The Neuroscience of Learning

How the brain learns best – with Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang

Fear of failure. In many classrooms – and society at large – we attempt to drive achievement through scarcity. Why is this tactic prevalent, what are its consequences, and what strategy should be used instead? Especially with the growing reality of online / distance learning, is it time to redesign our understanding of learning based on how the brain works? Neuroscientist Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, in conversation with Josh Freedman, exposes the deficits of the traditional learning environment and offers educators practical insights on the critical role emotion plays in learning.

In a seminal NYT article, Dr. Immordino-Yang discusses ideal biological conditions for learning, and the predicament that “it is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” In other words, emotional investment is critical for learning, which is why students are motivated to engage with material that will be tested; their fear of failure drives them to study.

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Immordino-Yang, learning in this mindset is not only “superficial” and “shallow,” but also and biologically shapes the knowledge to be “organized around fight and flight and escape strategies.” On the opposite side of the spectrum is curiosity, a “nuanced, implicit and emotional process” during which “you’re open, you’re safe, you’re in a kind of intellectually playful place in which you’re sort of exploring possibilities.” But Dr. Immordino-Yang identifies that many traditional teaching practices “directly undermine a person’s development of…. [this] mind state.” 

So how can we, as educators, make the shift towards fostering a curious mind state in our students? This is a challenge in all learning contexts – from early childhood through to corporate university… and it’s magnified by the abstractions of learning at a distance. Dr. Immordino-Yang explains that it’s actually our social brains that are responsible for learning. Yet we discuss in a recent video, in virtual learning, the social brain is less activated. This challenge makes learning-at-distance even more challenging – which makes it even more important to focus on the social emotional foundations that shape the learning experience.

To unfold into curiosity, students need to feel emotionally safe enough to explore, and they need to know enough to have a stake in the topic. Dr. Immordino-Yang encourages educators to “expose [students] to the relevance of [topics]. Teach them so it feels important, then they can develop and foster a sense of curiosity in that domain.” Most importantly, educators must model the vulnerability and adaptability that comes with curiosity, the admittance of not-knowing. In truth, learning is a “co constructed” process in which “adults and children are both learners,” “a property of the dynamic cultural context they co-construct.”

Members of the Six Seconds community from around the globe submitted questions for Dr. Immordino-Yang, centering around activating the brain for learning, engaging curiosity, creating the optimal state for learning, and maintaining a focus on long-term vision. Read on to learn more about education across cultural contexts and how to foster a state of curiosity in the full interview below.

“Why would you waste time spending energy and effort and neurological resources on thinking about random things that don’t have any bearing on anything important? That would be a silly use of energy.”

Interview: Educational Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino Yang on the Brain & Learning

Key themes:

1. Activating the brain for learning.

2. Engaging curiosity. 

3. Creating the optimal state for learning.

4. Maintaining a focus on long-term vision.

1. Do students have to care about what they are learning?

Much has been made about creating “ideal learning environments” in classrooms around the world.  But what about inside the student’s mind? In a recent NYT article Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang discusses the biological conditions for learning.  She states “it is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” In conversation with Josh Freedman, she discusses these findings.

Mary Helen: I think it has huge implications. Let’s back up: That feature of our biology makes perfect evolutionary sense. Why would you waste time spending energy and effort and neurological resources on thinking about random things that don’t have any bearing on anything important? That would be a silly use of energy.

Josh: Mary Helen, you had a New York Times interview recently, and in the article it said, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” So, what’s the implication for educators?

Mary Helen: This has important implications for the way in which we design assessment, for example. I think a lot of the reason why we have these assessment systems set up on the way they do with all kinds of implications for what happens to you next. This big tests are mainly designed to deal with this attention problem. If the tests weren’t there, there’d be no intrinsic reason why the person would bother caring to think about this, right?

Josh: So, in other words, if we say to kids, “The reason you should care about this is because it’s on the test.”

Mary Helen: Exactly.

Josh: But aren’t tests motivating because they are important?

Mary Helen: Well, no. We’re activating the brain for learning, but in a very superficial, shallow way. The emotion has to be there to be able to think about stuff. So, if there’s no intrinsic interest in the material, no reason that that kid subjectively ought to engage in the information, we resort to things like, “Well, it’s going to be on the test.” As a way to sort of slap emotion on from the outside. Saying, “Well, there’s no reason why this is interesting, so we’ve got to make it important somehow. So, we’re going to give you some external standard by which to measure success.” 

Josh: [Laughs] So in a way, we’re telling learners: “be scared.”

Mary Helen: Yeah. Exactly. Be scared and do something about it because I have no other way to motivate you, basically. It’s a cop-out on the part of the education system.

Josh: But, isn’t fear motivating?

Mary Helen: Well, sure. But, here’s the thing. A small amount of it is, but, we rely on it far, far too heavily. I mean, fear is motivating, but fear, like any emotion, has a characteristic, cognitive pattern that is a piece of the emotion itself.

When you feel afraid it shifts your thought patterns and your memory. Fear means keeping yourself safe or to fight, right? And so, you are shaping the very nature of the knowledge construction, of the skill construction, in any academic domain to be sort of organized around fight and flight and escape strategies.

And those are not conducive to deep engagement with the ideas and their intrinsic interests. Their fear and curiosity are completely opposites in terms of the way in which they engage condition and memory. When you’re curious you’re open, you’re safe, you’re in a kind of intellectually playful place in which you’re sort of exploring possibilities.

When you’re afraid you narrow yourself to a very efficient, focused escape strategy, like, “Get me out of here, quick. I just memorize this, and I’m done? Okay. I’ll do that.” So, you’re directly undermining the development of interest and curiosity and long-term learning when you do that.

Josh: So if a goal of learning is meaning making, we’ve got to find more effective emotional “hooks” to engage curiosity.

Mary Helen: Right.


2. What’s the story with curiosity?  Is it a deal-breaker for the brain?

Curiosity is an aroused state of the brain that has complex and interconnected processes at play. Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang discusses the neurological state of curiosity for learning.  Her groundbreaking research on curiosity will inform educators everywhere.

Mary Helen: What’s happening when we’re curious? We know something about this and not enough about this. When you’re curious you are engaging in a kind of exploration of an idea, and that exploration is leading you. It’s motivating you and it’s leading you to engage with and follow things that you notice. So, think about the inherent subjectivity and skillfulness in that process. You have to know what’s worth noticing and what isn’t worth noticing. And so, you’re developing a sort of intellectual intuition.Josh: What’s the neurological role of curiosity?

That is an inherently a nuanced, implicit and emotional process. “I am recognizing that that is important, and potentially useful. But, I don’t actually fully understand it.” Think about all the metacognitive processes that go into those three calculations. These assessments are experientially-based and also connected to motivation and engagement.

Many of our educational practices in traditional educational environments directly undermine a person’s development of a proclivity toward a curious mind state. A curious state is one in which you explore and notice, and follow what you’ve noticed… and try to play it out… and question yourself about whether or not you fully understand and appreciate it… Then, come back around where you were before and re-examine what you thought you already knew, potentially with a new understanding of something else that might be related or a new connection.

Too much focus on external evaluation or product may reduce curiosity. But there are good pedagogical strategies that are known to increase curiosity and the kind of thought process that are known to support it. An example is really well-designed project-based learning.

That said, sometimes a kid isn’t currently interested in a topic because they don’t have enough knowledge or experience in that space to develop the sense of curiosity. In these cases, the job of the educational experience is to expose them to the relevance of it. Teach them so it feels important, then they can develop and foster a sense of curiosity in that domain.



3. Can we create “optimal learning context” for the brain? Is that a thing?

Educators wanting to refine their practice may be thinking they can create an optimal environment for brain based learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang helps us refocus by looking at the goals of learning we are trying to pursue. What kind of learning, skill and practices do we want students to be capable of doing?  This will inform the kind of teaching environment we should create.

Mary Helen:
The teacher not having the answers?

Josh: I was just in China teaching, and one of the things that was super challenging was that, in Six Seconds’ methodology, we focus on the teacher not being the one with the answers. But in the Chinese cultural context, that was seen as, “bad teaching.”

Josh: Right. There must’ve been something wrong with me because I didn’t have the answers. Even though I told the students, “In this class I’m not going to give you the answers,” it was very uncomfortable for them. And, of course, that discomfort has some benefits and some costs from a learning perspective.  So, I’m wondering: how much do you need to kind of go with the cultural norms, even if in some ways those cultural norms are not aligned with how the brain learns best?

Mary Helen: That’s a really good question. That’s a really deep question. So, I’m going to kind of challenge a couple of the assumptions that are listed in that question, okay?

Josh: Okay.

Mary Helen: The first thing I would say is that, this style of learning where the teacher has the answers and the kids were meant to try to discover them is not how the brain learns best. That’s a particular kind of learning. It’s the most efficient way to get to a certain kind of learning. What we need to appreciate is that learning is a really broad thing.

Learning is basically how a person organizes their thought processes over time. It’s building up resources that they have to call upon to be able to make sense out of what’s going on, to make predictions, and solve problems.

So, it really is a value judgement. It depends what you’re educating for. What’s the purpose of your educational intervention?

Josh: In other words, it depends on what you mean by, “Learning,”?

Mary Helen: Right. What do you mean by, “Learning,” so, what kind of learners are you meaning to build?

If you’re trying to build excellent, efficient sort of processors, then what you described as the Chinese norm might be a very efficient and effective way to do it.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to teach for citizenship, for example, to educate kids who will take action against community problems… or if you’re trying to teach for methodological and academic innovation so students are willing to ask difficult questions and then try to answer them… then you need learners to appreciate the open-endedness of certain kinds of problem spaces and be comfortable engaging with that uncertainty in a productive way. In these cases, the “teacher has the answers model” is not the most effective way to teach.

And in fact, in China they’re having a lot of problems with students being excellent at academic skills but not great innovators, not highly creative learners. It’s a balancing act. You need some of each. You can’t just be wandering around following your curiosities with no strategy, no limits or constraints, or no structure, right?

This is my value as someone from an international cultural background, but I think we need students who are capable of becoming aware of their own biases in the learning process and monitoring those. There are times when you really need to learn to efficiently crank out certain kinds of calculations. There are times when you need to be able to notice and say, “Wait. What’s the ethical implication of me calculating this thing?” Or me figuring out how to make a nuclear bomb? We need students who can ask themselves, “Is there anything else I should be thinking about here besides the physics?”

Skills such as rote calculating can become building blocks that you need to be able to apply later in the space of broader problems in the world.

If you overly focus on the acquisition of the building blocks, the kids don’t have a sense of how to apply those things in the world. If you overly focus on the world, they may notice problems, but have no skills with which to solve the problems. Again, they need to have a balance of both. We need students who are able to steer themselves in an active, strategic, adaptive way depending on the place in which they find themselves, depending on the context and the need of that context.

If they apply certain skills, can they back up and notice when there are ethical implications or there’s innovations that are needed? Can they become curious on how to pursue those? Then, once they become curious about something, and they recognize that it’s something that’s truly interesting and important, can they focus themselves to dig in, pulling up those building block skills?

Ideally learners grow a flexible, adaptive, skilled ability to engage. That also inherently means that there will be individual and cultural variability in what’s valued. What people will notice as worthy of or warranting attention and innovation, or what the ethical implications are for certain kinds of problems, is going to be highly cultural and value driven.

So what you want is students who can use their knowledge and their skills to actually prove and examine their own values, their own assumptions, their own world. And to use what they have as building block skills to innovate and make changes and solve problems when they notice that those problems warrant solving.

Josh: So, probably one of the key things is, as educators, as parents, for us to also be able to engage in that kind of agility ourselves.

Mary Helen: Absolutely. The teacher is someone who is highly skilled in the domain in which the students are learning. But, it’s not necessarily owning the answers. The teacher is there as a kind of facilitator to support the students being able to construct the answers.

That’s a hugely skilled job because it means injecting information when the student needs it. You don’t expect them to reinvent calculus necessarily. So, you need to say, “Ah, you know what you need to know about in this problem space? Let me teach you some math that’s going to help you.” And you go back to it.


4. Why do educators need vision?  What is their real role in students’ learning?

Thinking outside of the content — facts, techniques, skills and details — teachers need to be focused on the kind of people they want students to become.  Their intention and direction will inform not just the climate of a class, but the actual neurobiological development of their students.  Teachers have the potential to influence the future citizens, employees, leaders and thinkers these students will become.

What’s your advice for those of us who are teaching teachers… and teaching people who teach in the corporate sector… and teaching coaches… and teaching parents? Where do we need to focus to help educators to be able to achieve that vision of learning you described earlier?

Mary Helen: I think what we need is the educators have to have a very clear idea of what their goal is, what they want their students to be able to do. And that doesn’t just mean what skills they can produce on cue. But it means what kind of person do you want to facilitate these students becoming? What kind of thinker in this domain?

When you have a very clear vision for what high-level thinking and behaving looks like in the domain, then you can sort of step back and support kind of many paths up the mountain. You engage the students and support the students by providing and orchestrating opportunities for them to construct for themselves skills and experiences that will advance them toward that goal.

You’re very clear on what the goal is. You’re less prescriptive about what the paths are. Some kids are going to scale the cliff, and some are going to take the fire road that’s slow and long and meanders through the scenery. And some kids are going to hike up, you know what I’m saying?

Josh: I want to double-click on this thing about vision. A lot of times when people are in this space of learning, they think about the goal of learning, they’re kind of caught up in the short term, the test score. I recently had a group of school principals in Japan, and I said to them, “If you’re wildly successful, what’s going to be happening for your students in 30 years?”

In education, that kind of thinking might be something you do over a beer… but maybe not a formal part of what it means to be an educator.

Mary Helen: It should be a formal part of what it means to be an educator. I mean, I think you’ve touched on something there. We need to really think seriously – we’re in a changing world. Education is an institution that is here to serve our citizens in order to facilitate them and support them in becoming productive members of society.

As society changes, education has to move with it and be a supportive force towards a new kind of world. Towards advancing people toward a new kind of citizenship, a new kind of global connectedness, a new way of productivity. And we have to think what the aims of education are so that we’re supporting that high level goal.

What kind of people are you going to be supporting these students into developing into? That has to be always present in the conversation, so that the way in which you’re scaffolding, the development of building block skills is at the service of facilitating the development of a particular kind of engaged learner over time. And that goal has to be present in the conversation. But, for so many teachers – and I understand this. I mean, they’re so overwhelmed with so little resources and so little support to think this way that they’re really narrowed down and focused onto the short-term goal.

Of course you have to support the development of short-term goals. A kid has to learn how to add in first grade or whatever. But it’s not just so you know how to add, it’s so that you know how to think and manipulate things mentally in a way that’s appropriate for a kid of that age. And in a way that sets them up to think creatively and in an engaged way without the role of quantity in predicting and understanding the role looking forward. And so, we have to keep that in mind.

Josh: In some ways what you’re saying is the very kind of conversation you want teachers to be having with students about meaning-making is the same conversation we need to be having among educators.

Mary Helen: Maybe they’re on a different developmental level, and the content that they’re trying to master is different. But, adults and children are both learners. Actually, learning is co-constructed between them. It’s not a property of the teacher or of the student. It’s a property of the dynamic cultural context they co-construct.

This article was updated from the version first published Aug 3, 2017

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