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The Art of Learning: How We Learn and Teaching Tips

By Janelle Hatherly

What sets humans apart from other animals is our imagination and our ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present. Other creatures might do this but only humans build civilisations, create technologies, make art and music, write poetry and histories.

From time immemorial, artists have struggled to find their creative voice, philosophers have mused on thinking and consciousness, and scientists have chipped away at how the world works. We put our imagination to work to see new possibilities, solve problems etc. We’ve been living in a virtual world forever, and now the Information Age is upon us.

The World Wide Web (created a mere 30 years ago) has enabled all humans to share thoughts and ideas like never before, and other technological advances have increased our ability to link and analyse huge amounts of information. The 'big data' revolution that swept the genomics field decades ago (allowing us to better understand ‘what is life?’) is now helping neurobiologists understand the link between mind and brain. Like modern day Columbuses, they are discovering the New World of the human brain and mapping its functions – it’s truly inspiring. But what exactly is inspiration?

In essence, inspiration is part of the highest form of learning. As long ago as 1954, Maslow postulated that humans are motivated to learn to satisfy needs, a condition that has evolved over tens of thousands of years. When humans take learning to its highest level, they are rewarded with ‘a-ha’ moments of self-fulfillment and creative output.

Maslow noted that very few people become fully self-actualized because our society tends to reward motivation based on money, status, love and other social needs. Although we are all theoretically capable of achieving our full potential, most of us are unlikely to do so.

Yet our contemporary world is the product of centuries upon centuries of such individualistic and collaborative mindfulness. Humanity’s creative achievements are all around us, and thanks to those who have learnt before us, today we have reasonable explanations for why and how we learn.

Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held belief that the brain is a static organ and that basic abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed traits. Brain cells (neurons) can be generated throughout life and there is some truth to the adage ‘Use it or lose it’! Brain imaging studies such as PET and MRI scans show that every time we learn a new task, our brain structure is altered. We grow more neuronal extensions and complex tasks become easier with repetition. With a growth mindset, intelligence/IQ is cultivated through effort and education, by confronting challenges, by making mistakes and persevering through failure. A growth mindset supports the notion that the harder we work, the more our ability grows.

Physiological changes also occur in our brain when we learn: performing cognitive tasks successfully causes the release of a chemical neurotransmitter (dopamine) in the human amygdala (in the mid-brain), and we feel happy. This feeling of happiness motivates us to try again until we learn more and more. In this way, learning promotes learning and, with practice, every individual can experience a degree of self-actualisation and identify with something bigger than themselves.

The highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy relates to thinking, learning and education. History is filled with step-by-step advances in our understanding. As far back as 400 BC, Plato and Socrates devoted their lives to philosophical writings; French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) postulated Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), and in the 18th century, Kant placed humans at the centre of inquiry into our knowledge. These constructivist approaches to learning spawned a huge body of fascinating research into socially-mediated behaviour.

Until the turn of the last century, education theory treated children simply as smaller versions of adults. Piaget identified that children think differently to adults. He believed children must be given opportunities to discover concepts on their own. Children are naturally curious; they want to explore and discover; they learn from everything they do. Vygotsky did not believe children could reach a higher cognitive level without instruction from more learned individuals. He stated that children should be taught in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which occurs when they can almost perform a task, but not quite on their own without assistance.

If a child receives the right support and encouragement at home and at school, they experience success and pleasure. This makes them want to learn more and sets them on the path to becoming creative, adventurous life-long learners.

Adults respond equally well to praise, constructive criticism and scaffolded learning (ZPD). Good teachers bring their own passion and joy for learning to others. They can quickly identify when and what an individual needs to help them take the next step on their own creative journey.

Basically, learning occurs when experience causes a relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behaviour. The change may be deliberate or unintentional, for better or worse. Poor teaching can actually damage or impede another’s creative development.

Learning is also highly contextual, and where we are and who we are with can help or hinder our creative journey.

Personal context is what we bring with us. This relates to our specific interests, life experiences and genetic makeup.

Physical context relates to the importance of place. We don’t learn facts and theories in isolation – in the abstract ether of the mind, but are influenced greatly by where we are and what is present around us.

Humans are generally present around us, and as social creatures, we visit in groups and learn from each other. The information we get from another person is as salient as the information we get from our own minds.

Many of the above ponderings have now been verified by empirical scientific research. Austrian-born Eric Kandel and his associates won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for their research showing how behaviour is controlled by nerve cells. Carrying out numerous experiments on Aplysia, sea slugs that have simple nervous systems (made up of 20,000 nerve cells), they were able to show the biochemistry underpinning learning and memory. With the ability for big data computation, these findings were then applied to mice and are now being used to interpret the human brain which has 10 to the 12th power neurons!

In 2012, the fully self-actualized Kandel wrote a fascinating book The Age of Insight (Random House) which is the best account I have ever read about the connection between art, the mind and brain. At last scientific thinking has been applied to art criticism, and we can better explain our creative journey and the art selection process. It suffices here to say: “What is seen depends on who is looking and who taught them to look” (pg. 190).


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