The foundational principles that inform the science of learning
The Four Pillars of Learning
The concept of ‘learning’ can actually be difficult to pin down.
Learning calculus is different from learning how to play Mario Kart, which is different from learning that someone shaking their head means ‘no’ in some cultures, and ‘yes’ in others.
Most learning theorists divide learning into 4 different categories. These are often known as the ‘4 pillars of learning’ and they were first recorded by UNESCO in 1996. Collectively, they cover all the major types of learning – though often different education systems will cover a mixture of 2 or more.
These pillars are: learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; learning to be.
For the purposes of this pathway, ‘learning’ will mostly refer to the first pillar, and occasionally the second.
Learning as a Science
The science of learning combines data, research and practices from a diverse range of disciplines, including cognitive neuroscience, data science, learning analytics, behavioral economics and educational psychology.
This approach aims to combine all of these approaches to understand how learning occurs, with the overarching objective of optimizing learning.
The aim is to answer 3 main questions. How can you motivate people to learn? How can you get people to remember information? And how can you help people to apply that information in the future?
These questions, whose answers often overlap, form the ongoing guidelines for the science of learning.
How Much Can We Really Learn?
For many people, forgetting things is just an unfortunate fact of life. Sometimes, there are things that you don’t want to remember, like a catchy jingle from a car insurance advert that sticks in your head. Other times, there are things that you desperately need to remember that you can’t recall.
It’s easy to think that this is just a result of your brain’s natural limitations.
In fact, the human brain has a learning capacity of about 2.5 Petabytes. That’s the equivalent of 20,000 times what you can store in your iPhone or 300 years of continuous television. In short, your brain is never full. As long as you learn to learn the right way, you’re always able to pick up more knowledge.
Moreover, everyone has the same total capacity for learning. This means that whatever you scored on an IQ test, or any other test for that matter, has no relation to your ability to learn. Everyone is able to pick up knowledge if they use the right techniques.
Innate Differences – and Why They’re Overestimated
One of the most important questions in the science of learning is the extent to which our ability to learn comes down to innate differences, or whether it’s something that anyone can improve equally.
This has been pretty well proven by multiple studies – humans have a tendency to overestimate our innate differences, such as claiming not to be a ‘math person,’ or a ‘language person.’
As researchers understand more and more about the brain and how it learns, there seems to be less and less evidence that people are naturally predisposed to be good or bad learners.
With the right environment and motivation, anyone can be a good learner. This is because of a concept called neuroplasticity.
Our brains reshape and remold themselves throughout their lives. At a neurological level, ‘learning’ something means that our brain has recognized a neural pathway and stored an image of it.
Our synapses are constantly changing throughout our lives, and these changes reflect what we learn.
‘Neuroplasticity’ refers to our brain’s ability to form new pathways, and also to recognize new kinds of pathways.
While our neuroplasticity as a child is incredibly strong, we also retain pretty good neuroplasticity throughout our entire adult life. That ability to train our brain to recognize new pathways never really goes away.
So, even if you feel you started off on a bad foot, the good news is that learning is mutable: it’s an acquired skill.
Fundamentally, you can remold your mind to make yourself better at learning.
How Mastering Concepts Creates Neuroplasticity
There are some similarities between brains and computers – but one of the key differences is that the more information is stored by the brain, the faster it gets at learning, and the more capacious its memory becomes. In this sense, it is more like a muscle than a computer.
If you keep learning new concepts, your brain will be progressively better-adapted to understanding new information.
Think of newly learned information as a volleyball coming over a net. If there are ten people on the side receiving the ball, they’re going to be much more likely to be able to keep it up in the air than if there were just 2.
In this analogy, the people receiving the ball are the brain’s prior knowledge. If you can align a new piece of information with ideas and memories that you already have, then you’ll be much more likely to sustain that piece of information in your memory – to keep the ball in the air.
This is effectively how neuroplasticity is created – the stronger the network of existing knowledge, the easier it is to assimilate new knowledge into that network.
Another highly important aspect of learning is error feedback – the process by which we handle mistakes in learning. This is a very important factor, both in learning itself, and in our motivation to learn.
Not all that long ago, a standard practice in British and American schools was to use a ‘dunce’s cap.’ The dunce’s cap approach to learning was simple. The child who got the most answers wrong that day would be forced to sit in the corner with a large cap with a capital ‘D’ for dunce (meaning idiot) written on it.
While the dunce’s cap is fortunately a thing of the past, its legacy remains in many educational systems. Students, teachers and parents all operate under the belief that making mistakes is fundamentally undesirable, and sometimes worthy of punishment.
This stigmatizes learning: punishment stops us from engaging. Conversely, good error processing occurs when students are encouraged to participate and generate responses; and then quickly receive objective, non-punitive feedback that enables them to correct themselves.
If we are shown that errors are a natural part of learning and an opportunity to refine their exploration, we’ll learn far more quickly.
Back in college, you may have found yourself pulling an all-nighter to meet your deadline or nail an exam.
This can sometimes work for short-term gains. However, it almost never works in the long term – while you’ll remember the stuff during that 24 hour period for the test, you won’t remember it for any longer than that.
That’s because consolidation is necessary for knowledge to be stored long term.
Consolidation occurs when the knowledge and skills we have acquired shift from effortful processing to unconscious, and automatic expertise. When we are consolidating, we are learning not just consciously but subconsciously.
In fact, our brains consolidate new knowledge most effectively while we are asleep. Our dreams allow us to have a whole new landscape of exploration, active engagement and error feedback.
Next time you’re trying to learn something, try reading it through before you go to bed – you’ll thank yourself in the morning.
Tapping into the Emotional Brain
Think back to a time at school when you were trying to learn something. How did you feel? Most people have a stronger recollection of how they felt at school – bored, happy, sad – than of the specific moments that they learned new information. Put simply, our minds are hardwired to remember emotional responses.
This phenomenon is now widely studied. John MacBeath, Chair of Educational Leadership at the University of Cambridge, says that, when we look back on our school days as adults, it’s the “peak moments of enjoyment and discovery” that make some memories stand out more than others.
This is not something that works just in theory: magazine articles that make you shocked or angry will stick in your head for longer. That’s why so many tabloids frame their headlines to elicit such extreme emotive responses.
Rather than suppressing your emotions while trying to study, why not try to embrace them. If you can tie the content you’re learning to the emotions you’re feeling, you’re far more likely to remember them.