In this article, we will examine an emerging model for how the brain learns, based on recent advances in neuroscience and its application to learning. This model creates a considerable rethink regarding our understanding of the notion of intelligence. This emerging model includes:

  1. The four+1 learning systems that the brain has at its disposal
  2. How each of the brain’s learning systems stores memories in unique ways
  3. How the brain manages creativity via our imagination

Before educators can embark on new pedagogies of practice that are consistent with 21st-century demands, we need improved clarity as to how the brain learns and remembers.

In this emerging model, the human brain starts out life with about 70-80% of its cells being neurons. That percentage appears to drop over our first 25 years of life to less than 30%, with the most significant reduction in neurons happening between the ages of 8-12 years old. The brain then continues to reduce the number of neurons through our lives.

Why is that, and what are the implications for the learning that can be achieved at different ages? Over the past 16 years, we have built on the work of numerous neuroscience leaders to create a model for ‘how the brain learns.’ The breakthrough came in realising the brain has an integrated set of 4+1 learning systems rather than a single learning system. These learning systems seem to have evolved over different time periods, resulting in each one having different roles, with different efficiencies and capabilities. However, each of the four systems appears to communicate with each other giving us an integrated learning process.

The chronology of our acquisition of each learning system is outlined below:

  1. When first born, we appear to have a mostly neural brain – to learn to sense our environment
  2. Our second learning system allows us to sequence; a modification of the previous system that will enable us to learn to talk – amongst other processes
  3. The big leap – why we run the planet! Our brain made the leap from having some glial cells to them becoming the dominant cell type in the brain as we age. Astrocytes appear to be the primary type of glial cell that allows us to recognise and map patterns, ideas and concepts. Concepts are relationships between variables. The entire universe is all about patterns between cause and effect – concepts. Mapping and automating patterns/concepts means we are the only species that can multitask efficiently.
  4. Creativity via ‘stochastic resonance’ is what will enable us to leverage those patterns and re-combine knowledge, ideas and concepts in unique ways to form entirely new conceptual frameworks
  5. +1. Remembering knowledge; remarkably our least refined, but critical rote learning system.

A summary of the time frames and the efficiencies of each learning system are below:

Learning Systems Timeframe we have been applying this for Efficiency & equity of application
+(1) sequencing for learning via rote Always but became dominant 200-400 years* ago Very poor
1. sensing our world Millions of years Effective
2. sequencing for speaking, listening & apprenticeship learning 60-200,000 years High
3. ideas & concepts 50-80,000+ years Very high
4. creativity 40-60,000 years Unlimited

* An optimistic ‘average’ with a number of exceptions

As humans have evolved, each successive learning system has become more sophisticated. Our most inefficient and inequitable learning system is learning via rote. Remembering ‘off by heart’ or via rote is something humans have always done, as it was our first learning system, but this first learning system was very inefficient and inequitable. Over millennia, rote learning has become a minor player when compared to our other learning systems, until everyone had to learn to read and write. Our rote learning process is the learning system that contributes most significantly to the creation of the standard distribution curve of success in learning within schools, as each of the other learning systems appears remarkably equitable.

We need to re-look at what neuroscience tells us about brain function and how we can leverage this to craft a set of teaching and learning capacities that focus on:

  • making learning more equitable
  • focussing on learning for understanding and applying that understanding creatively to be innovative and ingenious
  • encouraging the development of conceptual frameworks of understanding
  • ensuring our learners are competent and understand and can understand and apply the Learning Process to take increasing agency over their learning

We have built on the work of numerous neuroscience researchers/leaders to create a model for ‘how the brain learns’, over the past 16-years. The breakthrough came in realising the brain has an integrated set of 4+1 learning systems rather than a single learning system.

Learning is a complex process, but a great example of the efficiency and equity of the conceptual learning process when learning to drive a car. Learning to drive is an extraordinarily complex learning process, but it is achieved equitably by almost everyone, with minimal variance in learner success.

This learning process is equitable because the ‘uninformed’ parent/caregiver puts the learner in the driver’s seat and provides them with the minimum knowledge (rote learning) – “That’s the brake, and that is the accelerator; don’t get that wrong! Right, let’s go!” The learner driver then adapts the differential pressures of their feet on the two pedals to get the car moving.

After five to seven starts at applying this differential calculus problem, the learner driver learns the pressure variations that enable them to take-off smoothly. The brain maps that concept (pattern) and automates it into a non-conscious process. The parent then moves to the next concept of slowing down evenly to arrive at a specific point (more algebra).

Within 40 hours the learner driver has mapped and automated numerous concepts (patterns) and is driving solo! The key here is to keep the rote-learned knowledge to a minimum and work through the concepts sequentially to create a conceptual framework for driving any car.

If we compare learning to drive with learning to read and write, we quickly realise that there are no conceptual underpinnings (patterns) to the sounds or letters, their shapes and the spelling of words! These all have to be learned via rote (our most inefficient learning system). A host of other aspects of learning to read and write are also pattern-less, and as a result, also have to be learned by rote. This also applies to the numerous rules of syntax and the sequencing of words.

As a result, for the majority of the first two years of learning to read and write, there are no patterns for the brain to map and generalise that would allow the learner to predict how words should be spelt. Reading and writing are used in schools to differentiate learners ‘intelligence.’ In this model, there is a belief that this difference in capability to remember via rote is genetic, based on how many generations the learner has behind them where the process of rote learning was involved.

If we let learners gather information by watching videos (viewing and sequencing), rather than reading the book (initially based on rote-learning), the distribution curve of success becomes far more equitable. Generally speaking, educators do not greet these suggestions with enthusiasm, and this is not surprising, as we have a very guarded history of reading and writing … but if we want equity in learning, there may need to be some sacrificing of a few of our ‘sacred cows.’

The question remains then; are we willing to change our practices in how learners access the information that they require. Everyone is increasingly obtaining the information we need via YouTube because it is more efficient than having to read and write. I would suggest this debate will be hotly debated; as it should, but not at the expense of our learner’s ability to access information, after all, we have only been ‘doing reading and writing for the masses’ for 2-3 centuries.

We have distilled three 400pp literature reviews into a single readable and free volume: ‘The Future of Learning’ (230pp) There are diagrams and videos at the beginning of each chapter so you can watch and listen; most watch the videos… because it is a more efficient way to learn! Feel free to pass on the link to colleagues.

We have mapped the global competencies, (sample here and purchase here). We are in the final stages of mapping each of the ‘subjects’ conceptually (sample here). These three resources will combine to create the worlds first global conceptual curriculum. It is expected that this will substantively reduce the distribution curve for successful learning.


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