How We Learn

by Valorie Towne, Secondary English Teacher

If children don’t learn the way we teach, we should teach the way they learn. – Ignacio Estrada

As a student in a class entitled Theories of Teaching and Learning, I was immersed this summer in the study of the tried and true theorists Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky, Gilligan and Kohlberg. Their conclusions on the development of personality, learning and morality set a firm foundation for any teacher. However, a new jewel of a book was assigned, and the ideas I have mined from it have been like treasure. The book, How We Learn: the Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, refutes the common idea that we learn best in solitude, following set rituals of when, where, why and how to study. For some, the old way works. For others, learning is stifled and squelched. Research has identified some surprising ways the brain works while learning.

Researchers now understand that memory involves at least two systems within the brain. One is conscious and the other subconscious. Students choose to learn certain facts, such as a metaphor is a rhetorical device that adds emotional and psychological meaning to written words. At nearly the same time, students learn things subconsciously, like physical skills such as riding a skateboard. A beginner just tries hard to ride the board; she doesn’t think about steering, balancing and going fast as separate skills to be learned. Or a person may take in a fascinating fact while listening to the radio without ever choosing to memorize it. We also know that the right side of the brain is artistic and deals with visual spatial issues. The left side is the writer, the intellectual. The two sides work together as co-pilots. Considering how complex the brain is, and how it takes in not only facts, but feelings and lighting, and sound and nuances of all sorts, it is no wonder that students learn in different ways. Below, I will briefly cover five ideas that may help you understand how your child learns. And, as a teacher at HCA, I will be applying these theories to the best of my ability. If you would like to know more, please grab a copy of this book at your local book store. Or, you can borrow mine on the first day of school.

1. There is power in forgetting. According to Carey, forgetting is the brain working as a highly sophisticated spam filter. Forgetting allows us to learn more. Relearning what we forgot is also highly effective because the second time you learn something, it is embedded more deeply. You have interacted again with what you forgot, and this “reinstatement” causes deeper long term learning. Forgot something the first time? Don’t worry. Learn it again and know it better. As Carey writes, “We assume it’s all bad [forgetting], a failure of the system. But more often, forgetting is a friend to learning.

2. The First Principle Theory: Any memory has two strengths, a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Storage strength is a measure of how well something is learned. It is built up with studying and use. Retrieval strength is how easily information come to mind. It too, needs study and use to strengthen it, but it needs reinforcement. The harder you have to scrounge for the information and once the information is found to be correct, the more likely it will remain in long term memory. So, teachers and parents would do well to help their students review and retrieve, review and retrieve with as little negative consequence as possible when the retrieving is weak. Carey writes, “Using memory changes memory-and for the better. Forgetting enables and deepens learning by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some break down, that after reuse, drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally.”

3. Maybe we should break a few good habits? Scientists found, after multiple studies, one which included under water learning by divers, that recall of information is best if tested in the same environment that the material was learned in. Furthermore, if students studied the material in various settings, the facts became mixed with nuances of the setting and were easier to recall in testing. So when I ask students to study their Greek and Latin word parts in the car, in the hallway, while playing video games, and while brushing their teeth, it is to their benefit. Music also helps weave facts into the subconscious for some students. Cueing up the same music at test time will also help with retrieval. If a student finds himself stuck on vocabulary list, math equation or Spanish homework, a change in mood, movement or music could help.

4. Cramming is not efficient, but I bet you knew that. Though some students can cram to pass an exam, that information will not be stored in long term memory. A system for spacing out regular reviews, designed by the teacher is ideal. But a student can schedule regular reviews of important material that needs to be known long term. Carey’s book includes a chart that calculates the distribution of optimal study time in relationship to how long you wish to retain something. Many teachers and students find this information helpful.

5. Active learning and pop quizzes are best. Students, unfortunately, often misjudge how deeply they know material. They may study their notes but be unable to synthesize, apply or use the information they’ve studied. Active learning is best. Let your child tell you about the lesson, teach a sibling, blog about it, sing it out loud, recite it, retype it, write it with chalk, text about it or build it. Active learning is best. Teachers can aid this active learning with, sorry, pop quizzes if they give immediate feedback. And, feedback should always be given. “Even guessing wrongly, increases a person’s likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later test,” writes Carey.

My next article will be about problem solving, learning with distraction, learning without thinking, and learning and sleep according to Carey from How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and It Happens.

Above all, isn’t it good to know that the Lord created us, and whatever we may or may not know about the brain, He loves us and the way we learn.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful; I know that full well. – Psalm 139:14 (NIV)

Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens. New York, NY: Random House.

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