Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast for Brain Fact Friday and EPISODE #167 on “The Neuroscience of Learning” that was inspired with an upcoming interview with cognitive neuroscience researcher John Harmon, who will take us through how learning happens in the brain as well as understanding what happens when performing a task (like throwing a football) while under stress.
In Today’s Brain Fact Friday, You Will Learn:
✔︎ The two most important ingredients required for learning and how they relate to your brain.
✔︎ Why being a know-it-all will get you nowhere when it comes to teaching and learning.
✔︎ How to use self-reflection to become more self-aware of your own learning process.
I’m Andrea Samadi, author, and educator from Toronto, Canada, now in Arizona, and like many of our listeners, have been fascinated with learning and understanding the science behind high performance strategies in our schools, our sports, and workplace environments with ideas that we can all use, understand and implement immediately.
This week, while preparing for our upcoming interviews, I had the opportunity to stop and think before writing this week’s Brain Fact Friday. Sometimes life is so busy, that we miss this opportunity to reflect on where we began, and where we are going, and just peddle forward without this reflection, missing some powerful moments of learning. Whatever it is that you are working on, take a minute to look back to where you started. It will help you to see how far you have come, and give you boost that I’m sure you could use at this moment. This will create momentum to help propel you forward, while increasing your own self-confidence with this self-reflection. This is actually a question in Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Planner[i] that was written based on the world’s largest study of high performers and how they increase productivity and win.
When looking at where we started with this podcast, June 2019, I thought back to some of the earlier episodes and remember before I was 100% comfortable with this topic, I would spend a lot of time preparing for interviews, reading EVERY book the person had written and carefully crafting their questions. Looking back now, I know it was because I wanted to be prepared, but I also didn’t want to appear like I didn’t know what I was talking about. Listening to these old episodes is another story, and not easy to do because we can easily pick up many areas that needed to be improved, (content as well as technical) but we must all start somewhere, and progress happens when we do. We can all benefit from looking back to day 1 of whatever we are working on- what can you LEARN from this?
Once you have looked at where you began, look at where you are now, so I fast-forwarded to episode #144 that was recorded this past summer with Tom Beakbane,[ii] on “How to Understand Everything” and episode #146 with expert in psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neurotechnology, Dr. Howard Rankin, Ph.D.[iii] on “How Not to Think” I started to realize that it was ok that I didn’t understand everything and saying so was freeing. I stopped reading every single book written by the person to be interviewed and stuck to their most recent and relevant book. While being prepared is important to me, I still practice interview questions, but stopped overdoing it, and think that this new awareness made me more relaxed with this whole process. Self-awareness goes a long way and anything we can learn to help us to improve is something we should take note of. I wonder if anything stuck out for you when looking back at where you first began to where you are now?
With this new awareness, I was finally comfortable enough to invite someone on the podcast whose work in this new field of neuroscience still puzzles me. It’s not like I could even explain what he does with his work, without reading his BIO but John Harmon said it best himself while preparing for his interview, when he mentioned to me that “understanding a subject and explaining it are two different things.” This lit up a whole bunch of lights for me.
I remember recently talking about this same concept with Chey and Pav[iv] on their podcast[v] this summer about teaching, learning and leadership when they were talking about how a math teacher can practice problems they know how to solve over and over again with students, and get caught up in forgetting how to “teach” a new concept because they are using rote memory. This math teacher began trying to solve problems with the class that they had not yet practiced. This is effortful, with some risk involved, especially if we fail. We risk “not knowing the answer” or “looking less than intelligent in front of others.”
So with these learning lessons in mind, for this week’s Brain Fact Friday, I want to focus on how we learn.
We did cover a whole episode #161[vi] with John Almarode, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey on their new book How Learning Works[vii] that unpacks the science of how students learn and translates that knowledge into promising principles or practices that can be implemented in the classroom or utilized by students on their own learning journey that I do recommend this episode and their book.
But for this Week’s Brain Fact Friday—Did You Know That “Learning Changes the Brain?” and that “Moderate Stress is Beneficial for Learning?”[viii]
So when I was reflecting back on the podcast, with what we have learned over the past couple of years, it was actually changing my brain. When I asked you to think about what you have learned since day 1 of whatever it is you are working on, it created a new neural pathway in your brain, and changed it as well.
Learning Changes the Brain: From the point of view of neurobiology, learning involves changing the brain. We have mentioned on previous episodes that neuroplasticity, or how the brain “changes in response to a stimuli”[ix] happens when we are able to create an environment for learning that is free of distractions, allowing for breaks where we can have those Aha! Moments where we know and understand what we are learning and this actually produces new neurons which is called neurogenesis.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, from episode #100[x] who covered “The Neuroscience of Social and Emotional Learning” reminds us that “Learning is a very active process—not one of investigating and retaining like a squirrel ingests nuts or a file drawer stores information.” Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education explains that “life exposes a brain to a limitless ocean of information. Even if a person manages to memorize a portion of it—to squirrel it away—it does them little good unless they can access it at the right moment and apply it to real-world contexts. Which is what I did when I realized that saying I didn’t understand everything really made an impact on how I’m preparing for future interviews, and whatever you uncovered should have an impact on what you do moving forward. That’s learning in action.
The task of learning is to transform some of that information into knowledge that can be used and acted upon”[xi] and this is what creates new neural pathways in the brain, that causes the brain to change with each new experience or pathway built.
Moderate Stress is Beneficial for Learning: We also must understand that moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while mild and extreme stress are detrimental to learning. When I first began presenting on the impacts of stress on learning and the brain, all too often we would talk about stress reduction techniques, since it’s true that too much stress can cause brain shrinkage, but the right amount of stress can promote learning. Since we are all different, what could be considered to be moderate stress for one person, could be severe for another, so each person needs to find their own balance of stress that in turn motivates them.
You can see the infographic in the show notes with 12 ways to combat stress that came from my presentation with educators on Stress, Learning and the Brain[xii] but this week’s Brain Fact Friday made me think about how it’s important to find the right level of challenge or stress to motivate each person towards improved performance.
If we know that learning changes the brain, and that moderate stress is beneficial for learning, what else can we do to facilitate learning?
Two Key Ingredients for Learning: While researching, I found two key ingredients for learning: motivation or a willingness to learn, and the importance of a cognitively stimulating environment.
Motivation or Willingness to Learn[xiii] is the starting point to learning anything new. “One way to motivate the brain is to expose it to anything new and unfamiliar.” (Page 13, The Science of Learning, How We Learn).
When I think about some of the articles I read on the topic of neuroscience that go over my head, there is something inside me that causes me to stop and figure out the meaning one step at a time. When you have a clear “why” behind what you are learning, it’s easier to put in the time and effort needed. “The ability to learn new things, whether that’s calculus, or hitting a fast ball, or studying neuroscience, requires stretching the brain past the point of what’s familiar or comfortable.” (Page 12, The Science of Learning, The Ways We Learn). I remember students always asking me “why do I need to know this? How does this apply to the real world” and while the real-world application is important, I think that understanding how we are learning is the key to future success. Once we know how we learn best as individuals, we can learn anything and the opportunities we can create for ourselves are limitless.
Raising Our Next Generation in a Cognitively Stimulating Environment[xiv] is another key ingredient for learning where we ask our children/students challenging questions that make them think instead of just sitting them down in front of the television, video games or computers. “Children who grow up in cognitively stimulating and linguistically rich environments tend to be more sophisticated in their knowledge of the world and their ability to grasp things.”[xv] As a parent, this one always catches me off guard, as there are many times that my children make a mess of the house creating forts to play in, and I have to remember to let them create these stimulating environments (for them) and suspend my need order in the home. When I sit back, watch and ask questions about their forts, there is always a story behind them, that goes much deeper than what I could ever imagine. It’s also those times when we don’t have access to WIFI that this type of creativity flows. When we spend more time in nature, walking together, laughing, and playing, we learn so much about each other away from our usual school or work environments. It’s just being aware of how to create these stimulating environments to be sure that we are always encouraging learning to take place.
Immordino-Yang reminds us that “education is not about hammering facts, procedures, and information into a person’s memory; it’s about building mental skills and dispositions that will help people learn and succeed throughout life.”[xvi] While practicing math skills certainly has its place, so does walking through a forest and letting the imagination and creativity flow.
Immordino-Yang’s work with students in Montessori schools also revealed many differences versus traditional schools, specifically that “Montessori students were more effective at directing their own learning” and that “they seemed more comfortable with not knowing things–which are characteristics that seem to correlate with improved learning at any age.”[xvii]
Which brings this week’s brain fact Friday into a close. It’s ok to not know all of the answers but when presented with something new and unfamiliar, we now have 2 new strategies to increase our own motivation (as well as for our students/children) and hold our attention, stretch our brain past the point of what’s familiar, to the unfamiliar—which is how learning takes place. It is not easy, it takes time and effort, but we all have the ability to use an understanding of our brain, to improve our ability to learn.
See you next week!
[i] Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Planner November 2, 2018 https://www.amazon.com/High-Performance-Planner-Yellow/dp/1401957331/ref=asc_df_1401957331/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312674808447&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=12785229814380293351&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9030091&hvtargid=pla-570847548926&psc=1
[ii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #144 with Tom Beakbane on “How to Understand Everything” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/author-and-marketer-tom-beakbane-on-how-to-understand-everything-consilience-a-new-way-to-look-at-the-world/
[iii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #146 with Dr. Howard Rankin on “How Not to Think” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/expert-in-psychology-cognitive-neuroscience-and-neurotechnology-howard-rankin-phd-on-how-not-to-think/
[v] Chey and Pav Summer Series with Andrea Samadi https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-summer-series-with-andrea-samadi/id1479094332?i=1000530611931
[vi] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #161 with John Almarode, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey “How Learning Works” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/johnalmarodedouglas-fisherand-nancyfreyon-how-learning-works-translatingthescience-oflearningintostrategiesformaximum-learning-inyourclassroom/
[vii] How Learning Works: A Playbook by John Almarode, (James Madison University, Douglas Fisher (San Diego State University) and Nancy Frey (San Diego State University). https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/how-learning-works/book279410#description
[viii] Neuroscience and How Students Learn article based on a talk by Daniela Kaufer Berkeley https://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/neuroscience/
[x] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #100 on “The Neuroscience of Social and Emotional Learning” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/professor-mary-helen-immordino-yang-on-the-neuroscience-of-social-and-emotional-learning/
[xi] Time Magazine Special Edition The Science of Learning Page 12
[xiii] Time Magazine Special Edition The Science of Learning Page 13
[xiv] Time Magazine Special Edition The Science of Learning Page 14