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How Learning Works



I recently stumbled on this by chance. Curran, who like that other great neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of the outstanding 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat'), has shown unusual foresight and skill in making a highly professional study of what to a small number of us is glaringly obvious. What Curren has done in his many years of careful research is to develop an understanding of precisely how we learn - or, more crucially perhaps: how kids FAIL to learn.

My immediate reaction to finding Curran's work was the same as when I discovered that of Anthony Robbins.

It was all so very familiar (the essence, that is, not the neurology). I knew this stuff decades ago, I reflected, even when - especially when - I was a small kid at school. The facts Curran has come up with from his experiments could not fail to be obvious to anyone who bothers to open their eyes. As he clarifies himself: what he has discovered neurologically has been known intuitively since ancient times.

Why so few people manage this apparently monumental feat of opening their eyes is to me a great mystery. I, for some weird reason, find it more than easy: indeed, I can't help but to see what Curran has proved scientifically. Yet, scarcely anyone - certainly no-one who ought to understand such issues, teachers and educationalists, for instance - has, in my experience (and I've stood on both sides of the 'desk', as it were) demonstrated either the inclination or the ability to even begin to understand them. Those involved with education, above all, have nearly always seemed to me the most obdurate, the most ill-informed and the most unwilling to break from tradition... and the least inclined to attempt for once to broaden their understanding when it comes to anything pertaining to child psychology or emotion. It is as if their theory of education affirms that boredom and gloom are prerequisite to learning, while contentment and fascination are obstacles.

Enough said, I guess, because really I've hammered on too much already about the 'establishment' prats who my generation got lumbered with and who ruined my and many other people's chances of growing-up with a clear well-oiled brain that works fast and lucidly and learns like clockwork - as is invariably the case for Jews and the middle class (whose priviledged circumstances has given them the ability to outpace or outsmart everyone else).

You can wonder and question whether you were victim to the proverbial 'vicious circle' of ignorance and inadequacy - or whether it was the status quo as ordered by the Power Elite so their factories and armies could be sufficiently manned.

Either way, the result is the same. But that slave market is not for me - even if I was originally their victim - because somehow I've been able penetrate their scam and wade clear of the mire they landed me in (together with other working-class kids of the 50s and 60s and beyond). And somehow too, by some fluke, my brain developed enough active synapses to learn about the scam as well as certain things that caught my interest; unfortunately, the art of writing wasn't one of those - the bastards, by proxy, encouraged deliberate preclusion of that particular facility quite early on....



So here, below, is what AC has to say to an audience of school-teachers... on how we learn:

I am not a school teacher and have no right to try and tell you how to do your jobs. What I am is a paediatric neurologist who has spent (and continues to spend) a great deal of my time studying the brain and how it works. Modern science (whilst still a dead duck compared to the wonder that is nature) has now produced enough hard evidence to allow us to start on the long path of developing clear pictures as to how and especially why people learn. Strangely enough, it all comes down to neurochemicals, those little chemicals in the brain that dictate our every waking thought and feeling and which, if turned on in the right way, can significantly enhance our ability to learn.

They are very powerful little chemicals. So small that even the most powerful microscope in the world cannot see them, yet as they buzz back and forth between our nerve cells, they achieve the most miraculous things. They can make a cell so excited that it dies (not very useful). They can make a cell so inhibited that it sits in suspended animation for days or weeks (also not very useful). Most importantly, they can stimulate the necessary processes within the cell to make it grow a brand new connection to another cell.

And that is probably the most useful thing in the world, because that is learning.

Everything you are, everything you feel and everything you think is because nerve cells in your brain have grown connections to other nerve cells to form a pattern of firing that is hard-wired into you. Every time that pattern fires, you will remember that feeling, relive that moment, recall that fact, re-experience that taste.

When it comes right down to it, that is what you as teachers are trying to achieve in the classroom. You are trying to get the right chemicals into the right place at the right time so that each individual child in front of you joins up some more nerve cells and learns what you are trying to teach.

What are these chemicals? How can we help the child to get all this right? Numerous approaches have been (and are being) tried. In the old days it was threat, violence, terror. Very bad at producing the right mix of chemicals those things.* [see also] In fact, modern science can tell us that they were actually very good at switching off the conscious mind and pushing memory into unconscious processes. Nowadays, teaching is much more to do with getting children involved. Multi-sensory learning, multiple intelligence motivation, small group work, circle time, the list is long and growing longer. The key to all these approaches is the neurochemistry they switch on. Turn on the right chemistry in the right amounts in the right places and learning will occur.

And strangely, after all the money that has been spent, and all the vast laboratories that have been built, what it all comes down to had been worked out by the old village wise woman thousands of years ago – the most powerful way to get any child to learn is to make them feel understood as an individual, to thus build their self esteem and hence their confidence. And if they are in a situation where their self esteem is good and they feel confident, they will feel engaged. It is that feeling of engagement – a relaxed, focused attention on someone with whom you feel safe, that is the most powerful aid to learning yet to be identified.*

Focused attention in a relaxed but alert individual who feels a sense of reward or expected reward releases a chemical mix in the learning areas of the brain that wire together nerve cells into repeated patterns of firing. Those patterns of firing represent knowledge and the more often the child is exposed to that type of learning environment, the more positive their experience of school will become and the more they will learn.

* my emphasis - [It was precisely for making use of these understandings that I was most criticised on a PGCE refresher course I attended several years back. Being an incurable giver-upper, I happily argued the case - well knowing (while reflecting on my age) where it would lead: permanent rejection. Well, sod the bastards, I told myself - just as I had told myself as a kid. Let them get on with it: like in the 50s and 60s, the same mad folly, the same blind conformists - how the hell do they find them? - and the same miserable perennial results. I even told them I wasn't surprised to see the prison population ever increasing - and so it would continue until they improved their ways. But did they care? Did they even listen? Although I was well into middle age, and observed a certain decorum, they hated me. They couldn't stand being told these truths - those who have made lies a part of their being, hate TRUTH more than death. I was well familiar, of course, with the old dictum: 'Be wiser than other people, if you can - but do not tell them so.' But I was past the issue by then, and ready to move on to other things - and besides, what influence could my input make?].


Curran again:

I personally dont think that there is a value judgement to put on emotions. Emotions are simply a fact of our lives. The sooner we get to know them all intimately - and thus be able to experience them openly and therefore not be under their compulsion, the sooner they stop directing the directions our lives take.

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…our main learning neurochemical, dopamine, is controlled predominantly by the limbic system - our emotional self in its broadest sense. Our limbic brain evaluates what is going on all the time and decides what we will pay attention to and what we will ignore. The more emotionally engaged we are with something, the more attention we will pay it. Attention as a function is also part of the dopamine system.

So now we are paying attention to something, how do we learn from it? Again dopamine comes to the fore as the main learning neurochemical in the brain (which makes sense really. If you use the same neurochemical to pay attention to something as you use to learn with, then you are killing two birds with the one stone!).

Dopamine gets a helping hand from a couple of other neurochemicals, glutamate (which is all to do with excitation!) and a very long named chemical called gamma amino butyric acid (GABA for short) (which is to do with inhibition), but without dopamine learning cannot occur.

Dopamine sets in motion the processes that grow connections between nerve cells in the brain. These connections are called synapses and they allow signals to pass between nerve cells. These connections build up into patterns of nerve cell firing called Hebbian assemblies or templates and it is these templates that are the underlying fact behind everything we do with our brains.

So if we get someone emotionally involved in what we are doing, we get their attention. If we get their attention, then they will start to learn. So far so good. But how can we start that initial process of dopamine release that produces the results we want?

The answer to this is surprisingly easy (and obvious). As I have said dopamine release in the brain is predominantly under the control of our emotional system, the limbic system. So what turns on our emotional system? Well, stress will do that, but stress also turns on things that interfere with expansive learning such as steroids (that actually can destroy the nerve cells you learn with in the hippocampus, a brain structure essential for learning) and the big stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline (which, through their action on the amygdala, will drive memory into unconscious memory through the corpus striatum). So learning through high levels of stress is not fundamentally a good thing.

So how can we get our limbic system to produce dopamine exactly where we want it in the brain, and without too much adrenaline, noradrenaline and steroids? The answer is through reward and the anticipation of reward. Nature has set our brains up so that these simple concepts will optimise our brains for learning (which makes lots of sense in evolutionary terms – it is a good idea to learn well things that bring reward!).

Reward in us humans is a complex thing. What rewards me may not reward you. And this is why models of learning such as
Multiple Intelligences are so important. Find out what a person’s intelligences are, and you immediately have an window into what will get their attention and optimise their learning.

So we have now come full circle. If you understand someone, they have good self esteem and good self confidence when they are with you. They are then perforce emotionally engaged with you and what you are doing. Learning will then be optimised for that individual (which doesn’t mean that everyone can be an Einstein, but it does mean that an individual human can better reach his or her maximum potentials). It all comes back to that simple four letter word: love. Love an individual human for themselves, and they will learn from you.

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The final question that I would ask you is this – what are you taking into the classroom that is preventing you and your pupils making good emotional contact? Change that, and you will immediately have improved your pupils’ potential to learn.

And, perhaps most importantly, you will be having fun (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).

[my italics-pc - see also]

Andrew Curran is a paediatric neurologist working at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.
Go Andrew Curran's profile by clicking here


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Observations from others:

If individuals are able to effectively lock parts of their brain to shut out painful memories, to what extent would children be able to do something similar thereby limiting their interaction with some form of experience?


...we divorce children too much from the real world, cushioning them from any potential problems, so that minor difficulty can be magnified to incur greater impact than should be the case. This can lead to a heightened anxiety, rather than the calm that  parents and teachers may wish to be creating. At its simplest, do children actually engage with life...?


How much sanitised experience is being offered to children in and out of school and what is the importance of that for their futures...?


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