.
About the author
Anna Hasper is a primary-trained ELT teacher from New Zealand, currently based in Dubai. She has worked as a teacher of young learners and adults and is a teacher trainer on Cambridge accredited courses. She’s a self-confessed addict to learning and is passionate about enabling teachers to enhance effective learning for all learners.
Anna regularly presents internationally and writes for English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher. Her special interests are teacher development, educational psychology and enhancing effective learning.
You can watch Anna’s webinar on how to make learning more effective here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXIdCgDjcdY
- Brown, Roediger & Mcdaniel (2014) Make it stick.
- Crea (2017) Memorable Teaching: Leveraging memory to build deep and durable learning in the classroom (High Impact Teaching).
- Dweck (2006) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.
- Freeman, D. (2002). The hidden side of the work: Teacher knowledge and learning to teach. Language Teaching 35 (1).
- Medina (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.
- Weale, S. (2017) “Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists” available at www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education(accessed 31 January 2019)
- Webb & Nation (2017) How vocabulary is learned
- Willingham (2010) Why don’t students like school? Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.
- Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain and Education Science 1st Edition
- Zull (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning