Ways to Strengthen Learning

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern. The clever phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together,” was born from a 1949 theory by neurologist Donald Hebb. One of the implications of this idea is that the more learning variations are provided to the brain, the stronger the information is embedded. By revisiting Kolb’s Learning Cycle and layering in modern neuroscience research, more effective educational environmentface-109968_1280-geralts can be created where students are given the skills needed to become active life-long learners.

Learning Muscles. David Kolb’s 1984 Learning Style Theory states that (1) we have a concrete experience, (2) we develop reflective observations and connections, (3) we generate new ideas, and (4) we then do active experimenting on those ideas. This brings us to having a new concrete experience and a new learning cycle begins. In a 2006 interview with Dr. James Zull, (Professor Emeritus of Biology at Case Western University, and Director Emeritus of The University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education), Dr. Zull proposes that too much effort is spent categorizing students as intelligent or not. The time is better used teaching all students how to strengthen their learning muscles. Learning about how we learn, he suggests, could be one of the most important things taught in schools. Dr. Zull summarizes Kolb’s theory as:

  • Gathering (get information)
  • Analyzing (take time to make meaning of that information)
  • Creating (create new ideas from those meanings)
  • Acting (act on those ideas)

Failures are Valuable. It is crucial that students feel comfortable to explore all possibilities, especially where the outcomes are unclear. Small groups promote the feeling of safety and the willingness to take risks (such as asking questions and sharing thoughts with others). By helping everyone see that “failures” provide useful information about how to proceed (or not), students will see the benefit of stretching outside their comfort zones. The fear of failing is often one of the key obstacles to making progress in learning.

child-877419_1280-jc621107Curiosity is King. Praising the students’ curiosity will promote the development of self-driven motivation and a sense of ownership in the learning process. This is a major factor in the continuation of the learning cycle. Also, it is wise to help students discover the value of written activities.  These activities can help curiosity build by allowing them to predict possible outcomes of their ideas, invigorate “what if” thoughts, and provide more time for reflective observation.

Question Actively. Ask questions and present situations that provoke an active response. The goal is always to guide students to see connections between the new material and what they already know. Take whatever ideas they offer and lead their existing knowledge into the new situation. It doesn’t matter how big of a stretch it is; what matters is respecting the ideas presented, building on them, and teaching the students to make connections.

Goldilocks Goals. In Schenck and Cruickshank’s 2015 article, “Evolving Kolb: Experiential Education in the Age of Neuroscience,” the importance of framing an activity with a goal that will continue to keep the mind engaged is highlighted. The brain is interested in a situation only as long as it needs to be, so the goal should be something that is achieved only when the entire activity is complete. If the goal is too simple and met before the end of the experience, the brain sees no need to stay involved in the learning cycle.  Helping students realize when their long-term attention in a project is waning, and then revisiting and revising the original goal, can be a powerful tool in their learning arsenal.

Working Memory Awareness. Schenck and Cruickshank also point out that the learning cycle requires the brain’s working (sometimes called “short-term”) memory. Anything the brain perceives as an immediate priority gets attention, so guiding the students to be aware of the their distractions will help shape their most effective learning experience. These distractions can include (but are not limited to): hunger, fatigue, fear, and other activities happening in the environment.

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Metacognition. Teaching these metacognition, or thinking about thinking, strategies are a powerful way to improve students engagement in the learning environment, which does not stop at school walls. Research shows that the brain continues to change and can improve throughout life. By fostering curiosity, self-motivated learning, and the search for ways to bridge between what is known and unknown, students can develop the enduring skills to actively strengthen and grow their brain’s neural networks for the full length of their lifetimes.


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