What is learning, exactly?

Two weeks ago we discussed the concept of learning in our classes, and I was motivated to enquire about “Learning and its’ effect on the brain”, and especially, in relation to adult learning.

We all can agree that learning constitutes some change to the brain, yes, when we learn something, it affects us whether long or short term, our brain decides where the information is stored and for how long.

Hilgard, E., found that “The science of learning remains in a state of flux, in part because we have not yet reached agreement upon the most appropriate concepts to use in stating our problems and in interpreting our data. Learning takes many forms, though most societies create a one-size-fits-all educational system, that starts from as early as preschool, we’ve seen evidence that showed that people learn differently and, hence, be given the opportunity to  be unique.

Like many of you, I find it very difficult to explain subtly and especially in this one case I’ve experienced, to understand how two brothers, identical twins and also inseparable, having being taught in the same environment portrays polar opposite learning capabilities, one, the country’s scholar and the other a high school dropout. Without proper research we will never get close to understanding the learning pattern of an individual, and since the economic cost of individualized learning may very well outweigh the benefits society will receive from an individual, we may never be able to know the “what if”.

I believe it is important for educators to be able to understand the fundamental differences in individual learning styles and to avoid setting standards for learning based on their current environment. In all instances I believe it is also important to consider other factors that might influence learning and teaching.

As I get older the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” seems to be mentioned in my circle more often, maybe some have given up on wanting to learn, but Prof Paula Romano often said, in class, “I’ll stop learning when I die” and hence the reason for this new field of studies “Lifelong Learning”. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Absolutely, but I’m no expert to explain how exactly this works.

The following post by Dr. Pascale Michelon gives a greater insight into how the brain works in relation to learning, most to this information was discussed in our last class, but using the word “plasticity” to explain the moldable characteristic of our brain, gives it clarity.

 “Did you know that when you become an expert in a spe­cific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larger hip­pocam­pus (in the pos­te­rior region) than Lon­don bus dri­vers (Maguire, Wool­lett, Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hip­pocam­pus is spe­cial­ized in acquir­ing and using com­plex spa­tial infor­ma­tion in order to nav­i­gate effi­ciently. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don whereas bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­ited set of routes.

Plas­tic­ity can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals (Mechelli et al., 2004). It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is pos­si­ble through func­tional changes in the brain: the left infe­rior pari­etal cor­tex is larger in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains.

Plas­tic changes also occur in musi­cians brains com­pared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) com­pared pro­fes­sional musi­cians (who prac­tice at least 1hour per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musicians. They found that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sional musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musicians in sev­eral brain areas involved in play­ing music: motor regions, ante­rior supe­rior pari­etal areas and infe­rior tem­po­ral areas.

Finally, Dra­gan­ski and col­leagues (2006) recently showed that exten­sive learn­ing of abstract infor­ma­tion can also trig­ger some plas­tic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam and com­pared them to brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­rior hip­pocam­pus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.”

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