How Humans (We) Learn

In response to Victor’s call for a design methodology and language, the content below cites current educational research on brain-based teaching and student-centered learning. Dr. Robert Greenleaf and Doris Wells-Papanek, M.Ed. (2007)[1] provide the following framework regarding how humans (we) process for understanding, retention, application, and transfer.

Source: Adapted from "Memory, Recall, the Brain & Learning"

The Sensory System quickly gathers all input that enters the human brain and body – most are discarded immediately. All humans, regardless of gender, age, or environment, learn through the senses. Our capacity to learn is largely determined by the level of our conscious attention to our senses. The more we are aware of what we see, smell, taste, hear, touch, or gather from the tone or mood of a situation, the more likely we will process information on a thoughtful level. If a sensory input is perceived to be interesting, offers purposeful application, conveys personal meaning, or spikes our curiosity with novelty, the more likely we will choose to attend and engage in a learning process.

The Central Nervous System
 is comprised of two components: the brain and spinal cord. The central nervous system is responsible for coordinating selected sensory inputs into the rest of our body (only those which are considered worthy of our conscious attention). Together they actively consider, filter, regulate, and integrate pertinent sensory input into short-term (working) memory. This central nervous system rapidly gathers, organizes, interprets, and makes sense of the inputs, to prepare our body and mind (peripheral nervous system – sensory neurons, clusters of neurons, and nerves) to adapt and take action based on need or circumstance.

The Short-Term (Working) Memory Process “draws” from long-term memories to link prior knowledge and previous experiences with new information for understanding. The more humans can relate to what they are learning, the more likely new short-term memories will link with prior knowledge or previous experiences and therefore result in new understandings. Our working memory “draws” from long-term memories to seek connections, make new meanings, create mental visualizations, and recognize familiar patterns, which in turn prepares the brain to establish relationships, organize information, create categorize, and consider new understandings.

The Long-Term Memory Process retains memories such as ideas, thoughts, interactions, feelings, and visualizations of events that become connected in the brain when “pulled” into working memory. Throughout life, the human brain develops critical connections between short-term and long-term memories, which in turn expands our ideas, thoughts, interactions, feelings, and visualizations of past, present, future, or imagined events. As the brain “pulls” retained long-term memories into working memory, further consideration is given to select thoughts. The frequency and levels of intensity of the activities strengthens connections, which in turn creates associated neural networks. Sorting and consolidation of the day’s events take place during sleep. The brain never stops processing, activity occurring 24/7 regardless of the state of conscious mind.

DIY Learning occurs when humans apply and transfer new learnings to other and varied circumstances. When learning environments and conditions engage multiple connections to the brain, humans are more likely to make greater attempts to process, take action, and apply new learnings, which in turn increases long-term memory and sustained understanding. Innovative learning outcomes are more likely to occur when humans explore authentic ways to transfer new ideas and feelings to other and varied circumstances. The process of creating multiple links, neuronal connections across many lobes and modules provides a rich opportunity for increased recall, transfer, insight, and applications reaching beyond the confines of the subject matter into real-world problems that require reasoning, problem solving, and communication.


[1]   Greenleaf, R. & Wells-Papanek, D. (2005). Memory, recall, the brain & learning. Greenleaf & Papanek Publications. www.tailoredlearningtools.com


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