Brain Science: The Neuroscience of Teaching and Learning

Written By

Art Kohn

February 20, 2014

Let me begin with a confession: I think that brain science is the most fascinating topic in the world. Our brain controls everything that is interesting about us; our memories, our passions, our thinking, and our learning are all controlled by our brain. And in the coming months I will do my best to show you how a knowledge of the brain will help you to become a more effective designer and developer of eLearning and performance support.

An introduction

Let me begin by introducing myself. I am a neuropsychologist and I earned my PhD more than 20 years ago at Duke University. Since then, I have had the privilege of teaching and conducting research in more than 50 countries, and in some of the world’s finest laboratories. The focus of my work is to understand the way people learn, think, and behave.

In this column, I want to share my passion for the brain and to offer examples of the ways in which brain science can be intriguing, fun, and ultimately useful.

Each month, we will have a chance to explore how the brain creates our experience of the world. We will begin in the hippocampus, a structure buried deep inside the brain that stores, and sometimes invents, our short- and long-term memories. We will also explore the frontal lobe, the massive cortical area that coordinates our thoughts, emotions, and planning.

In turn, we will explore how we can apply brain science to the real world. For example, we will visit a large corporation that has vastly improved recall and behavior transfer by applying a few simple brain rules. We will also visit Zimbabwe, an African country were we are trying to use training to help people stay safe in the face of the world’s deadliest pandemic.

Why should we study the mind?

It is reasonable to ask why we ought to spend time studying the brain. After all, we are busy educators and isn’t the brain really in the domain of biology? What does the brain have to do with teaching and learning? It is a fair question, and I’d like to provide you with two answers.

First, let me ask you a question. Can you remember the first car you owned? What was its brand and color? Can you recite the alphabet? Can you imagine the color red? You can certainly do all of these things, and the reason is because this information is somehow stored in your brain. Indeed, your every memory, thought, image, and dream, all of them, are somehow stored within the 100-billion nerve cells in your brain. Everything about you is somehow, miraculously, encoded within these cells. So, if you want to understand the learner, if you want to understand yourself, it is essential to look at the way that our brains function.

The ergonomics of the brain

The second reason to study the brain is more practical, and I can explain it with a metaphor. Let’s say you are trying to design a new chair. You want the chair to be comfortable, so you need to study the people who will ultimately be using it. You need to know about the shape of their posterior, and about the curvature of their spine. You will also want to know about their average height and weight and what they are going to be doing while sitting in your chair.

In other words, you are going to want to study the ergonomics of your customers. Ergonomics (which is also called Human Factors) is the science of designing products and tools in ways that are compatible with people’s strengths.

The same logic should apply if you are creating an effective teaching and learning program. If you want people to learn, retain, and ultimately transfer knowledge to the workplace, it is essential that you understand the ergonomics of the brain. Our brain is enormously powerful; it can remember vast amounts of information, so we need to design training that is compatible with the brain’s natural ways of learning.

And so we are begun. In the following months, I will explore topics like assessment, consciousness, critical thinking, decision making, leadership, gender, IQ, and personality. I can’t wait to get started. Please stay in touch.

Want to learn more?

Each month I will recommend a book or website where you can learn more about the brain and learning. This month, I point you toward Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Dr. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work in cognition. His book is very readable, and it summarizes materials that will be of interest to everyone who shares my passion for the brain.

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