Teaching students to have an appetite for learning is just as important as learning itself, says renowned neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath.
The educator and author says learning is the glue that holds it all together. But is it possible, and how can we encourage a passion for learning?
How do we learn?
In the scientific lingo of learning, it comes down to three steps called surface, deep and transfer. In other words, Dr Horvath describes them as knowledge, context and adaptability.
The first step, knowledge, is the most important as the foundation of learning, he says. However, it’s become problematic in the age of ‘Googling’ where people don’t understand the necessity of learning and memorising facts at schools, he told Kathryn Ryan.
“[People think] we have access to facts on our phone so kids should be learning skills. The sad fact is if you don’t memorise and embody facts, you could have all the skills in the world, but you can no longer apply those skills because you don’t understand the facts you’re trying to apply them to.”
Knowing a fact is very different to looking at a fact, he says. If you don’t take the time to lockdown the facts, you can’t use your skill.
Once the facts have been mastered you can dive into the next step called deep learning, or contextualisation. Dr Horvath says this step involves looking at how the facts or knowledge are being organised, how they fit to form a narrative, and change when the context changes.
“So talking about the brain in a lab is very different in the way I might conceive of it in a biology classroom, or in a surgery operating room.”
Lastly, you can move on to adaptability, that’s where you try and adapt your acquired skills to a new situation with practice and effort.
This last step can be problematic for people whose skills have become so embedded that they do them in automatic mode, without actively thinking, Dr Horvath says.
“When skills move from active to automatic, our ability to transfer and adapt those skills starts to narrow, it becomes harder and harder.
“If you’ve been in a position for 30 years … and in comes this new innovation, you’re going to have to work so much harder to figure out what’s going on with your skills so you can start to tweak them and change them and not just go back to your autopilot.”
The craft of teaching in a learning environment
Often in the first three years of education, teachers will want to lock down skills for the students that should be automatic, like number and word recognition, Dr Horvath says.
After building that foundation, teachers will start to change contexts right before the kids fall into that automatic mode, he says. For example, they’ll introduce a new topic, work on it for a week or two, and once the kids start getting good at it, they’ll shift gears and use that same topic but in a different context.
“So long as they keep jumping context like that, what that does is that keeps the skill malleable, it never allows you to go fully into automatic zone, it kind of keeps you in that active zone,” he says.
“[Teachers are] keeping it active with the idea then that when they move out of school or when they get to the final exams - where there’s novel information, a situation they’ve never come across, some scenario they’ve never seen before - their skills are still malleable enough.
“So long as they approach that situation with the learning lens on they should be able to adapt those skills and make it work for them.”
Teachers should be good at discerning what skills are okay to remain automatic and what should be kept active, he says.
“It’s the higher order thinking stuff – what does it mean to go to war? What does it mean to create a piece of art? What does it mean to write novel that reflects the human condition? – those things they try to stay open.”
Does the learning process work for all children?
On the basic level, all brains work the same, and the learning process works the same too, Dr Horvath says. Even for children who struggle and have difficulties.
“The difference is what tools, what doors do I need to go through, what windows I need to open to make sure you can engage with and go through this lesson.
“So take a deaf kid and a blind kid, clearly I can’t use the same material to teach them but at the end of the day whatever material I do use they still have to go through the same process”
Another differing factor will be the speed or pace at which children go through this process, he says.
“How then do give them that time, if we need to move on to the next class, move on to the next content, or move on to the next grade? And there’s where we start to see kids who all pretty much start the same in kindergarten really quickly start to diverge.”
Just as important as this whole process, is one’s belief in themselves as a learner and finding the motivation or your own passion in learning, Dr Horvath says.
“Step one is that motivation, and the big buzz term going on around now is growth mindset, but whatever you want to call it, you have to believe that you can learn anything.”
And every human being is capable of learning, he says. “You need to believe that and you need to know why you want to do that, once you have those two things in place then you’ll want to engage with more stuff.
“But so long as you’re asking the question ‘why is this important? Why does this matter to me? Oh I can’t do that’ … those are the things that no matter how hard you try, those stories will impede any progress you try and make down the track.”
Combating debilitating beliefs on learning
Our brain’s prefrontal cortex can enforce these beliefs. It involves a top-down thought process whereby your expectations, understanding, and story shapes and can impede on how you view the reality.
“But once you get [older], we have such a hardcore story of how we think the world should be that any time a signal enters the system that deviates from that, our frontal lobe just simply pushes back, changes our system so that we see it, smell it, taste it, as we think it should be,” Dr Horvath says.
“Unless there’s massive discrepancies, once you get to our age we tend to live in our stories, more than in reality.”
For example, some children have the ‘because I’m _______, I’ll never be able to learn’ belief, and this attitude can hinder their learning experience.
In order to combat that mental state as we grow older, Dr Horvath says we need to expose ourselves to situations outside our comfort zone.
“If you ever want to change your story that active learning part, you have to get out of your automatic processing.
“The biggest problem with that is it feels gross … most people hate the sensation, it feels uncomfortable, it feels scary, some people say they get nervous. The biggest thing then is to recognise that sensation, which you think is gross, that is the sensation of growth, of learning, of changing your story.”
So how do we get people into that mode? Dr Horvath says the easiest way is through errors.
“When [there’s] a discrepancy between your story of the world and the actual world, when that discrepancy is large enough, you don’t have a choice, that active learning kicks on immediately and you’re in this moment where the entire system says let’s update your story.
“Because biology doesn’t know, when you make a mistake like that, biology thinks that could be deadly so we better update. You’ll never learn better, faster, quicker than right after you screw up. But only if you choose to stick in that gross sensation, which most people just don’t.”
However, for other children that debilitating belief is less embedded and more of a situational stress response, and Dr Horvath says that can be easier to overcome.
“Once stress gets prolonged or really super high, no learning and thinking is going to be going on until you abate that stress response.”
For example, when a student is in an exam and has a sudden mind blank moment and panics. Dr Horvath suggests that the student stop for a moment, take 30 seconds to breath and relax, and then start again by going back a question or two and trying to re-answer that to get back on track.
Leaving school with the passion to learn
Learning to love learning is one of the most important lessons that can emerge for a student in the education system, Dr Cooper says.
“That’s what you really hope that everyone leaves school with … when I graduated I don’t ever remember being taught how to learn, or what the learning process was, it was just kind of this thing that happened by osmosis and as I got older I learned to do it better.
“But now we know that it’s a very clear process that we can teach students, so that they can have agency over learning from a very young age.
“And then so long as we can find their motivation, their inspiration, congratulations, you now have a process and you have the reason to do it, welcome to the real world, the ones who learn are the ones who are going to be moving.”
*Dr Jared Cooney Horvath is the author of five books and countless research articles and has conducted research and lectured at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Southern California, and the University of Melbourne. He was in New Zealand with support from the US Embassy for the AUT Project Connect talk event recently.