human brain toy

Being a Teacher: How People Learn

Whenever you’re trying to help someone learn something—whether you’re formally a “teacher” or not—I think it’s useful to understand how they learn. When you know how something works, you can use it better. Understanding how the human brain works, at least in regard to learning, helps you better leverage its native behaviors, making learning easier.

This is a field of endless fascination to me, and I heartily recommend the book, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens” by Benedict Carey. I’ll summarize a few brief points.

First, while repetition is a valid way for people to learn new facts, it’s one of the least-efficient ways for us to learn. Keep in mind that almost all of our basic learning abilities are based on survival mechanisms baked deeply into the core of our brains’ structures. When ancient humans encountered the same thing over and over and over, they’d remember it, and that’s where repetition comes in. But repetition was always meant to operate as kind of a background thing: oh look, the trees seem to drop their leaves around the same time of year when it gets freakin’ cold, and it seems to happen every year! In modern teaching, we kind of abuse the repetition mechanism (learning your “times tables” is a great example). It works, but it’s slow, boring, and often feels like punishment.

We learn best when learning is organic, meaning we’re simply experiencing and not making a deliberate effort to learn. Experiences tend to involve multiple senses—touch, vision, and sound, for example—and those create the strongest memories and the fastest synthesis.

What’s that mean?

Learning is based on memory: when we remember something, we can connect it with other somethings, and that informs our future actions.

In the brain, memories exist as a set of neurons—the basic cells of the brain—that carry electrical current. When our senses are engaged, different neurons located throughout the brain “light up.” The more senses, the more areas of the brain that get included. The more intense an experience, the more neurons “light up.” All of the neurons involved in a particular experience are connected in a synaptic network, which as a whole represents the memory.

Our ability to connect synaptic networks is called synthesis. It’s our brains’ way of connecting different memories to create a new understanding of the world.

The first time you touched a hot pot on the stove, several different senses were engaged—touch probably foremost amongst them. Pain receptors fired off, telling your brain, “I don’t like that! Bad!” Later in life, when you saw a different type of cooking vessel in a different context—perhaps a pan sitting on a grill—the original memory “lit up,” suggesting a relationship. You approached that pan a bit more cautiously! That’s synthesis: applying past memories to new situations, creating a new understanding of the world.

When we recall a memory, our brains actually reorganize it a bit. On the plus side, this has the effect of strengthening the electrical properties of that synaptic network, making the memory easier to recall the next time. That’s why common memories—like how to drive a car—feel so automatic to us, a term we call “muscle memory,” even though our muscles don’t have memories. On the minus side, our brains have the ability to alter memories as we recall them, which is why courtroom witnesses can sometimes be unreliable and contradictory.

So some tips for better learning:

  • Make learning part of an experience, rather than a passive activity.
  • Engage as many senses as possible when learning to create stronger memories.
  • Recall memories often to make them stronger.

That last bit is why teaching someone something is a good way to “cement” it in your own mind. Teaching not only forces you to recall memories, it requires you to connect other memories, so that you can create analogies and examples as part of your teaching. All of that activity creates a better understanding in your own mind, as well as helping your learner.

It pains me sometimes to see “teachers” try to outline a subject’s concepts up front, such as long lists of definitions, abstract theoretical information, and so on. That requires memorization, and in the moment, the learner’s brain is operating on one or two senses, and has nothing to connect the new information to. That teaching approach may seem efficient, but our brains aren’t efficient! Our brains are messy meat-things, and we can’t change that. We’re not like a computer program where you declare your variables and constants up-front; we’re far better at just “picking it up as we go.”

I try to teach concepts “just in time,” meaning I’ll outline abstract things in the briefest possible way before immediately getting into some concrete use of those abstracts. Sometimes, that even means skipping over some fine detail, and then circling back later to cover that fine detail. It makes learning feel recursive, which makes it feel inefficient—but it’s how the human brain works best.

For example, in the world of PowerShell there’s a command called Write-Host. At first glance, it seems to simply output whatever text you tell it to, which is certainly a useful thing. But there’s a lot going on with Write-Host that can trip you up. And so I made up a saying: “Everytime someone uses Write-Host, God kills a puppy.” It’s a snarky, in-your-face statement that catches learners’ attention. But it’s not the whole story: while I’m well-known for the quote, only the people who’ve sat in my classes know that I later circle back and explain some of the inner workings of Write-Host. My students leave with a strong understanding of what Write-Host isn’t (initial assumptions to the contrary), as well as an understanding of what it really is, in detail.

That teaching style generates strong memories: the audacity of the statement, the laughs of everyone else in class, the command on the screen in front of you. It’s not front-loaded with concepts: I make the statement first, and then—once my students are like, “okay, now I have to hear this story”—get into the hard-to-see abstracts.

Again, I find this to be a topic of endless fascination—how the brain learns, and how we can “hack” it to make for a better learning experience.

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