Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition Part 3

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Speaking about the Neuroscience of Learning at the Nat Geo Learning Conference

Almost two weeks ago I had the incredible honor and privilege to present at the National Geographic Learning Conference. I was invited nearly two months ago by Rosane Vidmar, whom I can’t thank enough for the opportunity. That was when I realized I hadn’t posted anything related to neuroscience since my very first entries on this blog (You can find them here and here). So, given the wonderful feedback I got from my peer Claire Venables, who also brilliantly presented at the conference about CPD and Young Learners, and, naturally, from the audience in Belo Horizonte who welcomed us in such a friendly way, I’ve decided to write 5 more tips about how we actually learn.

I must confess one thing, though. This entry will be entirely based on the works and one of the lectures delivered by the Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California (UCLA). His name is Robert Bjork and if you watch this video, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Another point I’d like to make is that his findings have been successfully replicated by other authors and should not be taken lightly even when you realize – just like I did – that we don’t really know what makes our students learn more effectively. Look at it as a chance to slowly incorporate what science already knows and to rethink the way you teach.

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1. Learning should be easy, right? The easier the better. Not according to science. Bjork mentions what he calls the “desirable difficulty”. That’s the level of challenge and effort required by us to solve a task. If it’s too easy, it won’t stick that long and learning won’t be efficient. As many of us, ELT professionals, know, the right amount of challenge is key to motivation, but we should bear in mind that it is also key to long-term and effective learning. 

Check out more here:  Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.

Or watch this video:

2. Forgetting is essential to learning. If you think just because the student had a class they’ve learned, think again. And if you think they’ve learned after the class and after the midterms or finals, considering they had good grades, forget that thought. Quick question: How much of the test content can you actually remember a week after you’ve taken the test? How about two weeks after? A month? A semester? As learners, we need to allow our brains to forget whatever we have learned in order to force active retrieval. Most of the factors involved with forgetting are directly connected with learning efficiency. 

Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. pp. 185–205.

Take a look at this short video:

3. Not making errors is a mistake – or should I say not making mistakes is an error?. Errors, incorrect choices due to lack of knowledge, and mistakes, incorrect choices due to slips, accidents, are both enemies of many educational settings around the world. However, they are fundamental if you’re after effective learning. Making an error will not only show you the wrong way, but it will also show you the right way by comparison. You’ll have more connections in your brain. Think of it as using Waze to go to an unknown address effortlessly and not really paying attention to the trajectory. If you do it, and you’re forced to drive back to the same place a week later without Waze, you might not remember how to get there. If you choose, from the very beginning, to use your knowledge of the city and build upon that to get to your destination – making the wrong turn here and there – you’ll have more connections in your brain and learning will stick more, allowing you to easily go back to that address in the future – without Waze.

Watch this:

4. Interleaved practice is better than blocked practice. Switching between tasks, or topics, when studying can be a wonderful way to improve learning. Our brains are not really programmed for monotony. Any change in the environment, the resource, and especially the content/topic is welcome. Instead of studying the same grammar structure to exhaustion before you move to something else, study it for a while, get a break, and then start something else. 


5. The last one is perhaps the most important. Performance is not learning. If your students got an A on their test, YAY! But it doesn’t mean they’ve learned. It means they’ve memorized the information to pass the test. If your students can perform a task well at any point, it also doesn’t mean they’ve learned. Knowing how to perform well can give the practitioner the illusion of mastery or learning. To make sure your students are learning, go beyond standardized tests and do more continuous assessment instead. 

Take a look at this:

Well, that’s all for today folks! Hope you find it useful.

Please give me some feedback about the post and share some of your thoughts as well.

Neuroscience of Learning/Second Language Acquisition – Part 2 – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua – Parte 2

Neurociência da Aprendizagem_parte2 – texto em português


Ok, let’s go on with the learning tips from our new favorite subject: Neuroscience! It’s worth stressing that the claims contained in this post have been tested all over the world and, thus, are science-based, which means they shouldn’t be neglected. I do not wish to say that some of our traditional practices in the classroom must be completely discarded, I wish only to defend the idea that the teacher’s praxis must be based on 3 extremely important elements: 1) research-based techniques; 2) relationship with students (rapport); 3) reflection on teaching.

Therefore, the next 5 tips, as well as the ones from the last post about Neuroscience, will become the base for effective lesson planning, and, most importantly, student-centered classes. Before we continue, I’d like to address some terms:

a) Elicitation: Technique used to obtain the answers from students in an active way. It consists of stimulation, question (guidance), and reformulation. Example: In the geography class, the teacher shows a picture (stimulus) of a Brazilian biome and asks: “What kind of landscape is this?” (question/guidance). The students try to answer with the words: “forest”, “savannah”. The teacher may give more stimuli or ask more questions so that students realize that they have to change their answer (reformulation). This process occurs until the answer the teacher is looking for is obtained from the students. Some might know the word “biome”. Observe that at no point did the teacher say the answer, he only guided the discovery by the students.

b) Insight: connection, sudden understanding of something, idea to solve a problem. It occurs when our brains “connect” the dots and we see the relation between two or more ideas.

c) Cognition: knowledge, thinking. Knowledge acquisition process.

Now, let’s get down to business.

1. Always use the elicitation technique to check students’ previous knowledge and make them think critically about the topic. Neuroscience tells us that the pleasure of reaching a conclusion on our own (of having insights, with the release of serotonin, which gives us this pleasure feeling) creates stronger connections. Start with a stimulus (visual, auditory or bodily) and lead students to guided discovery whenever possible. What we want from the students is that eureka factor or aha moment!

Great article about pros and cons of eliciting:

For the eureka factor and aha moment, watch this short TED talk:

2. When the teacher asks: “Did you understand?”, it is very likely that those who didn’t won’t expose themselves, thus, the answer of most will be “YES”. Instead of checking comprehension with questions like that, use concept checking questions (CCQs). It also promotes “active recall”, which helps to consolidate memory.

Example: The physics teacher explained (or elicited from the students) the formula Force of Gravity = Mass X Acceleration and the concepts of each term. Rather than asking: “Did you understand what Force of Gravity is?”, she asks: “Well, how can we define Force of Gravity, how can we calculate it?”.

Read this excellent article on CCQs:

Great video about eliciting and CCQs:

3. The same way children benefit from playing, teenage and adult brains also need pauses. Neuroscience has already demonstrated that our short-term memory storage capacity limits itself to 15-20 seconds of intake and that we can only save 7 “chunks” of information (numbers, letters, images) at a time. So, mini breaks of 3-5 minutes every 15-minute block of teaching are effective ways to ensure more learning and higher retention in the classroom.

This website describes the types of memory and how they work:

This link explains and gives brain breaks ideas:

4. Learning a second language improves cognition, regardless of age. Studies show improvement in logical thinking (great for math, for example), executive function of the brain (which helps with planning and decision making power), and it delays by an up to 5 years the initial symptoms of brain degenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer. 

Watch this TED talk about the benefits of being bilingual:

Check out this infographic:

5. Comparing students’ performance to encourage them to get better is not the best motivation tool. The concept of “growth mindset” is what most contributes to individual growth, that is, comparing current performance versus previous performance of a student and complimenting progress, with feedback and more incentives (constructive criticism) is what really works.

Watch this TED about grit and growth mindset: Dê

Take a look at Carol Dweck’s work:

Very well! Now you already have 10 awesome tips on how to improve your teaching practice based on what Neuroscience has discovered. My next post will provide you with a lesson plan model (framework) taking into account all these concepts!

Did you like these new tools? Leave a comment and share my blog with you student, teacher and educator friends!

Great week and good classes!

Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua

Neurociência da Aprendizagem – texto em português

Last year I traveled all the way to Israel to meet Neuroscience expert Dr. Avi Karni at the University of Haifa. The reason? Quite simple: 1) my wife was going to present at a conference there; and 2) I had heard about Dr. Karni’s research on a TED talk given by Benny, the Irish Polyglot (check it out here:
Dr. Avi Karni

Imagine my excitement arriving on campus to interview Dr. Karni, who was kind enough to give me a few moments of his busy schedule. We talked about memory, second language acquisition and one of his papers that claimed there was no advantage for children in L2 acquisition when compared to adults! That goes against most teachers’ notion that there’s a “critical period”, as stated by Penfield and Roberts (1959) and popularized by Lenneberg (1967), in which humans can more easily acquire a second language. This period is childhood.

I then started to be even more interested in neuroscience and how we learn. I did a short online course with Dr. Brit Andreatta called Neuroscience of Learning and I designed my English Development Course around the framework of my new discoveries. Today, I just want to share a couple of findings and invite you to think about such an important subject for every teacher, student, and educator.

  1. The critical period hypothesis has been widely refuted in different contexts and by different authors. This means that adults are equally capable of learning (languages or anything else) when compared to kids. In fact, there’s robust evidence showing that they can perform better, given the proper conditions (we’ll talk about them later).

Start with this and move on to Dr. Karni’s text (last link of this post): Singleton, David; Lengyel, Zsolt, eds. (1995). The age factor in second language acquisition: a critical look at the critical period hypothesis. Clevedon [England]: Philadelphia.

  1. The way most of our traditional classes are designed is not so conducive to learning. Research shows that expositive classes, where a teacher talks most of the time and students only listen and take notes, is not good for learning. Varying types of exposure, resources, platforms and students’ participation is what works best.

Check out Sir Ken Robinson’s video on breaking some education paradigms:
And how to flip your classroom:

  1. Learning styles are highly controversial and there’s no hard evidence that they really exist. As mentioned above, it is best to explore the same subject/content using different methods and resources. 

Watch this TED talk to get started:

  1. Too much homework is bad for learning. The adequate amount of time that students should spend on homework should not pass 2 hours daily. As it turns out, being a human and interacting with other humans, mainly friends and family members, are pretty essential for people to develop social skills and rest their minds well enough for learning to happen. What does work is distributed practice or spaced repetition. and this will help you here.

        5. Sitting still is bad for kids’ learning. Every class should have quiet and playful moments. Sitting still for too many minutes, or even hours, goes against children’s nature of moving to learn.

The NY Times published and excellent article on it:

That’s it for now. On this link you’ll be able to find some of the papers I read, more references, and more useful links.

Now, challenge yourself to rethink how you teach using these first principles of neuroscience and let me know how it went!

Penfield, W. , and Roberts, L. , Speech and Brain-Mechanisms (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1959
Lenneberg, EH.Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1967)