History of Learning and Learning Theories: Looking back to Move Forward

Yesterday was a particularly sad day for Brazil. It was our biggest death toll in 24 hours since the beginning of the pandemic: 1726 lives were lost due to COVID-19. Many families won’t see their loved ones anymore, many friends won’t be able to hug each other when this is over. Many dreams were shattered by this chaotic period we’re going through.

This all got me thinking. It made me reflect on why we seem to disregard (or refuse to learn from) the past when trying to move forward. Why are we trapped in a bubble of our own collective ignorance and keep making the same mistakes? Psychology and Neuroscience might offer relevant insights about this puzzle but we can discuss this some other day.

For this blog post, let us focus on how the concept of learning and education evolved throughout different ages. What can this evolution teach us about what we’re going through today and how can that impact what we value in formal education?

Humans have been fascinated with learning and how it occurs for as long as the earliest civilizations were formed. It was assumed by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek that intelligence, senses, and emotions were functions of the heart (Wickens, 2015). However, around the 5th century BC, a philosopher and physician by the name of Alcmaeon of Croton, had already suggested that the brain was the seat of the mind, that it controlled intelligence, as well as the senses (Wickens, 2015)

Other Ancient Greek philosophers who lived a century or so later such as Socrates and his disciples, particularly Plato, believed that knowledge was innate and it could be accessed, or brought out, through reflection (Cordasco, 1976).  Maieutics, commonly known as the Socratic Method, posits that the truth emerges through dialogue, or a series of questions, where the presentation of a claim (thesis) is challenged by another claim (antithesis) successively in an attempt to join the opposing views into a more refined truth (synthesis) or discard them altogether (refutation) only to start this process of inquiry again. It can be argued that Socrates gave rise to the early developments of critical pedagogy, although his methods would not become part of educational debates and policy until quite recently (Benson, 2000; Schunk, 2012)

Nevertheless, at the time of Socrates, in other parts of the Western world, such as Sparta and the Roman Empire, and in Asia, particularly China and India, the notion of learning through discipline and obedience was widespread. This notion of perfection through practice, and often penitence, has been replicated by many countries from the Middle Ages to more contemporary times. It was believed that physically punishing students was an effective way to make them learn and instil obedience and respect in them (Cordasco, 1976). For instance, it was only in the mid-1980s that corporal punishments at schools were forbidden in the United Kingdom (Ghandhi, 1984).

It is worth stressing that throughout most of education history, only a few, members of an elite, noblemen and royalty, were allowed to receive and could afford some sort of formal education (Schunk, 2012). These children would most likely have a private tutor, normally a monk, who taught them reading and writing, maths, rhetoric, arts, philosophy, astrology and history. The children of peasants, and serfs, during medieval times, were conditioned by their social status to learn how to farm and help their parents with the crops, and perhaps become an apprentice under the tutelage of a master who taught them a profession. The church was directly involved with formal education in medieval Europe and its main concern was to teach obedience so that the children would grow into adults who conformed to their position in society (Cordasco, 1976; Schunk, 2012).

In the late 17th century until the late 18th century, when the Enlightenment brought the so-called Age of Reason to Europe and America, which promoted the scientific revolution and a break from religious dogma, philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke and the French Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed what education should be like and how children should be educated (Gianoutsos, 2006; Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

Only with the establishment of modern psychology, in the late-1800s, that the notion of joining brain and mind science applied in education started to become a trend. Psychologists such as Thorndike, Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, Wallon, Pavlov, and Skinner wanted to understand features of children’s learning process through the observation of or experimentation with children’s development and behaviours (and through animal tests), which laid the foundation for one of the bases of the MBE science, that is, mind research. A newly born concern of how children develop and learn took its place in academia (Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

In retrospect, we can distinguish some very influential learning theories that have their origins in psychology. I provide five of them, their descriptions and main authors below.

Learning theories

PsychodynamicsChildhood experiences shape our personalities and remain in the unconscious, which influences our learningFreud (1915); Adler (1927); Erikson (1950); Jung (1964)
BehaviourismExternal factors, conditioning, learning as observable behaviourThorndike (1905); Watson (1930); Pavlov (1955); Skinner (1978)
CognitivismInternal processing, incremental stages, prior knowledgePiaget (1932, 1958) Piaget & Cook (1952); Chomsky (1957)
ConstructivismHumans create meaning, not acquire it. We construct knowledge through our experiences. Socio-constructivism: we learn through interactions with othersPiaget (1945, 1957); Montessori (1936; 1949); Vygotsky (1978)
HumanismHolistic learning, individual as a subject, learning is naturalMaslow (1943, 1968); Rogers (1946, 1959)
Source: authors mentioned in table

I do not intend to go over these theories here as I have already written about them in more detail for the New Routes Magazine and even delivered a webinar for BRAZ-TESOL on the topic:

However, I do want to ask a few reflective questions in the light of two (possibly three) of the theories mentioned above. Consider the following:

Many of Freud’s propositions are now considered pseudoscience but he was certainly right about childhood experiences influencing our adult lives. How damaged will kids from this generation be if we don’t reflect on how to provide safe learning environments that actually help them and do not put their lives (and that of their loved ones) in danger?

I wrote about the need for reflection on the school ecosystem here.

If we look at what authors such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori proposed (we could even talk about Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education), we might realize that education means preparation for life (to quote John Dewey) not academia only and that current formal education, in general, seems to have settled at promoting a fixed curriculum that keeps great distance from students’ real life. Contact with nature, arts, emotions (mental health and self-regulation), essential life skills, empathy and compassion have never been so important, nevertheless, they seem so scarce.

Think about when these theories/pedagogies took shape and became popular. After a period of incredible hardship (Great World War and the Spanish Flu). It’s as if they were created as a necessity to rethink the status quo and provide innovative solutions to an old educational system. Why haven’t we learned much from them 100 years after? Why do we insist on an outdated teacher-centered model that focuses on standardized test results and the job market? Is it something we can change or is the system immutable?

Finally, I’d like to talk about humanism. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’ll notice that we need food, shelter, safety, love, self-esteem and many other things that are directly connected to us as human beings, holistically, not simply thinking/reasoning brains.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Source: Simple Psychology website

That tells us something about what to prioritize in education and in society as a whole. However, can we say we have at least tried to use these lessons from the past to reflect on the needs of today and break the current educational paradigm? Can we honestly say that we drank from the source of wisdom left to us by the collective endeavor of human entrepreneurship and ingenuity in order to face this challenge in the best way we could with the least damage possible?

I know. Not everything is up to us. I wish I could say that if we really wanted to, we’d be able to make change. Proper change. The powers that be are set and we sometimes find ourselves in a straightjacket. Nonetheless, what are the lessons we can learn from how learning has evolved and how schooling is set up nowadays? I wrote about a few lessons here that might shed some light on this debate.

I suppose my takeaway is that even though formal education has been reaching more and more people, it is still quite old-fashioned, based on hierarchy/discipline and behaviorism, college/academia-oriented, and that families have delegated many of their parenting responsibilities to schools as they’re always busy. The wheel must keep turning no matter what. In that process, there’s no time to really stop and rethink the things we’re doing.

If we keep moving and don’t stop to learn from the past, someone once said, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. I wish I could say there’s hope. I wish I could say that we’ll get out of this terrible pandemic as soon as possible and that we’ll change education to suit the needs of our kids as future citizens that are connected to one another, to nature, people who have compassion and can work collaboratively to achieve solutions to benefit the world. However, based on what I’m witnessing, I dare say that History will keep on repeating itself and old mistakes will be made and replicated again an again.

I hope I’m wrong and I hope we learn something from the history of learning. What do you think?


Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg

Benson, H. (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cordasco, F. (1976). A brief history of education: a handbook of information on Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern educational practice (No. 67). Rowman & Littlefield.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Ghandhi, S. (1984). Spare the rod: Corporal punishment in schools and the European Convention on Human Rights. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 488-494.

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. B. B. Carter (Ed.). Calcutta: Orient Longmans.

Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind (Vol. 1). Lulu. com.

Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories an educational perspective sixth edition. Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on Behaviorism and Society. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Simon and Schuster

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Wickens, Andrew P. (2015) A History of the Brain: From Stone Age Surgery to Modern Neuroscience. London: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84872-365-8

Wax On, Wax Off: Karate Kid’s Lesson About Drilling

How many of you have quite unpretentiously browsed through your favorite streaming service provider looking for something and found a series worth binge-watching? How many of you spent hours and hours watching every single episode of a three-season TV series simply because it made you feel good or nostalgic?

Yes, that was me some weeks ago. The reason why I did was Netflix’ new series Cobra Kai, a spin-off of the popular Karate Kid saga. Back in the day, growing up in the late 80s and 90s, Karate Kid meant a lot to us because it told the story of Daniel LaRusso, a poor kid who got beaten up by other kids led by Johnny Lawrence until he was saved from the bullies by the maintenance guy who happened to be a war hero, Japanese Karate fighter from Okinawa, the legendary Nariyoshi Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi became Daniel’s karate master (or sensei) and taught him the essence of this martial art.

All Daniel-san wanted from his sensei was to learn karate to be able to fight those bullies. Instead of teaching him karate per se, Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel a bunch os chores that make it look like he’s actually exploring the poor boy. Daniel needs to sand the wooden floor, paint Mr. Miyagi’s house, varnish the fence, and, perhaps the most iconic of all, wax his entire collection of cars, including the yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe. It’s great to realize that Cobra Kai capitalized on Daniel’s passion for cars and made him a successful car dealership owner in the series.

Image result for wax on wax off gif

One of my favorites scenes in the first movie is when Daniel-san gets irritated and frustrated with Mr. Miyagi’s endless chores. They were both standing in what would later become the Miyagi-Do Karate dojo run by Daniel himself in Cobra Kai. Daniel doesn’t understand why he needs to wax, paint, sand and how that is going to help him with karate. Mr. Miyagi then asks him to show Wax On/Wax Off. You can see the realization in Daniel’s eyes as soon as he sees that all of that work was supposed to create what many refer to as “muscle memory” and sharpen his reflexes. He’s able to block his sensei’s punches and kicks with the movements he learned from all those chores.

History repeats itself. Daniel LaRusso teaches Johnny Lawrence’s son Robby the same way Mr. Miyagi taught him

There are many lessons to be learned from Karate Kid and how Daniel became proficient in the martial art through drilling. Repetition is key when we want to make sure things become more automatic and, thus, require less conscious effort. The so-called “muscle memory” can be developed through a series of intentional repetitions in order to master whatever we are attempting to learn. We do have to be careful, though. First, we shouldn’t call it “muscle memory”. Memories are created in our brain’s cortex and not inside our muscles. Secondly, the type of repetition, duration, and goal are essential for us to develop the skills we want.

I’m sorry, Mr. Miyagi, but you should’ve told Daniel-san why he was doing all those chores from the start


I understand Mr. Miyagi was testing Daniel’s discipline and developing patience (which are definitely important competencies), but he may have done so because of sense of honor and rigid hierarchy. After all, in many Asian cultures (I’d even include our own), blindly following a master’s will and not questioning them is a sign of respect. We’ve tried that in education and I’d say it doesn’t work quite well. It’s best to share our intentions with our students and let them know the importance of practice, particularly drilling.

Why does drilling work?

Put simply, we can say that repetition of tasks make them require less activation of frontal areas of the brain where we can find the working memory system. The first time you try to drive, for instance, requires you to consciously think about your every move in a logical and sequential way. In your head, you’re going like:

“OK, first I need to adjust the mirrors and my seat. Now I need to insert the key in the keyhole and start the car. But don’t forget to make sure the car is in neutral. Next I have to shift to first gear and smoothly release the clutch pedal… and make sure I’m wearing the seat belt.

There are many other steps there, naturally. But just imagine how incredibly ineffective drivers we would be if we had to consciously go through all these steps every time we drive. We wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with someone in the car, listen to music and actually pay attention, or even have a call with our boss on the way to work. That’s why our brains create schemata of these things by turning them into habits and sending them backwards in the cortex, specifically to the parietal lobe. You can read about habit formation here.

By making these things more automatic, we free our working memory to do other stuff. Imagine for a second what would happen to Daniel if he hadn’t internalized all those movements by the time he had his famous fight against Johnny at the All Valley Karate Tournament. What if he had to consciously think of his every move while all those fighters were throwing punches at him? Well, let’s just say he wouldn’t have gotten that far and we wouldn’t have seen the famous crane kick that secured his trophy

Image result for crane kick gif
Daniel-san wins the tournament with the iconic crane kick

Drilling in the English classroom

If you think about our English classes, there are many types of drilling activities we can use. The idea is to reinforce grammar structures or even vocabulary by repeating them in different ways. This is certainly something inherited by us from a more behavioristic approach, particulary the audio lingual method. The main examples of drills are:

Teacher: Johnny lost the tournament

Students: Johnny lost the tournament

Repetition Drill

Teacher: Daniel is a karate fighter (car salesman)

Students: Daniel is a car salesman

Substitution Drill

Teacher: I have karate lessons (Robby)

Students: Robby has karate lessons

Teacher: He fights against the bullies (past)

Students: He fought against the bullies

Transformation Drill

Teacher: Does Samantha study with Miguel?

Students: Yes, she does

Teacher: Does Robby live with Johnny?

Students: No, he doesn’t

Question and Answer Drill

We can combine these drills with images instead of words, Total Physical Response – TPR (such as miming the vocabulary or using thumbs up to indicate an affirmative sentence/ thumbs down for a negative one) or even use the board to turn them into a game-like activity (disappearing drills, for instance, show the full sentence with a gap on the first slide and then some words disappear on the next slide and so on).

When and how often should we drill?

This is the million-dollar question. I see the value of drilling certain chunks in the classroom, especially for more basic levels, but I definitely don’t think the entire lesson should be like this as the audio lingual method normally proposes. The idea of “Drill to Kill” might be one of the underlying principles of elite sports and athletic competitions but not in the classroom when we think about effective and long-term learning. The whole “work while they sleep, study while they party” philosophy has been doing more damage than good the way I see it. We need to take care of our mental health and practicing to exhaustion is not the way to do so.

What then? Instead of going for overkill, I’d say we need to try to follow the idea of spaced repetition and retrieval practice. That means that drilling the same grammar structure for an entire hour in a lesson is normally less effective than drilling it a couple of times in that lesson, doing something else, trying to retrieve it and moving on to apply it in a different context plus getting some sleep and revisiting it with a certain frequency (drilling it again in a different lesson).

A typical audio lingual lesson will introduce the vocabulary and have the students drill (repetition drill), then it will require some substitution drills. It will probably move on to the grammar chunk and have students repeat. Then it will maybe focus on substitution and transformation drills (or even question and answer drills). At the end, there might be a dialogue/role-play activitiy with the chunk and the vocabulary. Students go home, do their homework and come back to class for the whole thing to start again, except that it’s new vocabulary and grammar structures.

Instead, here’s a suggestion:

  1. Present vocabulary and/or grammar structure
  2. Drill
  3. Brain Break – have students stop focusing on the topic
  4. Retrieval practice – allow them a minute to try to retrieve what they have been learning
  5. Vary output – have students make a schematic (graphic organizers) or record an explanation or model of the structure on their phones
  6. Application – have students use chunk in a role play or different production activity
  7. Drill again – drilling at the beginning and at the end may result in better memorization (check out primacy and recency effect)
  8. Assign homework – to be done the next day so they can sleep and add some spacing before retrieval
  9. Quiz – quiz their prior knowledge on the vocabulary/structure in the next lesson
  10. Spaced repetition – schedule two more lessons a couple of days apart to revisit that structure

Final thoughts

Drilling is definitely important if we want to be able to do things more unconciously, that is, on autopilot. Internalizing chunks helps us become more proficient users of an additional language and frees up our limited working memory for new learning. But I suppose there are better ways than simply and mindlessly repeating things to exhaustion. If we look at some principles of the Science of Learning, we’ll realize that we can more often work smart instead of hard.

Another lesson I want to leave you all with is that changing something that has been hardwired in the brain can be quite challenging. Look at Johnny and Daniel’s relationship. After all those years they still basically hate each other and their way of life is sort of reflected on the type of karate they were taught. Cobra Kai’s fierce and cruel sensei John Kreese taught those kids back in the 80’s to:

Strike first

Strike hard

Have no mercy

Cobra Kai’s motto

Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san a rather different lesson:

Rule #1: Karate is for defense only

Rule #2: First learn rule number 1

Miyagi-do’s philosophy

Drilling in an inappropriate way from the start, based on certain convictions may impact our students’ learning curve and beliefs about their learning capabilities for good. Drilling is but a small part of the learning cosmos when we’re going after positive outcomes. Know when and how to do it and be open to new possibilities. Even Johnny and Daniel are starting to come around to what their relationship can actually be like and what is the meaning of karate. I’m looking forward to the next season of Cobra Kai and I hope you are too. I’m sure there will be many wax on, wax off scenes as more and more students join the dojo

Affect and Project-Based Learning: Transformative Tools in Education


It is no secret to us, ESL/EFL teachers, that our object of work is an instrument that connects the world. We teach the lingua franca to our students in the hope they will use it with a foreigner, when they travel abroad, or to move up the career ladder. Nevertheless, how much have we reflected upon the power we vest our students with when we enable them to use this tool? How much do we wonder about how our connections can have a positive effect (and affect) not only in our learning, but also in the community we belong to, and in our place in the world as global citizens?

In 1929, Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian writer, theorized that every person on Earth is connected to every other person by a chain of no more than six links. He called it Six Degrees of Separation. That means that you, dear reader, as well as I,  are connected to presidents, dictators, and celebrities through the good old “friend of a friend” notion. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that my cousin is friends with a congressman. He, in turn, befriended the CEO of a large company in Brazil, who happens to know the ambassador of the USA.  The Ambassador has worked closely with former-president Barack Obama (THE OXFORD MATH CENTER, 2017)

It is safe to assume that I am connected to the Queen of England through Obama. I am also connected to the inspiring Malala Yousafzai, to the wealthy Bill Gates, and to the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. And so are you. Through different connections, but you are too. It took us no more than six connections to arrive at Assad. This is how small the world has gotten.


Interesting theory, however, what does that have to do with affect, Project-based Learning, and ELT? Let’s start with affect, shall we? Jane Arnold (2009) tells us that affect has to do with feelings, emotions, and attitudes that cause some impact on students’ behavior, and how they learn. The brilliant French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1996, p. 64) said in an interview that a class is both emotion and intelligence. Bloom (1956), in his famous taxonomy, places a great deal of importance not only in the cognitive domain, but also in the psychomotor, and in the affective domains of learning. The advocate for a reformulation of the world’s educational system, Sir Ken Robinson says students need not be anesthetized, quite the contrary, they need an aesthetic experience, to be awakened, in order to learn (RSA, 2008). Learning only happens effectively if it happens affectively, through emotion. Now, I ask you this: do we care more about fictitious people on the pages of English books or real people out there in the world? Are we more prone to getting emotionally involved with people who do not exist or people who do? What about our students?

Allow me to offer a recent example of emotional connection in my classroom. The same way we look at Syria with fear, and prejudice, we judge most Middle-Eastern countries, especially Iran, and Iraq. We are bombarded with terrible news every day by the media, hence our negative feelings. In 2017, however, an Iraqi woman asked to join my Facebook group to practice English. At first, unfortunately, I treated her with suspicion and avoided adding her because of all these horrible things we see on TV. But then I told myself: you know what? I will talk to her. I found out that she went to the University of Education in her city to study English and become a teacher. I added her, and we have been talking ever since. Her name is Afrah, she loves fish, and pizza. She has two beautiful nieces, Zahraa and Mariam, who dressed like Santa Claus for Christmas last year, and her father is the kindest man she knows, who likes everybody, and is helping oppressed families who are persecuted and killed by the Islamic State in Mosul. Bottom line: She is a person, a human being, just like any other.

I invited her to talk via Facebook to my students. I used my own account and wrote my students’ questions to her and she was kind enough to send voice messages. It was really hard to understand some sentences but I could hear the thrill in her voice because, maybe, for the first time, someone decided not to shut her off and send her away. My students created an emotional connection with her, and even wrote her letters, postcards and sent voice messages through my WhatsApp. I could tell that my students were curious about her life, and that they were really surprised to know she lives a life that is not that distant from our own.


That short story brings me to the PBL part. George Lucas, the genius filmmaker who happens to have an educational foundation, claims that: “With project-based learning, students learn by designing and constructing actual solutions to real life problems.” (PBLworks, 2021). Katherine Bilsborough (2013) accurately states that: “Projects bring real life into the classroom; instead of learning about how plants grow (and all the language that goes with it), you actually grow the plant and see for yourself. It brings facts to life.” The completely unpretentious virtual encounter with my new Iraqi friend brought the classroom to life and ignited in my students the desire to know more about other peoples, and cultures in our world.  So, I registered them on iEARN.org, an online platform with 100 active projects, 140 countries, and 2 million youth participating every day.

Three of my groups were involved we uploaded photos and videos. One group was involved with the One Day in the Life project (https://iearn.org/cc/space-2/group-6), through which students exchange information among several nations about their daily routine. Our first step was to share about school. My second group was so touched by Afrah’s story that they got inspired by a USA project called Debunk Stereotypes, and decided to help people get in touch with the Arabic and Islamic cultures (http://us.iearn.org/node/261). My third group loved the Don’t Waste – Create project, and they worked on calling people’s attention to pollution and recycling  (https://iearn.org/cc/space-2/group-196 ).

From the left to the right: Don’t Waste – Create, Debunk Stereotypes, and One Day in the Life
Source: iEARN


What do all those projects have in common? People. Real people, real places, real lives. People who want to connect with the world. And do you know what binds them besides the desire to meet new people and change the planet? The English language. The ultimate communication tool that makes global collaboration possible. When we shift the attention to English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), we can better visualize a hidden mission that we often neglect as teachers and educators. It is the mission of allowing people from different cultures to exchange stories, dreams, projects, and create mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.

I feel like we can do much more. I feel that we can do more than simply judge people because of the country they were born in or where they live. I feel we have the tools to connect our students with them and make them claim their place in the world as global citizens, fighting for the common good, side by side with our students. And you know what? Talking to them – to these people from the far reaches of the planet – is the first step.

In a world that resorts to war, suffering, and killing to solve problems, as well as stigmatizes people, cultures, and nations, the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s quote has never been so current:

The pen is mightier than the sword

Or, in Malala’s own words:

Let us remember: One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world (…)

Malala Yousafzai Signs With UTA - Variety
Source: Variety Magazine

In our case, it is the keyboard.

I am glad I did not ignore my newest friend from Iraq, who taught me some Arabic, touched the lives of my student and decided to continue her studies because I encouraged her. I certainly hope you can connect your students with more people like her. With English, our keyboards, our hearts, and our minds, little by little, we are changing the world and reducing Karinthy’s Six Degrees of Separation to only Two Degrees of Separation: You, platforms such as iEARN, and the rest of the planet. I’m sure you’ll realize that we’re not that different after all.

My final tips for you are:

  • Join a PBL platform and connect your students with international students
  • Have a guest speaker from a different country in your classes
  • Offer to connect with other teachers’ groups
  • Use your community and its demands to think of projects that can cause great impact
  • Try to leave your own prejudice aside and connect with cultures you don’t fully understand


Arnold, J. (2009). Affect in L2 learning and teaching. Estudios de lingüística inglesa aplicada, 9, 145-151.

PBLWorks. (2021). Available at https://www.pblworks.org/. Access on

Bilsborough, K. (2013). TBL and PBL: Two Learner-Centred Approaches. Available at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/tbl-pbl-two-learner-centred-approaches. Acess on April 11, 2017.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Deleuze, G. (1996). O Abecedário de Gilles Deleuze. Available at http://escolanomade.org/wp-content/downloads/deleuze-o-abecedario.pdf. Access on April 11, 2017.

RSA. 2008. RSAnimate: Changing Education Paradigms. Available at http://www.learninginstitute.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/rsa-lecture-ken-robinson-transcript.pdf. Access on April 11, 2017.

The Oxford Math Center. Six Degrees of Separation. 2017, Available at http://www.oxfordmathcenter.com/drupal7/node/655. Access on April 11, 2017.

In-person & Online: 3 Useful Models for Concurrent Classrooms

Many schools have transitioned to blended learning since the pandemic started. That usually means that teachers will create in-person classes in the physical classroom and combine them with online classes, which can be synchronous (live) or asynchronous (recorded). A typical blended learning schedule would be something like:

  • Monday: Pre-recorded Online Class + Activities – Asynchronous
  • Tuesday: In-person Class
  • Wednesday: Pre-recorded Online Class + Activities – Asynchronous
  • Thursday: In-person Class
  • Friday: Live Online Class – Synchronous

Notice that the online and in-person stages take place on different days. What if they didn’t? What if some students decided to go to their physical classes whiles the others preferred to stay at home and do the class online? That’s the definition of concurrent classrooms. The online and the in-person stages happen simultaneously, which means the teacher will have a camera capturing the lesson in the classroom and broadcasting live to students at home. If you are faced with what can quickly become a logistic nightmare, this blog post is for you.

Concurrent Classrooms are not new

Despite being something unheard of by many teachers around the world, this modality of teaching is not new. It’s been mostly used in Higher Education Institutions. Some universities are known to livestream their in-person classes as to offer students more flexibility. Students who might not be able to physically attend the classes see the option of watching them from home and interact with the professor through a videoconference tool as an interesting benefit.

The University of New Hampshire has a webpage with lots of tips on how to make the concurrent classroom experience more successful. Some of tips are as follows:

  • Include the remote students in all discussions and when asking questions of the class. 
  • Consider using a poll tool that both in class and remote students can both participate in to check for understanding
  • Consider creating a separate module in your canvas course for recorded face to face sessions so remote students can easily find the materials

What about K-12 groups?

Concurrent classrooms can definitely work well with older students who know how to work more independently and can self regulate. Is the same true for Very Young Learners, Young Learners, and Teens? I think the obvious answer is no. Generally, the younger the students, the more help they’ll need to use the digital tools and to stay on task. I do have to confess that some teachers have had a more positive experience with 8-10 year olds than with 12 year olds for example.

There are ways, however, that can generate interesting results in concurrent classrooms with the little ones. We need only adapt some commonly used blended learning models and work out the logistics that makes most sense. Before we get into more detail about these models, let’s consider 3 distinct schools with their respective scenarios:

School 1: Low Autonomy – Restricted Movement – Restricted Group work

Teachers don’t have a lot of flexibility. Classes are more teacher-centered and teachers cannot monitor in-person students very effectively because they have to stay in front of the camera, which is fixed and shows only the wall behind the teacher. Teachers have an earpiece to listen to the online students’ questions, but in-person students cannot hear them. There’s normally only one device connected to the internet – a laptop – and only the teacher has access to it to check on the online students and the chatbox.

School 2: Some Autonomy – Some Movement – Some Group work

Teachers have some flexibity. They can maybe move their camera and monitor in-person students as they are working in groups. Classes are still quite teacher-centered, but online and in-person students can interact more easily since everyone can hear one another. There are only a few connected devices in the classroom, which means students have to use them in large groups or take turns

School 3: High Autonomy – Free Movement – Lots of Group work

Teachers have a lot of flexibility in terms of movement and patterns of interaction. In-person students can move almost completely independently in the classroom, which is designed as a flexible learning environment with different work stations. Classes are very student-centered and students can often take the lead and show the work they have done to the entire class. Online students can talk to in-person students through mobile devices (cell phones and tablets).

These different scenarios can vary quite a lot and some schools don’t even have a stable internet connection or devices to work with concurrent classrooms. However, let’s focus on these situations so that you can extrapolate them to best fit your reality. Let’s look at the three models, how they work and then reflect on which model goes with which scenario.

Blended Learning Models

I got the idea for these three models after doing some research on blended learning and coming across the same four models a couple of times. As you can see in the image below, there are four main models and four submodels under the first one. You can read more about them straight from the source, on WebRoom Education, Inc. and on Dr. Catlin Tucker’s great blog here

I’ll focus on the Station-Rotation Model, the Flipped-Classroom Model, and the Flex Model with some slight variations

Station-Rotation Model

In this model, students rotate in the classroom (physically) or online and go through different work stations. Each station focuses on something different. One station might require students to work on a different task, another one may change their pattern of interaction or even give access to certain resources.

Let’s think of a 5-step station rotation model:

  1. Teacher gives instructions, which can also be on the board or on a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Google Classroom
  2. Teacher moves to STATION 1, a Teacher-Led Station where students can go for further explanations or individualized feedback. Online students can do it through their cameras and microphones or via chat
  3. Students go back to their seats (in-person) and do some individual work in their books following the instructions. They can team up with peers at the end of each task to check their answers. Online students can do the same from their homes and chat on the LMS or videoconferecing tool
  4. Students move to STATION 2, an Online Work Station where they can connect to the internet and do more research or reinforce what they are learning. Online students can be responsible for directing in-person students to interesting websites they found throughout the lesson. In-person and Online students can interact at this stage
  5. Students move to STATION 3, an Offline Work Station where they can do something more hands-on. In-person students work with the results of the research they conducted and with their materials. Online students can feed the LMS or use another online collaborative tool

You must have noticed in the image above that online students go from step 1 to 3, then back to 2, and finally 4 and 5. This is a way to help teachers focus on in-person students first while online students are busy vice-versa.

Flipped Classroom Model

In this model, students can access a pre-recorded instructional video/text/audio in order to accomplish the tasks throughout the lesson. This model does not necessarily demand students to watch the instructional video before the actual lesson, as it is normally required in a truly flipped experience. They can do it during the lesson.

Here’s how this can work

  1. Teacher starts the lesson with a prompt related to the instructional task. The idea is to get students to brainstorm, discuss, reflect or simply to elicit the target language from them.
  2. Teacher gives students access to the instructional task and allows them to take notes, ask questions, and collaborate in pairs or larger groups.
  3. Students use information from instructional task to produce. In-person students can form groups and online students can do it as whole group via LMS or videoconferencing tool

This cycle can repeat a few times depending on the lesson. Also, in order to generate more interaction and figure out the challenging logistics, every time teachers ask the whole group to share their answers, they can:

  • have in-person students THINK-PAIR-SHARE while they check online students’ answers
  • have an in-person student go to the laptop and share an online student’s answer to the whole group
  • have in-person students come to the front of the camera and present their answers or correct them on the board while monitoring what online students’ comments

Flex Model

This model allows teachers to work more as guides/monitors as students follow a playlist of activities on their own and check with peers. The idea is to offer students more flexibility.

  1. Teacher gives students a playlist (it can be something written on the board or a post on the LMS). Students are required to complete most of the items on the list in the order they want
  2. Teacher walks around monitoring students, checking if they are on task, and giving them feedback. Teacher can spend a few minutes on the laptop doing the same for online students. There can be one or two whole group checkpoints to ask students how much progress they’ve made on the list and which tasks they have chosen to do so far
  3. Teacher can set up a SHOW & TELL moment for all students to share what they were able to do from the list, which tasks were too challenging, and questions they might have. Online students can work more autonomously and be recorded so that the teacher can watch later and give them feedback

This model is quite open and requires students to be self-efficacious or at least very effective control/classroom management mechanisms. This can work well if students are in a Project-Based Learning enviroment. Teachers can add to the playlist something like “10 minutes to work on your project”.

Final Considerations

If we reflect on the models and try to make them fit according to the three school types I mentioned above, I think it would look like something like this:

Station-RotationFlipped ClassroomFlex
SCHOOL 1Doesn’t work wellCan work wellDoesn’t work well
SCHOOL 2Can work wellCan work wellMight not work well
SCHOOL 3Can work wellCan work wellCan work well

For schools that do not offer freedom of movement to the teacher and the students, focus on teacher-centered lessons and make group work difficult (SCHOOL 1), the best option might be the Flipped Classroom model as the teacher can do everything from the front of the classroom. It could even work if teachers made signs with “Be Back in 2 min” or “Working with In-person Students” or something like that so that they can leave the camera for a while and help those in the classroom. It could be a brain break moment for online students and vice-versa.

School 2 might not be able to work with the Flex Model because classes are still quite teacher-centered and students might not be used to (or allowed) more autonomy. But this is the perfect school for the Station-Rotation model as the teacher can even point the camera to the different stations and use signs to identify them for the online students to see.

I believe any model works well in School 3 because they can more easily adapt to different situations and work with online students more closely. This is definitely the ideal school but I’m afraid it’s not a reality in many educational settings.

Whether you’re working in School 1, School 2, or School 3, I really hope you can give one of these models a try. Concurrent classroom are not a walk in the park, however, if you have a very good lesson plan and you can identify some stages (blocks), the logistics might not get in the way of an effective class. Remember, you can add or remove stages from the ones I proposed here and you can even find other models that might work best according to your reality. Whatever you do, I wish you the best of luck and I’d love to have you share your experiences here.

Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences revisited

Extended version adapted from BRAZ-TESOL’s Newsletter

For decades the idea that people can be categorized according to how they supposedly learn best has become widespread on every level of educational systems around the world. The Learning Styles Theory (LS), often referred to along with the Multiple Intelligences Theory (MI), has shaped curricula and how teachers and students think about learning. However, what does the specialized literature on the topic have to say about these theories? Can these ideas really be considered false claims about the brain, the so-called neuromyths

Spoiler Alert:

LS and MI are controversial and the literature suggests that there’s a lack of empirical evidence to support these notions (Waterhouse, 2006a; Howard-Jones, 2010; Paschler et al., 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Howard Gardner himself has already said that:

[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of  misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]

Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)

Drop the term “styles.” It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.

Howard Gardner for The Washington Post (Strauss, 2013)

How did the notion of “intelligence” evolve?

Before 1950: Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon developed the IQ test which proposed that human intelligence was fixed and quantifiable. Despite Binet’s disagreement with Simon regarding how fixed our intelligence was and how accurate the test could be, the IQ test took the world and is widely used to this day (Dweck, 2008). 

Online Standard Matrices IQ test | 60 questions in 40 minutes | Score now
Typical IQ test question

After 1950: The idea that people could express their intelligence in ways other than reasoning skills and the ability to solve logical problems became more popular. Many models of cognitive styles and learning styles were proposed and this gave teachers the idea that anyone could learn (or learn better) if their styles were considered when teaching them. In the 70s, the concept of crystallized and fluid intelligence appeared (Cattell,1971) and in the following decade, Gardner (1983) proposed the idea of multiple intelligences.

After 2000: IQ tests and learning styles became more debatable as concepts that could determine someone’s success at learning. New experiments were designed and new advancements from neuroscience, such as neuroimaging technologies, became more accessible and raised some questions. In this period, the notion that learning styles theory is a myth is held widely by most neuroscientists (Howard-Jones, 2010)

Cérebro, Mrt, Ressonância Magnética, Cabeça
Now we can look inside our brains with latest technological advancements

The good, the bad, and the ugly

So what does science have to say about these two theories nowadays and why are they controversial? Regarding LS, my former professor Paul Howard-Jones from the University of Bristol explains that:

The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.

Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2

In fact, a large systematic review done by Coffield et al. (2004) with the most popular learning styles theories (13 out of 71, yes, there are many!) reached the conclusion that the conceptualizations of these studies were confusing, the methods inadequate, and that there was no conclusive relationship between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching methods and students’ performance. A more recent study conducted by Paschler et al. (2010) demonstrated that there’s no evidence in the literature to support the idea that students learn best when taught in their supposed learning style. As a matter of fact, the authors end on this note:

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated

Paschler et al. (2010, p.117)

If you still can’t understand what I’m getting at, try watching this amazing video by Veritasium

What about human intelligence? What defines it and how can it be tested? Despite being a matter of controversy still, Cognitive Psychology seems to agree that there is a global factor that extends throughout different aspects of cognition. This general intelligence global factor, the g factor, is what IQ tests measure. It’s the human capacity to solve logical problems through cognition, something that separates us from animals. We require not only visual-spatial abilities for solving such puzzles, but also literacy and numeracy.

In the words of professor Linda S. Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society:

Is there indeed a general mental ability we commonly call “intelligence,” and is it important in the practical affairs of life? The answer, based on decades of intelligence research, is an unequivocal yes […]. And this factor seems to have considerable influence on a person’s practical quality of life. Intelligence as measured by IQ tests is the single most effective predictor known of individual performance at school and on the job.

Linda S. Gottfredson for Scientific American.

If you want to read more in plain language about the g factor, check out Linda S. Gottfredson’s text here.

This matter, as mentioned above, is still controversial since authors such as Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth put a lot more emphasis on long-term commitment and effort rather than IQ scores to determine success.

Angela Lee Duckworth talks about Growth Mindset and Grit

What about the multiple intelligences theory? Well, when Howard Gardner put forward the idea that humans have multiple intelligences, he was basically arguing that there were different intelligences outside the realm of this g factor. That meant that these intelligences could not be measured through traditional IQ tests. Originally, Gardner proposed 8 different intelligence domains, claiming that they should be separate or autonomous with very little overlapping. They were:

gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
The 8 Multiple Intelligences proposed by Gardner. Source here

So here’s the thing: if these intelligence domains were in fact autonomous from one another, we’d expect to see low correlations betwen them. However, numerous intelligence psychometrict tests have found high correlations between most of these domains corroborating the idea of a g factor, that is, supporting the theory that there’s actually a single entity that permeates different features of cognition (Geake, 2008).

We might say that one of the big issues with MI is that most intelligences proposed by Gardner, such as musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalist, and bodily, for instance, are more like non-cognitive traits and have more to do with personality, skills or “talents” (if we may use this word) than general intelligence and cognitive aptitudes  (Visser et al. 2006b; Waterhouse, 2006a; Locke, 2015).

What then?

If all of this comes as a shock to you, I might have good news. You might be wondering why you have designed so many lesson plans taking into account the different learning styles and multiple intelligences if they are not really quite valid concepts. Well, not all of it is bad if we look at the underlying ideas and the practices that came out from these theories and why they might actually help students learn. 

First of all, diversifying the way we deliver content through visual and phonological input actually works because of our working memory structure and the way our brains encode information. Paivio (1991) suggests the concept of dual coding, which basically means that combining verbal and visual representations increases memorization. Baddeley (2000) posits that our working memory, that is, the memory system we use to hold information long enough to put it to some use, is composed of a visual and a phonological channel and a buffer that puts things together in a timely manner. The working memory system is like our work station where we constantly bring new and old information to so that we can accomplish a task. The best part is that we have neuroimaging studies showing where this memory is located in the brain and experiments suggesting that dual coding is effective (Howard-Jones et al., 2016; Wirebring et al. 2015)

Secondly, integrating non-cognitive skills to the curriculum and focusing a little less on students’ ability to solve puzzles and logical problems, seems to walk hand in hand with notions like self-determination, self-efficacy, growth mindset (this one is getting more controversial too), self-regulation, which are tested and have yielded positive correlations with students’ achievement because they deal with things like motivation, emotional regulation, and collaborative learning environments (Bandura, 1997; Dweck, 2008; Hattie, 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Like António Damásio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang propose in their article We feel, therefore we learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,  learning is not all about cognition, it’s also about emotion (Immordino-Yang & Damásio, 2007)

In third place, we can all agree that the so-called intelligence domains proposed by Gardner are ways of human expression, understaning and important aspects of life. They can lead to successful paths regardless of IQ scores. Someone who’s good at dancing can become a successful dancer and make a better living than anyone with a high g factor. Think of people with excellent interpersonal skills and how far they get in life. What about amazing artists who produce musical hits that shake entire generations?

We need to address the bad and the ugly, though. The bad is that many teachers around the world might be using teaching approaches or methods based on ideas that are not supported by science . This is not always bad unless there’s evidence to show why it might be. An example is this excerpt I got from one of my blog posts

But assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.

Me from my blog post

In other words, what if you had 12 students in your classroom and you tested them using a learning styles questionnaire and coincidentally they were all categorized as auditory learners? Would you bother preparing lessons with visual materials? Some teachers certainly wouldn’t depending on how much they believe in the concept. 

The ugly is best represented in a situation that took place in 2019 during a session I was delivering in Bucharest, Romania. I’m sure many of you know who Hugh Dellar is. If you don’t, Hugh is an ELT author, speaker, teacher trainer and runs the Lexical Lab with Andrew Walkley. Besides being an amazing chap to hang out with, Hugh is a captivating speaker and has great remarks on various topics. I was honored to have him in my session in Bucharest and I said that one of the good things about the whole learning styles theory was exactly the fact that it made teachers think about how they were reaching every student in the classroom by varying their input. Hugh pointed out something and it was sort of like this:

What about the huge amount of money invested to support and propagate a theory that isn’t evidence-based? What if that money had been put somewhere else?

Paraphrasing Hugh Dellar

Well, I’d have to agree with Hugh and say that if ELT and education, in general, hadn’t propagated the learning styles theory and used the money to produce materials, courses, diplomas on, let’s say, furthering our knowledge of how neuroscience could be used in the classroom and which metacognitive strategies might work more effectively, things could be quite different. 


The way I see it, we can keep doing many of the things we do in the classroom and be effective teachers. We do need to start calling things what they are. Instead of saying that you have some auditory learners in the classroom and you need to take that into consideration when planning your lesson, you can start saying that the brain encodes information visually and phonologically and that you need to help your students create multiple representations of what you’re teaching them in their brains to facilitate retrieval and maximize learning outcomes. You could also stop saying that one of your students has musical intelligence and say that she has great musical skills or that someone has interpersonal intelligence and say that they’re sociable and like to interact with others.

Nowadays, I suppose most educators as referring to “learning styles” as “learning preferences”. That means that students may have preferences but it doesn’t mean that their preference may be the best way to learn something in particular. As Paul Howard-Jones says:

However, it is true that there may be preferences and, perhaps more importantly, that presenting information in multiple sensory modes can support learning.”

Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2

An analogy that recently came to me while debating this post on facebook is the following: People might have a clear view of what they like or not when they are working out in a gym. But those views may be determined by cognitive biases and/or based on concepts that are not validated by the scientific method or the literature on how the body works and how our muscles develop. Therefore, they might be completely irrelevant to a functional and effective workout program and even cause injury. On the other hand, considering that gyms offer a number of possibilities for people to exercise different groups of muscles (push ups and bench press do the same thing for example), a qualified personal trainer or gym instructor can and should take their students’ preferences into account. They just need to be justified and aligned with our knowledge of anatomy and physiology.

I’d say a teacher doesn’t need to be fully aware of neuroscientific jargon and every little detail available in the literature about how the brain learns. But I believe teacher training courses, ELT materials, and professionals working with teacher education should know basic principles that will most likely affect the outcomes of their work. It’s totally fine to ditch ideas that were once quite prevalent, take what’s best out of them, and add the latest discoveries of science. This is how science works. And it’s important to call things what they are and understand more about them so that companies stop profiting from our lack of knowledge by selling products and services based on shaky grounds. I say let’s follow Gardner’s recommendation and drop the “styles” and start teaching students more holistically using every tool we have and focusing on things like attention, engagement, memory, motivation, emotions, consolidation and the list goes on. I say we focus more on basic knowledge about the brain and some evidence-based learning learning. 


Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(11), 417-423.

Barbe, W. B.; Swassing, R. H.; Milone, M. N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.

Cattell, R. B. (1971). Abilities: Their structure, growth, and action. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-04275-5.

Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E.; Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois, 21.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research50 (2): 123–133. 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hedlund, A. (2019). Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 2 – Learning Styles, Fixed Intelligence, Forget about Arts. Retrieved from https://edcrocks.com/2019/06/27/neuromyths-and-potential-classroom-implications-part-2-learning-styles-fixed-intelligence-forget-about-arts/

Howard-Jones, P. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Routledge.

HowardJones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824

Howard-Jones, P., Jay, T., Mason, A., & Jones, H. (2016). Gamification of learning deactivates the default mode network. Frontiers in Psychology, 6

Immordino‐Yang, M.H. and Damasio, A. (2007), We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1: 3-10. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 425-431. doi: 10.1002/job.318

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(3), 255.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Strauss, V. (2013). Howard Gardner:‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. The Washington Post, 16.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Visser, B. A., Ashton, M. C., & Vernon, P. A. (2006b). g and the measurement of Multiple Intelligences: A response to Gardner. Intelligence, 34(5), 507-510. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2006.04.006

Waterhouse, L. (Fall 2006a). “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A critical review”. Educational Psychologist. 41 (4): 207–225. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4104_1

Wirebring, L. K., Wiklund-Hörnqvist, C., Eriksson, J., Andersson, M., Jonsson, B., & Nyberg, L. (2015). Lesser neural pattern similarity across repeated tests is associated with better long-term memory retention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(26)

21 Lessons for 2021: A Brief History of our Mistakes

I once heard someone say that it is during times of pain and suffering that we learn the best lessons. I tend to disagree a little because I’d rather believe that:

A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of other


I said I disagree a little because I can’t really agree completely with the statement above. First because it’s outdated. It should read “A smart person…”. Secondly because many times we need to make the mistakes ourselves so that we can actually learn. At other times, we might not learn at all from our mistakes and those of others and we can be doomed to repeat them. We could also claim that moments of joy, success or bliss are the ones that teach us the best lessons.

The big question is: How can we learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others? The first step might be related to recognizing the mistake. This can be hard if we have no one to point that out or a basic reference, a yardstick. But for both our mistakes and those of others, once we’re passed the recognition stage, we can start the one that maybe matters the most: reflection. Reflection requires us to question our own biases and try to understand why we do the things we do and what we can change to do better the next time.

A powerful way to learn from the mistakes of others and reflect on how to do things differently is to pick up a History book. If you’re more of a documentary kind of person, there are many options as well. I love documentaries, but I can’t get enough of books. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting books I read last year was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. In it, Harari discusses some of the broad themes (or big issues) that have made humanity what it is, some of the dilemmas we face, and what we can expect in the future. He talks about community, fake news, Artificial Intelligence, politics, war, education, religion, science, you name it. A quite illustrative quote of his book goes like:

Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies, We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening in cyberspace than in what is happening down the street. It is easier than ever to talk to my cousin in Switzerland, but it is harder to talk to my husband over breakfast, because he constantly looks at his smartphone instead of at me.

Yuval Noah Harari

Harari does have a point and this excerpt seems to suggest something we’ve been sort of aware of for some time but we also seem to deny this reality, feel powerless about it or at least be OK with it. When I say “we”, I’m referring to education and all of its stakeholders. At the same time, the apparent paradox never ceases to amuse me. If we’re becoming ever more tech-savvy, why was it such an enormous challenge for educators to adapt to the new pandemic reality and integrate digital tools into the learning process? What is missing in this puzzle?

So, is there anything we can do to learn from the mistakes that we’ve been making in the last decades? Can we learn anything from the mistakes we made in 2020 while trying to make sure our kids and teens had access to (quality) education? What about English teaching and Bilingual programs? What are some of the valuable lessons we can take from not just our recent mistakes but also from the mistakes of others who seem to be a ahead of the curve when compared to us?

The pupose of this blog post, the very first of 2021, is by no means to provide you with the ultimate list of immutable lessons that will prevent us from ever making mistakes again. Errors and mistakes are important since they often come to us as learning opportunities. My goal here is to point out 21 reflections shared by me and some of the people I follow, colleagues, and peers I admire. I won’t elaborate too much on each lesson, though. I hope you add your own layers to them and share them with your peers so that we can keep learning because I’ll promise you one thing: we won’t stop getting things wrong.

  1. Teachers cannot be replaced by technology (at least not yet and not entirely). The human factor – including physical presence – should be a fundamental part of the teaching-learning process, particularly for young learners
  2. Teachers are the most valuable asset any school has. That also means that promoting a culture of professional development is always an important pillar and one of the best investments managers can make
  3. Using technology for the sake of technology probably works more as a distraction or simply to provide fun than something that might promote effective learning outcomes. If you can’t teach it, don’t tech it
  4. We still need to better integrate digital technologies into schools, though. There’s a visible gap that needs addressing. Either the school does not have the required structure or the teachers do not use (or do not know how to use) the tech they have as they could. It may as well be both
  5. We need to look at schools as resource centers that are not too open (free) nor too closed (restricting) or monotonous. They need spaces for creative thinking, hands-on activities, trial and error, and rooms where they can use computers, coding, robotics and other things. Preferably integrated spaces with flexible seating arrangements
  6. Student-centered approaches allow schools to focus on providing the resources for students’ needs instead of obsessing with content-driven curricula. Content is not such a rare commodity anymore
  7. The teachings of Loris Malaguzzi, Emmi Pikler, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Paulo Freie are more relevant than ever. Autonomy, guided and self-discovery, play, curiosity, social interaction, artistic expression, empathy, differentiation and personalization, as well as love of nature need to be at the heart of the learning process
  8. Flipped Classroom and Project-Based Learning need to gain more space and help schools look at subjects in a more interdisciplinary (or even transdisciplinary) way
  9. Blended Learning and more customizable learning environments/experiences are on the rise for good now. That means schools and teachers will have to create and curate content for students to have options when they’re studying asynchronously
  10. There’s no reason to believe that new drastic transitions won’t happen anymore. Schools should expect sudden changes and need to be better prepared for situations like COVID-19 in the future. Managers, teachers, and families have to devise contigency plans. A successful contigency plan has to be more based on the HOW rather than the WHAT. Protocols, processes, and methodologies need to be set in motion quickly so that the school ecosystem can adapt as painlessly as possible
  11. The interactions between education stakeholders have a powerful impact on students’ mental states and, thus, on their learning capabilities. Families, teachers, managers, and students need to understand each other’s roles and realize that their attitudes and behaviors towards learning matter
  12. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is as important as (or maybe even more than) learning content and skills. Without emotional regulation (self and co), and behavior management students cannot learn effectively
  13. Educators’ mental health need to be addressed as well. Schools need to provide teachers with the opportunities to talk about their mental health and with qualified professionals who can help
  14. Educators, students, families, and even policymakers should have a basic understanding of cognitive sciences so that they can make educational decisions based on how the brain and the mind learn. The Science of Learning and Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) should be part of pre and in-service training
  15. Scientific and critical thinking must be at the foundation of teaching. Fake news, science deniers, authoritarian governments are on the rise because education has been failing entire generations that are easily grouped together on social media through algorithms and live in their own bubbles where their cognitive biases are reinforced
  16. English language teaching has been changing and we should expect to see a rise on bilingual education. Therefore, ideas such English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and Content and Language Integrated Learnig (CLIL) should gain more momentum and ideologies such as native-speakerism should lose strength
  17. As bilingual schools/programs grow, private language centers will have to adapt to survive. It might take a few years, but these private schools will lose more and more Young Learners and Teens in 2021
  18. Private language centers should/can rethink how they teach (and attract) adult students as more and more professionals will look for solutions that prepare them for situational/conversational English with very little focus on exams
  19. With many classes going remote due to the pandemic, private teachers, and smaller schools might be able to reach more students than ever (not considering the negative effects of the economy)
  20. Big publishers should start rethinking the layout and content of ELT books so that they can adapt to the blended/remote learning scenario. Many schools may need fewer physical books and want to have the digitized version instead with short videos of every lesson
  21. We will continue to make the same mistakes and maybe very little will change

I’m sorry if the last lesson isn’t that positive. When I look at people’s attitudes in 2020 regarding the pandemic, wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the vaccine, lockdowns and other situations brought to us because of COVID-19, I don’t see a lot of change. To be honest I see many of the same behaviors people had a century ago when the Spanish Flu hit the world and killed millions. The problem is that with all the amazing progress we have achieved in the last 100 years, we should expect people to act differently. We should expect people to pick up a History book and be more “intelligent”.

The big question then is: how intelligent are we as a species?

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change

Stephen Hawking

The man who said that, Stephen Hawking, was certainly intelligent. Having lived a functional life for many years with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), against all the odds of survival, and having contributed so much to science should suffice as evidence of his overwhelming intelligence. His book A Brief History of Time is one of my favorites because I’m fascinated by how the universe and nature work and because he had the phenomeal ability of writing about complex things in such an easy way (mostly through concrete examples of our daily lives).

In Hawkings’ book, he takes us on a journey from Ancient Greek to modern times and how our understanding of the cosmos has changed. He describes how before Copernicus, and Galileo the paradigm was that the earth was the center of the universe. Hawking points out how Sir Isaac Newton proposed his Law of Universal Gravitation in the 17th century and how we still use his formulas till this day. However, it was only in the 19th century that another brilliant scientist proposed something that would add to (and “correct”) Newton’s theories which would allow us to create incredible new technologies such as the GPS. This man was Albert Einstein and his proposition (referred to as General Relativity) changed Physics.

Newton knew, however, that all he was able to accomplish would not have been so if he hadn’t learned from the mistakes and the successes of others before him. He said:

If I have been able to see farther than others, it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants

Sir Isaac Newton

We now know that Earth is not even in the center of our own galaxy, let alone the entire universe. We also know that our planet is basically a sphere with slightly flattened poles (not everyone seems to believe that, though). We also know that the fabric of space-time is warped by gravity and that there’s no absolute time. Time is relative. Building upon the knowledge left by others is how we move forward, how we make progress, how we adapt to change. We study, we learn, we compare, we think, we reflect, and we act. If we haven’t been able to adapt to change, we might not be that intelligent after all.

Our biggest challenge could be that the lack of change, real and profound change, in education. A change that has yet to take place. We might need a complete paradigm shift, not unlike the scientific method and how it works, to learn and implement important lessons from our mistakes and the mistakes of those who lived in different times.

I wonder if 100 years from now someone will write a list of reflections that resembles this one. I hope not. I hope humans in 2121 discuss other paradigms, like what physicists are doing now with Quantum Mechanics and particle accelerators, not whether the Earth is flat or not or if vaccines work. I hope the future educators look at this blog post as a historical account of less modern times and reflect on how they got where they are. I hope they get the same feeling I got when reading about these giants who came before us and did amazing things because they learned from people who had come before them.

I hope Einstein meant that we could be more intelligent collectively. I hope he meant that we would not run out of things to discover when he said:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe

Albert Einstein

Maybe he meant something else. Maybe I’m wrong about what he meant. I can tell you one thing, though. He was wrong about the universe being infinite. It took him many years to learn that lesson.

May we learn from mistakes and change our mindsets

That’s my hope for 2021. Happy New Year!

What would you change/add to my list? Let me know

The Elephant in the Room: Teachers’ Mental Health in the Pandemic

Hello, folks

I wanted to share with you the recording of my talk at the MELTA 2020 International Biannual Conference. I discussed some of the issues related to Mental Health and how important it is for us to listen to the cues our body sends us.

I’d like to thank my friend Claire Venables, for sharing important references on burnout, and Sarah Mercer, for posting the link to Educational Leadership’s issue about Mental Health for Educators. I also want to say how much I appreciate all the help I got from so many teachers who shared their struggles with me so that I could put this talk together.

Special thanks to MELTA, in particular Veronika Bandurina for inviting me via Ron Morrain, who kindly recommended my name, and my awesome hostess, Yulia Svetikova.

The references I used are below


Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Drisko, James. (2004) Common Factors in Psychotherapy Outcome: Meta-Analytic Findings and Their Implications for Practice and Research. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services: 2004, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 81-90.

Gross, J.J., & Levenson, R.W. (1997) Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107(1), 95-103.

Hakanen, J. J., Bakker, A. B., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2006). Burnout and Work Engagement among Teachers. Journal of School Psychology, 43, 495-513.

Lieberman, M. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2009). Pains and pleasures of social life. Science.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review of psychology52(1), 397-422.

Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1998). Cognitive and social consequences of the need for cognitive closure. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (pp. 133-173). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

ASCD (2020)


Science of Learning Resources to help you with Lesson Planning

If you’ve been following me long enough, you’ve probably realized that I talk quite a lot about the Science of Learning (SoL). I believe teachers and students all over the world can benefit greatly from understanding basic principles of how our mind and brain learn. That’s what SoL does. It looks at research and evidence from the cognitive sciences (neuroscience and psychology) and what implications they might have for teachers teaching in the classroom, for students learning from their teachers or even on their own. SoL can be an amazing tool for anyone looking to plan and deliver more effective lessons.

The purpose of this blog post is to put together some of the resources I’ve created or that inspired me so that you can learn more about the SoL and try to implement a few principles into your teaching practice. You can also try to use them as a student yourself.

The links to some videos and articles are below. Hope they are useful!

We start speaking at around 9:30
Click here to access
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The Importance of Science and Scientific Thinking in Education

Last year I had the privilege of attending an event promoted by the Federal University of Goiás (UFG) with two great references of Brazilian science: Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences; and Ricardo Galvão, former president of the National Institute for Space Research and former director of the Brazilian Center for Physical Research. This event made me think about how fundamental the role of science and scientific thinking is for future generations if we want to avoid the things we’re witnessing today. As teachers and educators, should we engage with this debate or should we “stick to our subject” without judging or questioning our students’ assumptions about things related to science? This post challenges the view of sticking to our subject based on the scenario depicted in these two scientists’ talks.

Ricardo Galvão and Luiz Davidovich. Photo retrieved from abc.org.br

After a brief introduction by the dean and the vice-dean of UFG Graduate Program, both emphasizing the tragedy that plagues Brazilian universities promoted by a government with no commitment to technological research and development, we were delighted with a coherent, passionate, and assertive presentation by Davidovich filled with statistical data, as expected by every good scientist . His slides explored the side that we don’t see so often in non-scientific media.

In short, Davidovich emphasized the predominance of postgraduate courses from public universities in the national scientific production that has global repercussion. He showed the natural symbiotic relationship between the public university and strategic industrial sectors, with examples such as Petrobrás (energy), Embrapa (food) and Embraer (aviation). Luiz emphasized the great challenges of research in the country, with emphasis on the lack and irregularity of funding, obsolete programs, internal resistance and high bureaucratization, little incentive for quality publication, prioritizing quantity, in addition to the “massacre” of young researchers, overloaded with a large number of classes.

Davidovich’s central message was that Brazil is not as bad in terms of science as many seem to believe and that despite the remarkable dismantling in the last 5 years, past governments have also not prioritized the role of the university as much as they should. However, he did not fail to remember that the quality university is the product of a quality educational system and that many changes must occur at the base.

Ricardo Galvão, who recently gained fame for standing against Environment Minister Ricardo Salles in an assertive way in relation to the minister’s accusations that the data produced by the National Space Research Institute were wrong or deceitful, complemented the Davidovich’s speech. The repercussion of this clash earned Galvão the nickname “the old man who is putting out the fire in the Amazon” by an 8-year-old child on the subway.

Ricardo Galvão started his presentation with a slide of an article showing the photo of Ricardo Salles and on the next slide he showed the great problem and danger that we have ahead of us: President Bolsonaro, his pseudo-scientific intellectual guru Olavo de Carvalho and Chancellor Ernesto Araújo. This group, and many other ministers appointed by the president, took conspiracy theories, obscurantism and science denialism as the tone of our national development policy. They deny that the Earth is round, that global warming exists, that COVID-19 is as serious as it is and other debates that have already been settled in the scientific community. They make decisions and justify them based on personal opinion often driven by a paranoid fear of a globalist threat from communists and the political left in general.

To wrap up, Luiz brought Henri Poincaré’s quote that the scientist is moved not by the usefulness of their findings, but because nature is beautiful and pleasant to study. Galvão brought Adolf Hitler’s response to Max Planck when he tried to prevent the fuhrer from firing scientists for political-ideological reasons. Hitler said he would not change his position and that if the dismissal of Jewish scientists meant the end of German science, then they would live without science for a few years.

To hear from these authorities that dialogue is difficult, often impossible with some sectors of the new government and that this has never happened before in their profession, is worrying and frightening. However, there is hope. Dialogue may fail when those who defend science hit back with fury and humiliation. And we are all guilty of that. We hit back hard because of the many absurds we see often. But that makes our listeners go into defense mode. Instead of doing that with hatred, let us try to educate or at least make them reflect. The scientific method welcomes debate and criticism with open arms and its main purpose is to clarify how things work and how they could work better.

As for science deniers who deliberately propagate fake news and pseudoscience, I suppose our best tool against them is an educated population. A generation of students who are educated in the scientific method and understand how important science has been. We also need students to become ethical citizens so that they understand the consequences of using science to do good or evil. The way I see it, we must not remain neutral about things that go against the current scientific knowledge, but we must be careful not to discourage this debate or even shut off our students’ voice and lose them forever. We need to ignite their passion for science.

It’s said that the famous physicist Richard Feynman once lectured in Brazil to a group of enthusiastic students and soon realized that they were brilliant to remember concepts. They could cite definitions verbatim. But when Feynman asked them to apply their deductive reasoning based on these concepts to solve a logical problem, they failed. This anecdote shows us that for the better part of Brazilian education, we’ve been teaching about science and not through science and with it. It may also have to do with the idea that promoting debates where we need to present our ideas based on logic and evidence-based arguments is not something we see in many Brazilian educational settings.

I know what you might be thinking. I’m a language teacher and have absolutely nothing to do with this. My job is to teach language and not challenge my students’ view on things no matter how absurd they are. I hear you and I feel you. And to be fair I have changed my mind a million times about this topic (I might still change my mind). What I do think nowadays is that we have a moral duty as citizens and educators to at least fight off fake news and pseudoscience. We might not always know what science says about this or that, that’s true. But I fail to see how encouraging students or simply allowing them to demoralize or question the scientific community without evidence will do us any good.

What can we do then? Here are some ideas:

  • 1- Use inquiry-based learning at school and promote scientific knowledge in practical ways (use labs, relate it to students’ daily lives and community problems, etc)
  • 2- Ignite students’ love for science. It’s about discovery and curiosity. Not about memorizing definition. In high school when we learned about waves, light and propagation, not once did we go to a lab to see that with our own eyes. We basically had to memorize formulas and I never really saw the application of what I was doing for my real life.
  • 3- Fight off fake news and pseudoscience, but remember to have patience and empathy with those who propagate them. The idea is to keep the dialogue open and not close it so that they won’t have the chance to rethink their beliefs;
  • 4- Be enthusiastic about science yourself. Tell them about the life of famous scientists and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Madame Curie;
  • 5- Acknowledge the immeasurable contribution of science to society. Remind students that science is not just done in a lab, but it is a process that involves all levels of education, particularly universities;
  • 6- Vote for representatives who defend these ideals. Do not give power to people who deny the scientific method. These people can undermine years of scientific progress and affect the minds of poorly educated masses and people driven by their cognitive biases in general;

At the end, Davidovich summed up what I think:

I have always managed to have a conversation with left, center and right-wing governments, but when the logic is distorted, incomprehensible, there is no dialogue

I hope that we continue to have curiosity and passion to discover new things and that we try to understand that science, as a whole, has a direct impact on the economy and human lives. Priority areas must exist, no doubt. But where would we be today if Rousseau had not written the Social Contract? Or if Freud had not given birth to psychoanalysis, which, despite theories considered to be pseudoscientific, brought us to an era in which therapy is normal? Imagine if at the turn of the 19th century, so many scientists had not presented us with quantum theory? Where would we be in relation to computing, space exploration in search of an explanation of our origins? If it weren’t for Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, today we wouldn’t have Uber, which works thanks to GPS that has correction calculations that only became possible because someone dreamed, was curious and researched.

When scientific breakthroughs fall in the wrong hands, we may experience terrible tragedies and setbacks, that is true. We’ve seen it happen before and we’ll see it again. That’s why we need to have ethical principles and lots of caution and debate. Nonetheless, a world without science would send us back to the Dark Ages where dogma is the rule and nothing is up for debate. That’s a thousand times scarier and more dangerous to me.

As Carl Sagan once said:

Science is not perfect. It’s often misused; it’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever changing, applicable to everything: with this tool, we vanquish the impossible

Carl Sagan

Get inspired in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s letter to Brazil to bring science into our educational system and celebrate the amazing feats of our people here. He ends his letter with:

Countries that struggle the most in the world tend to be those with low education levels and an absence of STEM in their culture. You have the resources and the legacy to lead all of Latin America, if not the world, in what a country of tomorrow should be—in what a country of tomorrow should aspire to. If you embrace and bolster your STEM industries—and the entire tech sector—then the dreams of students in the educational pipeline will have no limit, as they enter a world where rockets are what fuel people’s ambitions as they exit the cave door.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

My only suggestion to Neil is that he adds the A where it belongs. Not only STEM. We need STEAM and research in arts to change our future, just like Da Vinci did. After all, the Earth without art is just EH.

No, we don’t just use 10% of our brain

Article originally written for InnovateELT also published on the University of Bristol blog

Ever heard anyone say that? The last time I did was from one of the most powerful voices in movie history: Morgan Freeman’s. If he had been born in the UK, I’m sure he would’ve been knighted by now and joined the select group that includes Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Dame Helen Mirren. Mr. Freeman played the role of Professor Samuel Norman, brain expert who has studied, among other things, the evolution of this incredible organ in Lucy, a movie co-starring Scarlet Johansson.

Watch Lucy | Prime Video
Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson in Lucy
Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Lucy-Scarlett-Johansson/dp/B00QQW1VJA

In one of the scenes, Professor Norman is lecturing to a group of interested students and says:

“Imagine for a moment what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain capacity?”

He goes on and claims that each human being has 100 billion neurons, from which only 15% are activated and that means that “we possess a gigantic network of information to which we have almost no access”. In his words, if we could access all the potential of our brains, we’d be able to control other people and even matter.

Well, Morgan Freeman, even though I love your voice and your acting, your character couldn’t be further from the truth. In this Luc Besson movie, released in 2014, most of what Professor Samuel Norman says is a false claim about the brain. It’s a neuromyth.

Funnily enough, I met the real Professor Samuel Norman. His name is Paul Howard-Jones and he is one of the biggest brain references in the world and a professor at the School of Education at the University of Bristol. I’m quite privileged to have been one of his students. In his amazing book, Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So SmartHoward-Jones (2018) goes back in time to the early forms of life and takes us on a journey throughout the aeons of our home planet until the most sophisticated form of intelligence known to date: our brains and us. He has published many articles and books on the potential of using brain research, and neuroscience-informed strategies to positively impact educational achievement and learning outcomes.

Professor Paul Howard Jones and André Hedlund
Paul Howard-Jones signing my copy of his book during the launch in 2018

Well, Prof. Samuel Norman, let’s stick to the facts.

No, we do not use just 10 or 15% of our brain capacities. In fact, we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we are sleeping. A simple task such as drinking coffee will require many areas of your brain to activate synchronously. The frontal lobe when you decide to look at the cup of coffee and pick it up, the occipital lobe because you’re visually processing the stimulus, your temporal lobe as you imagine the word “coffee”, subcortical areas, an integral part of your reward system, because the thought of fresh coffee and that expectation make you feel good, your parietal lobe’s somatosensory cortex as you grab the cup and feel the heat on your fingertips, as well as areas related to taste and smell, memory retrieval, etc.  Grab any modern neuroanatomy book and you’ll see how dynamic and interconnected our brain is. You can learn more about brain structure and function on https://www.brainfacts.org/

No, Samuel Norman, we don’t have 100 billion neurons in our brains. Actually, according to the amazing Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, we have around 86 billion. You can watch her brilliant TED Talk about how she discovered that (it involved detergent and brain soup). Suzana Herculano-Houzel (2002) was also responsible for a questionnaire that has been replicated all over the world on how much the general public, and most recently, teachers, know about the brain.

The results in Brazil suggested that most people don’t really know much about how the brain works. So did the results in the UK, as demonstrated in Howard-Jones’ article (Dekker et al. 2012), in Portugal (Rato et al. 2013), in Greece (Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2017) in Latin America (Gleichgerrcht et al., 2015), in China (Pei et al., 2015), in Spain (Ferrero et al., 2016), and virtually everywhere.

But there is hope! In Lucy, Scarlet Johansson unlocks her brain potential because of a synthetic drug and basically gains superpowers that would make her fellow Avengers in a different franchise incredibly jealous. Let’s just say that if Natasha Romanoff were Lucy in the latest Avengers movies, Thanos wouldn’t have gone so far at all. The hope I’m referring to, however, is the hope that lies in unlocking our potential as teachers so that we can unlock our students’ learning potential. There are things based on the MBE science that can guide us in understanding how attention, memory, motivation, self-efficacy, and many other relevant pre-requisites or aspects of learning work. We just need to learn about them and start applying that knowledge.

While we are at it, I should probably tell Prof. Samuel Norman that there are other popular neuromyths being spread in educational settings all over the world that could potentially lead teachers to misinformed decisions when they are planning and delivering their lessons. To name a few, I will just point out that the learning styles theory and the left/right-brained paradigm need to be revisited by many teachers out there as the scientific evidence suggests that students do not learn better when taught in their preferred learning style (Dekker et al. 2012)

I actually wrote a 4-blog post series on some neuromyths that might be useful. You can read about the potential classroom implications here. Click here to read about learning styles and fixed intelligence. Here you can access the one about drilling, multitasking, and emotions. And you can find the last one about language acquisition and the right and left-brain dominance here.

On the very first blog post of the series, I remind everyone that:

“It is essential to remember that what I’m proposing is not a recipe for successful teaching, though. There are so many variables to consider that we can’t say “Do this and everyone will learn”. The authors who have written about this say that we need to be careful with such bold claims. Rather, if we look at it as just a framework that may help us think about how we teach and how our students learn, I think the potential is huge.”

The journey is long for those who are interested in following the path. A good place to start this journey into the depths of our brain, besides Paul’s book, is the website Science of Learning You can find more information on the Engage-Build-Consolidate (EBC) framework (developed by Paul and many collaborators) with principles that will help you reflect on teaching/learning strategies that might have a positive impact on learning outcomes as they are based on how the brain works.

You can also watch Paul’s webinar for our BRAZ-TESOL Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group, organized by Mirela Ramacciotti, Rodolfo Mattiello, and me.

Click here to watch my NGL webinar with a tips on how to plan a lesson using the EBC Framework

Here are some questions for you to reflect on. What impact do characters like Prof. Samuel Norman (both in fiction and real life) have on people’s understanding about the brain? What could happen if more educators around the world actually understood some fundamental principles of brain structure and function and used that knowledge to tailor their teaching practice? And finally, what could the potential of knowing about their own brains be for students who might be struggling in the classroom?

I don’t believe in magical solutions as those in sci-fi movies. I do believe in real and effective solutions based on scientific evidence and I think you should too.


Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., & Vadillo, M. A. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, 496. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Gleichgerrcht, E., Lira Luttges, B., Salvarezza, F., & Campos, A. (2015). Educational neuromyths among teachers in Latin America. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 170-178.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2002). Do you know your brain/ A survey on public neuroscience literacy at the closing of the decade of the brain. The Neuroscientist, 8(2):98-110

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart. Taylor & Francis Group

Papadatou-Pastou, M., Haliou, E., & Vlachos, F. (2017). Brain Knowledge and the Prevalence of Neuromyths among Prospective Teachers in Greece. Frontiers in psychology8, 804. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00804

Pei X., Howard-Jones P. A., Zhang S., Liu X., Jin Y. (2015). Teachers’ Understanding about the Brain in East China. Proc. Soc. Behav. Sci. 174, 3681–3688. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.1091

Rato, J., Abreu, A., & Castro-Caldas, A. (2013). Neuromyths in education: What is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers? Educational Research, 55(4), 441-453.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.