I’ve always been fascinated by cognitive psychology. I remember, perhaps 6 years into my teaching career, thinking that I should really know more about the science of our brains and how we learn. Since then, so much more is known about optimising learning, like the relationship between working memory and long-term memory or the importance of spaced practice.
Over the last few months, I have been listening to a fascinating podcast by Professor Andrew Huberman who works at the Stanford University School of Medicine called The Huberman Lab. A number of things from the podcast have really resonated with me, and I wondered if they could have application in our schools to further enhance learning. Here are just a few of them.
Among the many science-based tools and protocols shared, Professor Huberman describes how important it is after a bout of learning – and ideally immediately after – for deep rest to take place to improve the transfer into long-term memory. After a 90-minute bout of piano practice, for example, learning can be enhanced by having just a few minutes of resting with your eyes closed. I know that this exact protocol won’t apply directly in primary schools. But might another protocol take its place?
He also describes the importance of utilising the visual system, including having at least some periods of time each day for looking into the far distance. As well as being important for eyesight, your brain has significant rest when you are not focusing on things that are close up. Looking into the distance after a lesson could potentially enhance the transfer of learning into long-term memory. This is also why looking at an electronic device is unlikely to give your brain a good break after a bout of learning. A large proportion of our brain activity is generated by the visual system, so knowing how to optimise it to enhance learning is perhaps a less explored aspect of learning.
I was also fascinated by Professor Huberman talking about adult learning. He describes how, before the age of about 25, we are wired for brain plasticity. However, after that age we need to work harder for our brain to adapt. At the start of a bout of learning, our brain releases Epinephhrine – the name given to adrenalin in the brain. This increases alertness but can initially feel uncomfortable. Learning new things is hugely rewarding and joyful. However, in terms of our brain chemistry, it also comes with some discomfort. My current belief is that we need to recognise that learning is both enriching and uncomfortable. This is the biological experience of learning.
One final example. I listened to Professor Tim Spector, on the Feel Better, Live More podcast, questioning how frequently children should be eating snacks. He talked about the benefits that can be gained from stabilising children’s insulin response from them not eating too regularly and how that can improve concentration. He talked about how Italian and French children have different patterns for eating within a day. Do we know the optimal approach in this regard for maximising learning and improving health?
I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these subjects. I don’t suggest that you implement any changes based on this blog post either: I’m not knowledgeable enough on any of these subjects to be a prominent voice. However, I think there is scope for improving learning by listening to the real experts in the respective fields. I’m sure that there will be so many other lessons that we can take away too.
I’d love to hear your opinions on any of these subjects. All comments are welcome: what you agree with, disagree with, other possible areas of interest and other sources of information that I can learn from. I pick up my messages on social media and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I can be slow to respond, but I read every message! I would love to hear your thoughts.