Monthly Archives: September 2012

What is Learning?

Post by Glenn Whitman

Concept: Construction workers inspecting brain

I have to admit an obsession I have for this school year. I am searching for the answer to the question, “What is learning?” If you had a chance to read an earlier post of mine, you might recall my strong support of how Dr. Mariale Hardiman of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education defined learning in her must-read book, The Brain Targeted Teaching Model. According to Dr. Hardiman, “Learning is a neuro-physiological phenomenon that occurs through biochemical processes in the brain and the growth and reorganization of neural connections.” I was certainly glad to see this definition as it affirmed the important work of organizations like the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s. In short, connecting the science of learning, how the mind works, to instructional practices for all students needs to be part of any measure of defining a 21stcentury school, a brain friendly classroom, or brain friendly teacher.

But I have been equally intrigued by the way one of my other favorite educational thinkers and researchers, Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, defines learning in her books, The New Science of Teaching and Learning: Using the Best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom and the more recent Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching. While a bit oversimplified, Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa believes: Attention + Memory = Learning.

Attention and memory are two of the eight neurodevelopmental constructs that 100% of St. Andrew’s pre-school through grade twelve teachers have foundational training in (the others are Spatial and Temporal Sequential Ordering, Language, Neuromotor Functions, Social and Higher Order Cognition). But who is responsible for maintaining a student’s attention and memory?

I would argue that from the first day of class, students and their teachers enter into a pedagogical partnership. Far too often teachers blame the students for poor attention and effort in memorizing information. However, as Parker Palmer once declared in The Courage to Teach:

“When I ask teachers to name the biggest obstacle to good teaching, the answer I most often hear is ‘my students’ . . . Criticizing the client is the conventional defense in a any embattled profession and these stereotypes conveniently relieve us of any responsibility for our student’s problems-or their resolution.”

Fortunately, St. Andrew’s pre-school through twelfth grade teachers take personal responsibility to collaborate with their students to address their learning strengths and weaknesses.

So what strategies do teachers use to enhance student attention and memory for all students?

Critical to maintaining student attention, what Dr. Hardiman calls, “The portal to learning,” is how a teacher designs his or her class period. As research shows, students’ brains have peaks and valleys over a typical class (in the case of St. Andrew’s, classes are either 40 or 80 minutes long). What students will remember most is what is introduced first in a class period followed by what is introduced last. How one times a learning episode is called the primacy-reasoning effect. Dr. David Sousa points out in many of his books, including How the Brain Learns, that novelty is key to student attention as is the ability for student’s to make an emotional connection to the curriculum and to find meaning of what they are studying to their own lives. Merely changing a room’s set up and decorations has implications for student attention. As pointed out in The Brain Targeted Teaching Model, “Children exposed to bland, unchanging environments become stimulus adapted and appear to seek out their own novel stimulation, often leading to nonoptimal behavior.” Lighting, smell, order and beauty have also been shown to correlate to attention. For years this has been the intuition of exceptional teachers. Now, research confirms that intuition.


Dr. Tokuham-Espinosa’s equation also provides insight into why students who cram for assessments, and even earn A’s after an “all-nighter,” cannot derive answers to those same test questions a week or two later. She points out, “While the students managed to keep enough dates, facts, and formulas in their head to pass the test, this knowledge never made it to long-term declarative memory, it was never truly learned at all (only memorized in the short term).” The implications for the classroom is that, “Teachers should devise assessment techniques that allow students to demonstrate the mastery of the knowledge, abilities, and attitudes expected of them over several weeks. One-time multiple-choice exams are not as efficient in measuring students’ conceptual understanding and true learning as other tools, such as student presentations or project work.”

Multiple choice tests still have a place in a student’s preparation for the battery of standardized tests (Advanced Placement (AP) exams, ACTs and SATs) that complete their profile during the college admissions process. However, if you really want to know how innovative a school is, look at how it assesses its students.

Regarding memory, practice is key. St. Andrew’s teachers recognize that students need more frequent opportunities to practice recalling what they know while recognizing what they have yet to learn. The challenge for all teachers is how to help students to get foundational knowledge and skills to “stick”. At St. Andrew’s, the increased use of formative assessments is a direct result of our teacher’s training in educational neuroscience. Providing students more opportunities to design projects or to integrate the arts into knowledge or a skill demonstration is happening in the Lower, Intermediate, Middle and Upper Schools. One of my favorite recall tasks for students are “Exit Tickets” that can be a single question on the content of the day or a meta-cognition (reflection) moment at the close of class. This provides teachers instant data on student learning while students mine their memory for information.

Learning is a complex process and the organ of learning, the brain, is equally complex. Therefore, to synthesize learning to Attention + Memory is overlooking all the many other neurodevelopmental demands on the brain. This said, those teachers who deliberately consider the impact of the design of their courses and their classroom environments on each student’s attention and memory and taking important steps to enhance student engagement and learning.