Critical thinking. Problem solving. Creativity. Innovation. These are the new goal posts for the 21st century student. The growing body of recent brain-based research substantiates the effectiveness of hands-on making, building, and creating. Moreover, these kinds of learning experiences aren’t just effective strategies to teach new information, but we also know that there is a direct correlation between whole-brain learning and cognition, memory, creativity, and innovative problem solving.
Until recently, many psychologists identified creativity and intelligence as fixed traits. Neuroscientists now know that the capacity to learn and think critically and creatively is hardwired into our brains. We either nurture and grow that capacity or we don’t.
What if you could see how learning happens in the brain? How would you like to learn a bit of neuroscience? Okay, I hear the groans, but stay with me.
The human brain has more than 100 billion cells, called neurons. Brain neurons begin forming about four weeks after conception, and begin to grow dendrites with those first experiences of stimuli in the womb. A newborn’s brain grows dendrites at an incredible rate as he begins to discover the world. This continues throughout our lives, but neuroscience tells us that brain grows the most dendrites and builds the most connections between the ages of 3 and 12.
But, here’s the caveat: dendrites can only form from existing dendrites. In other words, we can only learn by building upon existing knowledge. The more we learn, the more dendrites we grow. The more dendrites we have, the greater capacity we have to grow more dendrites – to learn more. Think of dendrites as branches on a tree. At the mastery level, our dendrites are thick and strong like a 100-year old oak tree. As a novice, our dendrites look like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
When we engage the whole brain, we create the conditions for the brain to connect new ideas with prior knowledge, emotions, and sensory input to create deeper meaning. Experiential learning enables us to engage multiple parts of the brain and build bigger, stronger networks of dendrites. Do we want our next generation to grow the Charlie Brown tree or the mighty oak?
Do you see what I just did there? I enabled you to create a visual representation of neurons and dendrites to understand brain function and the capacity to learn. Okay, so you’re hardly qualified to call yourself a neuroscientist, but a basic understanding of how the brain learns can make you smarter. For example, the next time you learn something new – anything… a new recipe, the population of Sweden, how polar bears survive the cold, how to remove a wine stain from the carpet – visualize the new dendrites you’ve created and those they are connected to. What prior knowledge gave you the capacity to learn the new thing? Now, take it one step further. What dendrite will grow next based upon this one? How will you apply this new knowledge to something else? It’s this kind of curiosity and creative exploration that discovered gravity, electricity, and penicillin. We all have the capacity to learn. The difference lies with those who learn how to nurture it.
Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci may have discovered the answer back in the late 1400s in his Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind:
Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
If we learn how to learn and learn how to see that learning, it will significantly impact the way we learn to teach.
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Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who are looking for ways to more effectively teach and learn. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.
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