When most of us use the word “learning”, we automatically think of things we memorized or had to reproduce in some way in school. But from the point of view of the human brain, learning includes seeing things in a new way, developing a skill like riding a bike, conducting an experiment, learning to manage new software or beading a necklace. Learning from the perspective of the human brain includes coming to understand something in a new way, or making sense of something that has puzzled us.
Our brains are made to make life-like and useful connections between what we already know and what fascinates us, and the brain is most naturally and powerfully engaged when we have to search for something that is important to us. As human beings, learning has very little to do with memorizing isolated facts and data for a test. It is all about actions we get to take as a result of what we know.
Learning is a physiological process and happens when neurons (brain cells) reach out through extensions called dendrites and axons and literally “communicate” with each other. This means several things:
- To learn anything we have to actually DO something with what we want to learn. And that “doing” goes far beyond repeating something hundreds of times, simply writing it down, or memorizing it for a multiple choice test.
- We make the best connections when we focus on something that is important to us, and that we value and recognize as significant.
- The connections in the brain are at their most active when we involve our senses. When we can smell, taste, touch, sense or engage with something.
- The most powerful learning happens when we take time to describe, draw out, design or develop something in a new way using new understanding or new vocabulary or descriptive words. Also helpful is writing something out in a new way, moving something around, observing it closely, practicing it in a number of different situations, or teaching it to someone who asks questions and challenges our thinking.
- What happens when we pay attention to how the brain works is that rather than building in facts and isolated skills, we build networks or connections in the brain. We call these networks that include action, “knowledge networks”. The richer, more varied the application (how you use what you know), and the more it is tied to actual experience, the richer the networks.
Here is the critical question: If that is how we actually learn, how can we justify a program limited to “direct instruction” in school? What about having students master “material” that doesn’t engage them in active interactions and feedback with others or teaching anything without meaningful sensory experience? Just what exactly do standardized tests tell us?