Learner First – Unlocking the learning potential

As of today, over 160+ countries have mandated temporary school closures, leaving ~1.6 billion children and youth out of school. Even prior to the “physical lockdown”, learning outcomes had been suboptimal . Teachers have remained trapped in outdated curriculum, and teaching methodologies have not been able to generate curiosity (to learn) in the minds of the learners. The World Bank believes we are in the grips of a learning crisis, where 60% of children today globally fail to achieve minimum standards of reading and arithmetic as a result of poor-quality teaching. And while infusion of technology in schools might aid in enhancing students’ learning outcomes, technology alone probably isn’t enough to bring about the desired systematic change. We need to look at something far more fundamental.

As educators, we have all thought up clever ways of introducing a new idea, or a complex concept to our students. As we master this technique, we learn to make productive connections between ourselves, our learners, and the subject itself. Many other parameters also come into play – the classroom environment, activation of prior knowledge; use of multimedia (and immersive technologies; AR/VR), peer dynamics - to obtain the desired result and ensure that each student truly understands, absorbs, and enjoys learning. To make learning more interesting, we need to initiate actions that help students engage with content, which is only possible if we have a prior understanding of the processes that take place in our brains when we learn new things.

As our scientists continue to make strides in decoding the inner workings of the brain, our education systems are failing our children and young adults year on year. Teaching content and pedagogies have been designed with inadequate knowledge of the human brain. Our brain actually doesn’t like to do any intensive thinking – it’s not keen to engage with content that appears difficult/complex or disconnected.

How does our Brain Learn?
How to store Information in our Knowledge Warehouse

The human brain has two types of memory – a working memory and a long-term memory. Most of the everyday tasks are handled by the working memory, however working memory has extremely limited capacity -it can hold and process upto seven items for no more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. Only some of these items get transported to the second form of memory – the long-term memory. This is our brain’s knowledge warehouse. This transfer happens if the information gets ‘labelled’ as important by the brain. Our brain stores information in our long-term memory, without us being aware of it (this is why we’re often surprised by the information we’ve got stored in our memory banks). Let’s probe a bit further!

Our brain is a neural network, a mesh of neurons all simultaneously interacting with each other (billions and billions of them). Neurons in the brain are connected by synapses, tiny structures that provide an electrical and chemical junction between these neurons. Each neuron connects with many other neurons, “listens” for electrical and chemical signals from other neurons, and “fires” its own signal. The key is that information (or signal) received by a neuron should be able to make a meaningful connection with another neuron. When this connection is established, it leads to a successful outcome, like solving a math problem. The signals between the neurons then respond to strengthen this connection between them. The stronger the connection that is formed between neurons, the better our understanding of the subject at hand.

The expression that "neurons that fire together, wire together" refers to the process by which the brain constructs these neural networks. Similarly, neurons that fire out of sync tend to lose out on establishing this connection – making the ‘firing’ functionally fruitless.

The connections between brain cells aren't set in concrete; rather, they continuously change and evolve. If a neuron fires repeatedly (send signals) towards another neuron, then the synapse between the two grows stronger. With each new experience, our brain rewires its physical structure. That is, as you continue to learn and experience the world, your brain takes it upon itself to form new connections. The brain rewires them prompted by education, training or new experiences. These connections are reinforced with use, so that as you learn and practice new information, intricate circuits of knowledge and memory are built in the brain.

An adult brain contains three times as many (300,000 billion synaptic connections) and the child's brain has 10 times more connections than the web: 1 million billion synaptic connections.

It’s all about making meaningful connections

Each neuron makes many synapses (a 1000 on an average in the human brain), and our brain stores different kinds of memories through different connections. Our brain can contain over 100 trillion synapses – each of these is capable of being modified, removed, or regrown, bestowing us with an incredible capacity to learn. The specific changes that are executed determine whether it’s a short-term memory or a long-term memory.

As teachers, we need to make sure that we trigger these connections (in our students’ brains) during our teaching sessions. For learning to happen, information must pass through the short-term memory before it can be stored as a long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory. (That's why studying helps people to perform better.) For information to be ‘labeled’ important enough to travel to our brain’s long-term memory, (from the short-term memory) we need to pay attention. When we are not paying attention, the encounter filters out and is not transmitted to our long-term memory. Long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely, however this knowledge may sit there without being used.

The major challenge of remote learning is disparity in access – from electricity and internet connections to devices like computer or smartphones. The mantra of Digital Education needs access to smart phones and Internet – India’s smart phone penetration is 24% and Internet access is available to mere 50% of the population – most of which might not fulfill the minimum bandwidth required to stream this content.

Once we know how our brain will respond to a piece of information (a stimuli) it becomes easier for us to improve on the learning outcomes of the material we teach. We need to look for opportunities to make connections with the knowledge warehouse (brain) of our children. Hence, building context (to trigger a connection with something students already know) in our teaching enhances the learning outcomes. When a connection or an association is formed with prior knowledge, it gets further reinforced – the connections become stronger between the neurons. Hence, familiarity plays an important role to master any new piece of learning.

Having factual knowledge in long-term memory makes it easier to acquire still more factual knowledge

Connect- Extend- Challenge

If it’s all about making connections and reinforcing them – then a complex topic can be broken down into smaller chunks – now we need to string together these chunks. When the first chunk of information is absorbed by the brain, the next “connected” chunk is introduced as a stimulus for our brain to respond to it – thus reinforcing our knowledge about the topic. Reinforcement acts like a “stimulus” – positive reinforcements strengthen the learning behaviour.

The truth is that our brain isn’t’ very good at processing new information cold – it likes to have some contextual knowledge, alongside which the new knowledge can be placed easily. Contextual content makes it easy for it to make the connection and retain it. Sometimes we can reinforce context by borrowing ideas from other disciplines, this allows students to appreciate each discipline’s perspective in a connected way. So, a key technique to achieve this is chunking – breaking the original information into “smaller pieces of information” and serving them one after the other. And, yes, if this learning experience is followed by a pleasant consequence, then it’s more likely to be repeated.

A dose of dopamine does wondersA dose of dopamine does wonders

Apart from making connections, another way to enhance our brain’s response is pleasure – a dose of dopamine. A simple way to shape this behavior is to provide feedback on a learners performance - appreciation, approval, encouragement, and affirmation all go a long way. This is why gamification helps in enhancing a student’s learning outcomes. Gamification in education can encourage learners through rewards, repeated interaction (reinforcement), and thereby enhance retention and comprehension.

When dopamine is released throughout the brain, it promotes a feeling of pleasure; a deep satisfaction, and a drive to continue or repeat the actions that triggered the initial pleasurable response. The opposite is also true, if we struggle (due to lack of prior knowledge or foundation) and experience stress or frustration (material that students believe exceeds their understanding), or get bored during interaction (when students are asked to do lessons or drills on topics they have already mastered or that they see as irrelevant) then we tend to zone out.

Our brain gets stimulated by pattern recognition, and gains pleasure from positive learning outcomes, all of which increases the likelihood of repeating this activity. If students fail after repeated efforts to achieve goals and/or academic challenges, their willingness to put forth effort will decline. Over time, this leads to a defeatist mindset wherein learners believe that it’s in vain to challenge themselves. They become less likely to expend the effort on doing so and continue to fall behind academically.

No one is born with fixed intelligence levels

Now is the opportunity for the teaching community to collaborate and co-create content with the understanding of the dynamics of learning - putting students at the center of their learning and allowing them to be co-creators of their learning experience.

“Great teachers help create great students”. The cognitive principles that we just became more familiar with can now be applied to both students as well as teachers. Once teachers are equipped with the knowledge of the brain at a functional level, the sky's the limit!

If you've ever watched a toddler learn new words and concepts, you can almost see the brain’s neurons firing at each other as the child starts to recognize patterns and strengthen these connections. If you show appreciation or reward the child, there is a fair chance that this behaviour will get repeated. Achievement of the goal leads the brain to remember the related choices, behaviors, actions, decisions, and responses and to seek more opportunities to repeat them. What triggers the child to learn words and concepts in the first place? The point here is that young ones are curious, and their brains are malleable. Curiosity is all you need to be a change-maker.

If we are able to nurture “curiosity” as a skill, then children will learn with enthusiasm and sustain their love for learning

If we want our students to develop new skills, knowledge, and a growth mindset, it is foundational to spark curiosity. Our current school curriculum, stuck in an industrial-age model, has miserably failed to deliver its promise to our learners. Classrooms (digital or physical) don’t differ all that much from 100 year ago . Curriculum and teaching methodologies have evolved, but not enough to generate “curiosity” in learning. Students are unable to apply their learnings to real life situations, leading to poor performance, anxiety, and even burnout.

Many EdTech startups are promising to change the narrative through “personalized learning”, “learner-centric learning” and “competency-based learning” platforms. They are challenging the educators by using technology as a crutch to customize their students’ learning experiences. Emphasis has now shifted to the Learner-Centered – Learner First approach.

Will these new learning models, where students have agency and ownership of their learning experience, threaten the existence of the traditional schooling? What should we teach our children today that will help them survive and flourish in future? What skills will they need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around them, and navigate the maze of their life – in not just the physical space, but also their extended digital space.

What is the future of education for over 290 million children in India...when old models of teaching have collapsed and no new model has emerged to replace it?