By Nicole Fauteux
John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules, readily admits that there is a paucity of data on how the brain works. He is also skeptical that what we do know about the brain can be applied to education. Nevertheless, he indulged an eager audience of dental educators with some fascinating observations about the human brain and learning during the opening plenary in Seattle. He also offered up some research questions and
a few proposals for redesigning how we deliver information in educational settings.
“The human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting in unstable meteorological conditions and to do so while in constant motion,” Dr. Medina informed the audience. “The little that we do know about the brain suggests that if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was naturally good at, you’d design a classroom.”
The developmental molecular biologist and Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University devoted most of his talk to discussing declarative memory, which he described as our memory of things we can declare such as “2+2=4” or “John is wearing a red shirt.” According to Dr. Medina, the goal of educators is to make knowledge “infinitely retrievable and not subject to corruption upon retrieval,” something he described as nothing short of impossible.
“Memory is not fixed at the moment of learning,” he asserts. “Repetition in timed intervals provides the fixative.”
How does this occur? Dr. Medina explained that when the brain encounters new information and it determines that the information is declarative, the memory enters a short-term buffer in the brain that holds 7 pieces of information for 30 seconds.
“If you don't repeat it in 30 seconds,” says Dr. Medina, “it goes away.” If you do repeat it in 30 seconds, perhaps by writing it down or repeating it in your head, the information moves into the long-term buffer that we commonly call working memory. The information resides there for 90 to 120 minutes and then disappears, unless, once again, you repeat it. What are the implications of this phenomenon for educators?
“You could bust up 60-minute lectures into 20-minute segments and repeat them every two hours all day,” suggests Dr. Medina. “Would it work? We don’t know. It’s a research proposal.” He repeated this mantra many times during his talk making it truly memorable.
Dr. Medina also suggested that this interweaving of content should take place across the years because research shows that it takes about a decade to solidly implant new information in the brain. He proposed treating pieces of information like immune booster shots.
“If you commit to be a lifelong learner, would that make you a better professional? Would you make fewer errors?” For answer, see mantra, above.
Despite Dr. Medina’s reticence to overstate his case, he appeared bullish about one approach to learning that he says automatically creates repetition cycles: hypothesis testing. He shared the intriguing story of a researcher who stuck out his tongue at a baby who was only 42 minutes old. Astonishingly, the baby responded by sticking his tongue out at the researcher. Taken with this experiment, Dr. Medina tried it on his own son and obtained the same result—over and over and over again.
He recounted an episode that confirmed his belief that humans are born with an ability to test hypotheses. The story unfolds with Dr. Medina holding his 3-month-old son and chatting with audience members after delivering a talk to a meeting of psychiatrists. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees his son’s tongue darting in and out of his tiny mouth. “The kid was knocking on my cognitive door, asking if I would come out to play.”
Despite the professional setting, Dr. Medina obliges him, and when he sticks out his tongue, “The kid lights up. He did a science experiment on me.”
The lesson Dr. Medina drew from this encounter is that when we exploit humans’ natural exploratory tendencies—their ability to use sensory observations to make a hypothesis, design an experiment, and review the results—we set up automatic repetition cycles that help to embed new knowledge more fully in our brains.
Despite the speaker’s stated skepticism about the applicability of brain research to education, ADEA members are clearly intrigued by the possibilities. They will explore The Science of Learning when they reconvene in San Antonio next March at the 2014 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition.