Understanding How Our Brains Learn


Over the last 30 years or so, researchers in cognitive science, education and developmental psychology have discovered some amazing things about how the human brain works, how our minds are naturally configured to develop skills, think creatively and continuously learn. See: Aligning Schools With How Children Naturally Learn, by Christopher Chase (2018). Studies in English Language and Literature, 59 (1), 37‐53.

You’ve probably heard that we each use only about 10% of our brains. That’s not quite accurate. Actually, while we probably use less than 40% of the brain at any given moment, the patterns and regions of activation shift continuously throughout the day.

These PET scans (above) can help to make this discovery easier to understand. For every kind of structured activity you engage in there is a corresponding “skill” pattern of brain activity in your head- coordinated with specific sensory input, thoughts, emotions and movements of the body.

Constructing complex knowledge representations and skill patterns is what the brain does best, its designed for continuous growth and learns from direct observation, practice and experience. Since early childhood, our brains have constructed hundreds of unique skill patterns, what the developmental psychologist Donald Ford calls “behavior episode schemata.” These correspond to complex social, cultural and knowledge schema, conceptual models our brains construct that represent and organize information about the world.

Our brains have constructed unique skill patterns for each activity we repeatedly engaged in, such as reading, speaking, cooking, golfing, driving, bike riding, algebra problem-solving, violin playing, etc. Every skill, worldview and ability we have was “self-constructed” from countless hours of experience, observation and practice- by carefully applying knowledge, methods and techniques- repeating actions over and over again until we developed progressively higher levels of comprehension and skill mastery.

As you might imagine, this understanding has important implications for learning and education. Our brains are far more creative and flexible than any computer or AI program that exists in the world today. They are self-organizing adaptive systems designed to self-construct integrated knowledge/skill patterns (Ford & Ford, 1987).

This is what scientists are referring to when they speak of the brain’s neuroplasticity, its natural ability to grow new skills and continuously learn. While such ideas may sound complicated, young children are “wired” from birth to master skills this way, intuitively. This is the process by which we all learned how to walk, ride a bike and speak our native language.

Unfortunately, formal school instruction won’t be successful if this natural “self-constructive” learning process isn’t respected, supported and encouraged. As educator Benjamin Bloom described, in order for meaningful skills and comprehension to develop “knowledge” must be practiced and applied. It’s only through repeated application of “information about something” that ideas are transformed into deep comprehension, real ability and useful “real world” skills.

For this reason it’s essential for people of all ages to enjoy and be interested in what they are learning, to concentrate their attention and experience positive emotions while they’re doing something. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as a person’s skill level increases and they meet challenges (that require activation of those skills) the result is a highly enjoyable “flow” state of consciousness, an optimal form of experience where focused attention and positive emotions arise when that specific activity is engaged.

This is learning happening, the mind being stretched and exercised through real life experiences. Skills have been developed, and then through practice they develop further. This is what happens when a skilled swimmer is in the water, when a group of friends is playing basketball or a child who loves to draw is drawing.

The flow experience is intrinsically rewarding, sometimes transcendent. There’s a sense of timelessness and deep connectedness with the activity and context, as our full attention is given to the task at hand. Motivational researcher Carol Dweck talks about such experiences as evidence of a “growth mindset,” a positive attitude toward learning that leads to even more practice time, and greater skill development.

Unfortunately, most schools were not created to promote flow experiences, growth orientations or mastery learning. Our modern school systems were designed at the request of wealthy industrialists in the early part of the 20th century, using what is called the “factory model” of education. The purpose was to create good workers, teach children how to work hard, follow instructions and obey authority.

Factory-style schools were modeled on industrial production systems and set up as “selection” and sorting systems for children. Teachers would provide information and then assess everyone at the same time in order to locate those children who demonstrated the highest levels of ability on written tests- not to provide meaningful experiences and skill development for all students.

In such environments many students will naturally feel discouraged, especially those who receive low test scores. They often feel anxiety, lose confidence and interest. Once they “turn off” and no longer pay attention they experience boredom. After that, they will try to avoid that subject area rather than spend any extra time with it.

The factory model is designed to sort children into social classes, to create “winners” and “losers.” Those who continuously failed would eventually “drop out” or leave school without coming even close to developing their full potential.

Back in the 1920s, the educator John Dewey described such experiences as being “miseducative,” inhibiting rather than encouraging further learning. Unfortunately, the test-driven model of education has dominated for about a hundred years now. That’s why millions of students all over the world have either dropped out of school or developed a dislike for learning, over the decades.

Fortunately, not all education systems have been designed this way. Montessori schools take a constructivist approach, encouraging creative play, mastery and flow experiences for children. The Suzuki method of teaching music is based on the idea that students need to love music and enjoy playing in order to motivate them to put in practice time.

European apprenticeship models and traditional Asian arts instruction- such as karate, tea ceremony and calligraphy- also take a mastery approach. All over the world, successful parents, coaches and teachers have long understood this essential relationship of interest and motivation to mastery and learning.

When mastery and skill development is the focus each learner’s innate human potential to learn is respected and given a chance to blossom. Adults are careful not to compare children to one another. There is less emphasis on external tests and deadlines, but more emphasis placed on practice and effort, putting in time- not watching it.

That doesn’t mean that external tests don’t play a role, they can, but there is no rush, no expectation that all learners should develop skills at the same speed. Tests can motivate students when they are assessing skills already there, but its de-motivating if the purpose is to punish or make comparisons to others.

What’s absolutely crucial is generating interest and motivation, as these translate into concentration, effort and progressively higher levels of mastery. Current efforts to transform factory model schools into creative learning communities take this approach, and have been highly effective.

Finland’s successful national education model is one good example. Here’s a description by Deva Dalporto, of Finland’s system:

“The emphasis in Finnish schools is on cooperation, not competition. Nina Brander, a Finnish teacher with 17 years of experience, says this is a key to Finland’s success. “In Finland we orientate more towards learning and working than towards marking and evaluating,” she said. Schools aren’t ranked and they’re all equally funded so parents can rest assured that whether they live in a city or a small country town, whether they are wealthy or not, their child will get the same, awesome education. “We have an equal elementary-school education for all children,” said Ms. Brander.”

What Finland has done can be implemented anywhere. During the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked with the research and development team of Hank Levin’s Accelerated Schools, a successful project started at Stanford University. We published the Accelerated Schools Resource guide and helped quite a number of communities change the culture and expectations of their schools.

Levin’s program was one among many whole school reform projects in the country at the time that promoted innovative learner-centered education. Howard Gardner developed Project Zero at Harvard, incorporating his theory of multiple intelligences. A Yale psychiatrist by the name of Dr. James Comer created the groundbreaking School Development Program –which has consistently shown itself to be highly effective with poor and minority communities.

ABC News was following the trend in education at the time and in 1993 produced a TV special on these projects, ideas and new innovations called “Common Miracles: The New American Revolution in Learning.”

Many of the “new” ideas  that educational researchers and cognitive scientists have uncovered are understood intuitively by most of us. Across the span of human history traditional trade apprenticeships, crafts-making and arts education had to be aligned with the natural way young people learned in order to be effective.

All of us have applied our brain’s intuitive understanding of neuroplasticity and the learning process as we have mastered various skills over the years. Those of us who have raised families successfully have facilitated and observed this kind of learning with our own children. It seems like common sense, cause we know this from our own observations and experiences. Our brains are “wired” by evolution to learn this way.

Unfortunately, during the last decade many of these new innovative methods and creative learner-centered programs have been ignored in the United States, sometimes even sabotaged. They are up and running beautifully over in most Scandinavian nations (and at the elite private schools for children of the wealthy) but are no longer being funded, celebrated or emphasized for the public.

With No Child Left BehindRace to the Top and Common Core there seems to be an attempt by powerful “corporate-minded” reformers to gain control over public education and re-assert the dominance of the factory model.

But it’s not going to work, their efforts are doomed to fail, because they are selling an out-dated model that is not aligned with the natural way children’s minds learn. It’s grounded in 20th century industrialists’ fantasies, not scientific fact.

Like the Hindenburg, the factory model has already proven itself to be a failure. Those who are trying to update this approach with Factory Model 5.0 are backing the wrong horse. And anyone who tries to run an entire nation’s school system with this strategy is building something destined to eventually crash and burn, not fly.

~Christopher Chase
The Art of Learning/Creative Systems Thinking

Related topics:

Flow- the Psychology of Optimal Experience *  * Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the BrainSelf-direction is the Key to Mastery * Invest in Children, Not Testing. It’s That Simple. *  *  * The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education- by Steve Denning *  *  Children Need to Be Free to Learn  * It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process  * Schools for Democracy – Deborah Meier *

About myselfFrom 1988 to 1993, I worked on my doctoral degree in Child & Adolescent Development at Stanford University’s School of Education. During that time I was a research assistant and core team member with the Accelerated Schools Project. After graduating from Stanford. in 1993, I moved to Japan, where I have been teaching about learner-centered education, English language learning and American culture at Seinan Gakuin University.

For the Developmental Systems Perspective see: A Living Systems Perspective as a Metaframework for Viewing the Dynamics of Human Experience by Elaine R. Parent.


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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81 Responses to Understanding How Our Brains Learn

  1. Nancy Osborne says:

    Great article. I loved what you said about Accelerated Schools. That was the most successful program we ever did at our elementary school (high poverty area in a suburb of Detroit). Trust me, we tried many different ones over the 31 years I taught there. We mourned when new leadership came in and wanted changes. None of the new changes worked and our school became an early victim of NCLB. We were closed and the staff was scattered.

    • Hi Nancy, thanks for responding. Yes, I’ve heard many stories like that. All the best whole school reform projects of the 1990s aimed to create a sense of community, to deepen the relationships between staff members, staff and parents, staff and students. Supervisors (such as those trained by the Broad foundation) and government officials who don’t understand that have dismantled what was working. It’s more than a tragedy, it’s a crime, in my opinion.

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  8. This article brought upon an epiphany to a situation that I experienced in the past. I ended up thinking of all of the wonderful things that I enjoyed doing and compared it to the life that I have today. I do a ton of research and development, but it’s usually segmented by aggressive depression that I have when a task is not accomplished. A lot of people feel the need to try again and again, but a lot of the times, I get this emotional response from my school years that just forces my head in my arms. If our experiences can create deep comprehension, would that also mean that things of our past might traumatize us, depending on the situation? I ask because each time I pick up a new subject for stubby, my attitude suddenly becomes resentful of it and I slowly put off things. It doesn’t feel like procrastination either. It’s honestly nerve wrecking.

    • Hi Toriano,

      It sounds like a motivational issue, probably related to the mindset you bring to your work. I’d recommend checking out Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The Psychology of Success.” Her main idea is that people develop a “fixed” mindset during our school years, where we were extrinsically motivated to study hard for the grades. Then there’s the “growth” orientation where you did something, mastered a sport, enjoyed reading, played music- for the joy and pleasure. It sounds to me like your mind and emotions are challenging you to look at your work differently, or find another line of work, something more creative. But that’s just a guess!

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  11. Interesting piece, thank you! Posting on Free Range Learning fb page.

  12. Neel says:

    Simply loved this article. Learned so much from it. Thank you ever so much.

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  29. Omar says:

    great piece. Thank you.
    Have you heard of “escuela nueva” in Colombia? Might be interesting to read what you think about what they are doing there.

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  33. biochemlife says:

    Reblogged this on biochemlife and commented:
    This seems to be opposite of what we do in school.

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