Are We Wired to Learn?

Nowhere is the evidence of unbridled excitement for learning clearer than in a classroom full of 5- and 6-year old students. The 32 kindergarteners that made up my first class were fidgety, unfiltered, full of questions, and above all else, little sponges when it came to learning. We spent that first year together in a portable classroom at the far end of the campus learning our letters, sounds and numbers by singing and dancing to hand-me-down records, choosing partners to make messes and clean up with, and exploring the concepts of measurement, capacity and physics at the block center and water table.  

We didn’t all learn at the same pace, or with the same methods, but we all grew in big and small ways. That’s where my 20-year infatuation with how external and internal factors influence how we think, feel and understand began. If we deeply understand the ways our brains take in, process and synthesize information, we can design our instruction to lead to deep learning.It was crystal clear — each student needed a variety of ways to experience learning. Everything learned right there in that kindergarten classroom applied to all subsequent groups of upper elementary age students, college students, and adult learners. Our brains are hard-wired to learn!  

In the mid-1970’s. Ron Edmunds is quoted as saying, “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do this. Whether we do it or not must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we have not done it so far.”  The pressure is greater than ever to make sure students are proficient in math and reading skills and have knowledge-building strategies in many content areas.  Most schools and districts have plans outlining the improvement goals and steps needed to increase the percent of students meeting or exceeding those targets. How many of them consider the research behind how we learn best? If our goal is to make learning stick, we should explore some of the ways we can help make this happen and the tools we have available to assist us, including building playlists powered by the SAFARI Montage Learning Object Repository (LOR).

If there ever was a trend overdue in education, perhaps it is teaching in brain-compatible ways.  Although the idea that we only use 10% of our brain has long ago been debunked, we continue to be mystified by the capacity of the brain to learn.  We are only beginning to understand how to harness the true potential our brains hold, but there is a body of research that can guide us as educators to use what we already know.  In her book Brain Matters, Patricia Wolfe states “The more we understand the brain, the better we’ll be able to design instruction to match how it learns best.”1 This body of knowledge continues to change as new ways of learning, such as digital mediums, become pervasive.

Are We Meaning-Making, Pattern Seekers?

The path to long-term memory is unstable but can be strengthened in different ways. Information makes it to our long-term memory over time, by engaging the senses, creating patterns, making connections and through repetition.  The accompanying infographic, depicting a brain approaching a stop light on a highway, illustrates this process.

To begin with, there are an infinite number of objects, ideas and distractions competing for the mind’s attention, so the clock starts ticking to engage the brain in the first few seconds of a lesson. The encoding of new information within short-term memory begins with intentional planning of tasks to help learners connect multi-modal experiences and engage their brains, and continues by providing opportunities to access prior knowledge, and practice skills and strategies.  The final phase is locking information in long-term memory. This is a fluid process that only occurs with spaced rehearsal and opportunities to elaborate on earlier exposures. A few specific strategy suggestions to build upon include:

  •  Using advanced organizers to trigger attention and share lesson outcomes to make sure students know what is expected of them.
  • Building lessons to review objectives at the beginning and at the end because the brain remembers best what comes first and what comes last.
  • Being unpredictable because the brain pays attention to things that are new or different like storytelling, jokes or games. Our brains get used to patterns so being unpredictable helps strengthen memory pathways.
  • Using visualization, mnemonic devices and tying learning to real-life situations.  We tend to be more interested in things that have meaning to us, so this is a great way to emotionally connect students to the content.  
  • Incorporating collaboration and using healthy debate. Our brains are social and like to contemplate different viewpoints, so communication and cooperation can be effective in soliciting new ideas or problem-solving.
  • Engaging students in “meaning-making” tasks.  Brain connections are built during experiments and inquiry.  Analysis, synthesis and evaluation tasks create new neural connections.

How Technology Plays a Role in Retaining Information

The potential for forgetting points along this learning trajectory is high, so carefully selecting the right technology tool to assist in retaining information is essential. The SAFARI Montage Learning Object Repository (LOR), stocked with a variety of procured, curated and created learning resources, is a valuable tool for designing rich, brain-compatible experiences for learners. LOR helps teachers by warehousing tools to engage the brain. Playlists can be developed for classes or small groups of students, aligned to standards or specific skills with directions for use built-in, and designed for differentiated needs and with natural learning pathways in mind.  

Teachers can choose image, audio or video files as hooks for learning and string them together in progressions that include opportunities to move, collaborate or problem solve. They can then build multiple processing experiences using a variety of file formats, web links, interactive lessons coupled with pre-designed Slates that provide targeted instructional strategies to practice or deepen knowledge by comparing, contrasting, analyzing and/or synthesizing learning.­ Checking for understanding can be aided by a quiz, View & Chat student engagement tool, or Get it? interactive, formative assessment.  These playlists can all be easily edited, stored, shared and used in as many ways as you can imagine.

Are Today’s Teachers Transforming Learning?

Student’s grow up to become police officers, singers, guidance counselors, orthopedic surgeons, drill sergeants, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, computer engineers and more. The most tenacious, self-motivated and creative group of students have come a long way from that classroom where the words “confusion is good” was written on the board at the front of the room.  The reason for this is that the brain seeks equilibrium and can’t stay in a state of confusion for very long. Working through cognitive dissonance and productive struggle leads to greater understanding.

They hated it then, but watching the dendrites grow were some of the most satisfying moments to observe!  Teachers can create opportunities for productive struggle, and ultimately deep learning, by plugging into the brain’s natural tendencies, no matter the age of the students. So, if we have the knowledge, strategies and resources to help our students cruise down the information superhighway, what are the barriers we can eliminate to help them arrive at their final destination namely – student success?

About Dr. Rafalski

Dr. Shana Rafalski is the Vice President of Digital Instruction Strategies for SAFARI Montage. She previously served as the Executive Director of Elementary Education at Pinellas County Schools, FL and the Director for Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at Orange County Public Schools, FL. Dr. Rafalski has over 25 years of experience in education, including many years in the classroom, as a teacher, trainer and school administrator, and has presented at education conferences across the county including Council of the Great City Schools, Marzano International Conference and ASCD National Conference. Connect with Dr. Rafalski at [email protected], via LinkedIn or Twitter.

1 Wolfe, Patricia. 2001. Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development