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Learning About Stuff — Not What You Think

Learning Stuff Visualize to EmbodyWouldn’t it be wonderful if we knew the easiest and deepest way to learn implicitly with a minimum of explicit effort? Before I tell you how to learn about stuff in a truly “brain-friendly” way I want to share my own experience about brains work. I recently spent a few hours in an fMRI scanner as part of a study looking at the general processing differences between college-age and aging brains (I was part of the latter group). For most of the time in the scanner I did little more than look at pictures and pay attention. I wasn’t asked to actively think, as the researchers wanted to explore the non-conscious cognitive and emotional processes below the surface of awareness. The researchers showed me the massive amounts of neural activity that went on while I thought I was just mildly daydreaming.

About 95 percent of cognitive and emotional activity – and possibly the same percentage of learning — takes place below the level of conscious thought. This is as true for toddlers as it is for grad students. While most teaching is explicit, involving effortful attention, memorization, reasoning and thinking, most learning is implicit. This is why we learn so well from experience and observation, activities and engagements, and interactions and challenges.

Researchers Marcel Just and Robert Mason at Carnegie Mellon University wanted to know more precisely how implicit learning takes place, especially with regard to learning how things work. Their study brilliantly reveals our innate learning capabilities that are so often overlooked in explicit, standards-based teaching. But rather than just passively learn how the brain learns science and technical stuff, their goal was to actively develop procedures to effectively teach a wide range of material. Their study, published in NeuroImage, of learning most everything, illuminates the four cognitive processes that are critical to this type of learning.

The Carnegie team placed sixteen adults in scanners and taught them new material using text, words and diagrams. The materials included how four mechanical systems work – from a bathroom scale to auto braking system. The researchers were particularly interested in how the words, facts and diagrams were turned into mental representations that are at the heart of learning.

They found that learning how things work naturally incorporates four distinct processes that educators could exploit to teach a wide range of information.

  1. Visualize – the ability to construct a picture from the bits of information
  2. Create a Mental Animation – turn the pictures into an imaginative, creative mental motion picture that links each visualized picture into a process.
  3. Reason it out / make sense – the Carnegie group calls this causal reasoning, where the learner connects not just the pictures but the concepts in a cause and effect manner; Stepping on a scale creates a force that moves the sensors.
  4. Experience as action – or embody the learning. We learn by doing, not just thinking. Something magical happens when learners can picture themselves going through the actions, acting the sensible motion pictures out mentally or physically. Embodied action has repeatedly been show to lead to deeper learning stuff than thinking about or discussing information. Action, even implicit mental action, speaks louder than words.

The researchers believe that these four steps underlie true “brain-based” learning of technical, physical and scientific learning. Some important points:

  • Visualizing > Thinking — While the subjects study were partially using language the four learning steps are largely visual, involving mental or physical action. Higher order thinking in this study takes a back seat.
  • Non-verbal > Language – Most of this type of learning takes place on the right / non-language side of the brain.
  • Implicit Learning > Explicit Instruction – Learning how things work is largely a non-consciously learning process that can be exploited to heighten explicit learning.
  • Visualized, Embodied Learning Transfers and not confined to specific information. Learning about how the force applied when braking is similar to that when a fire extinguisher is discharged. This leads to a conceptual understanding of force that can be applied in many other situations. This is real learning that grows on itself and is useful in many different situations.

So the next time you want to teach something with a lot of facts, a science lesson or fulfill children’s deep love of understanding how things work try these three steps.

  • Have your students visualize the steps and concepts
  • Have them produce a narrated video in their heads of the process
  • Make sure they understand the cause and effect relationships and can reason them out – visually or verbally
  • Have them act out mentally or physically their understanding using movements and activities

Perhaps this is why traditional lectures and lessons often leave such weak impressions. Perhaps we should rethink what type of thinking we want our students to engage in. Once again, we see the value of active, engaged and embodied learning.

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