What we know about the learning brain

Although there are many active debates within the field, there are some common principles and tenets of learning that all learning scientists agree on. Below we outline what these are and provide links for videos and other resources for those who would like to go deeper. With thanks to Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa at The Learning Sciences / Conexiones

6 foundational principles of human learning

UNIQUENESS. Human brains are unique, just like human faces. Although the broad structures are similar (just as most faces have two eyes, one nose etc) no two brains are the same. Each brain is constructed through a combination of an individual’s genetic make up and all their life experiences creating neural pathways.

DIFFERENT POTENTIALS. This follows from uniqueness. Each brain is differently prepared to learn different things. The capacity to learn is shaped by the context of learning, previous experience, personal choice, genetics, biology and the environment.

PRIOR EXPERIENCE. All learning is influenced by what someone has experienced before. A new stimulus is not taken in isolation. Instead, the brain decodes new stimuli and compares them with existing memories.

CONSTANT CHANGES IN THE BRAIN. The brain is constantly changing with experience. It is a complex, dynamic system that alters as it integrates individual experiences. These changes happen at a molecular level which might not always or immediately be visible in behaviour.

PLASTICITY. The brain is flexible, malleable throughout life. This means that connections between neurons change as long as we live. The brain is especially plastic in certain developmental periods. Pruning is an important counterpart to plasticity: as new neural connections are formed, others are pruned away. Plasticity is the physical manifestation of learning.

MEMORY+ATTENTION=LEARNING. You cannot have new learning without some form of memory and some kind of attention. School learning typically involves short, working and long term memory systems and conscious attention. But other types of learning – learning procedures, habituation, sensitisation and remembering events can occur without conscious attention.

You can see short videos on each of these principles here:

There are also several tenets of human learning that learning scientists agree on. You can see the background for agreeing on these here

21 tenets of influences on human learning

Tenet 1. MOTIVATION influences learning. However, what motivates one person and how may not motivate another in the same way.

Tenet 2. EMOTIONS AND COGNITION are mutually influential. Not all stimuli result in the same affective state for all people.

Tenet 3. STRESS influences learning. However, what stresses one person and how may not stress another in the same way.

Tenet 4. ANXIETY influences learning. However, what causes anxiety in one person may not cause anxiety in another.

Tenet 5. DEPRESSION influences learning. However, what causes depression in one person may not cause depression in another.

Tenet 6. Learning is influenced by both CHALLENGE AND THREAT as perceived by the learner. What a person finds challenging or threatening is highly individualised as are their reactions to the stimuli.

Tenet 7. Reactions to FACIAL EXPRESSIONS are both universal – there are six or seven emotional states recognized by all humans – and highly individualised. A person’s culture and their own past life experiences condition their responses to faces.

Tenet 8. The brain interprets HUMAN VOICES unconsciously and almost immediately. The perception of tones and inflections of human voices are both universal – basic emotional states, such as anger, are recognized by all humans – and highly Individualised. A person’s culture and their own past life experiences condition their responses.

Tenet 9. SOCIAL INTERACTIONS influence learning. Humans are social beings who learn from and with each other. Different amounts of social interactions around learning are desired by different people.

Tenet 10. ATTENTION is a complex phenomenon comprised of multiple systems supporting functions such as metacognition, self-reflection, mindfulness, states of high alertness, selective and focused attention. These systems work to different degrees in different people. These systems also have different relationships with one another in different people.

Tenet 11. Most LEARNING IS CYCLICAL. It advances and recedes based on stages of growth, reflection, consolidation, and the amount of repetition to which someone is exposed.

Tenet 12. Learning involves CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSES, which may differ by individuals based on their training and other individual experiences. Learning is also described as implicit (passive or unaware) and explicit (active or aware).

Tenet 13. Learning is DEVELOPMENTAL (nature and nurture) as well as EXPERIENTIAL (nurture). A person’s age, cognitive stage of development, and past experiences all contribute to learning and do so differently for each person.

Tenet 14. Learning engages the BODY AND BRAIN. This is sometimes called embodied cognition.

Tenet 15. SLEEP AND DREAMING influence learning in different ways. Sufficient sleep allows the brain to pay attention during wakeful states and both sleep and dreaming (normally rapid eye movement REM) sleep contributes to memory consolidation. The amount of sleep and dreaming individuals need can vary based on cultural norms and habits, circumstances, motivation, genetics, and rehearsed sleep practices.

Tenet 16. NUTRITION influences learning. Basic nutritional needs are common to all humans, however, the frequency of food intake, the gut-brain axis and microbiome balance, and some dietary needs vary by individual. Children cannot learn well when they are hungry in the moment, or systematically malnourished.

Tenet 17. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY influences learning. Different individuals need different amounts of physical activity to perform optimally. Interspersing physical and cognitive activity may improve learning.

Tenet 18. USE IT OR LOSE IT. Brains that remain cognitively active help development and can also stave off cognitive decline during ageing. Individual variations, including experiences and genetic predispositions, influence the final outcomes of interventions.

Tenet 19. FEEDBACK about learning progress influences learning outcomes. Feedback itself can be a source of learning. The type, frequency and use of feedback can influence learning outcomes differently for different people. Different tasks require different types of feedback. The degree to which feedback is attended to, perceived, and interpreted depends on the context.

Tenet 20. It is easier to retrieve memories when facts and skills are embedded in individually RELEVANT AND MEANINGFUL CONTEXTS.

Tenet 21. Brains detect NOVELTY and seek out PATTERNS. However, what is novel or recognized as a pattern by one individual may not be novel or recognized as a pattern by another.

You can see short videos on each of these 21 tenets here:

You can also learn more about the practical application of these tenets in the resources below:

101 useful readings (reading list)

50 practical applications for the classroom (slide presentation)

We have expanded and developed these ideas for teachers in our recent book, which shows the relevance of principles of brain function to the classroom.

You can buy the book here
You can use the discount code AFLY01 for 20% off.

But if you want to cut to the chase, here are some of the key takeaways!

Ten principles of teaching

* Plan for repetition, within and between lessons, terms, and years
* Feedback often, with kindness and specifics
* Train students to think about their thinking – make thinking visible
* Use testing to improve learning (as well as to measure)
* Encourage students to work in groups with shared learning goals
* Take time to work out what motivates each child
* Treat physical activity seriously (while making it fun)
* Teach the same thing in different ways
* Welcome in the physical world, with cues and examples
* Create an environment where errors can be celebrated

Ten key takeaways for teachers about how the brain works

* The brain is always paying attention
* The brain likes to make things automatic
* The brain can’t help making predictions about what is going to happen
* Emotions are not an ‘optional extra’. Physical and mental health, emotions and cognition: these are not separable
* Counting on your fingers is a good example of how the brain bolsters abstract learning with concrete examples. It’s not cheating
* The brain builds itself and changes throughout life. Different parts change at different speeds at different ages
* The brain undergoes enormous repurposing during adolescence which triggers a burst of socioemotional learning
* Practice makes permanent – so make sure you’re practising the right thing
* Learning is a lifelong activity for the brain. The more you do, the more effective it is