What if this is how we learn?

“The genius of our human minds is that they are endlessly adaptable and more powerful than we realise… learning is our superpower..” (Alex Beard, 2018)

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.” (Dan Coyle, 2009)


It is probably true that we can make teaching and learning too complicated; we forget the key mechanics and processes of how we learn and secure progress? It is also probably true that developments in cognitive science have not influenced teaching and education enough and that this has informed unhelpful beliefs about a child’s potential; lowering our expectations of what individuals are capable of?

Cognitive science has opened up new (and not so new) understanding of how we learn and make progress that need to better inform teaching and our present approaches to education…

What if learning something new is a physical (and chemical) process in the brain? What if the ability to know, understand or do something relies on the development and consolidation of connections in the brain? What if progress is a measure of how far these connections form and establish in the long term memory so that schemas (groups of connections in the brain) are grown so that over time a child knows, understands and is able to do more?

A schema is a cognitive framework of connections that help organise and interpret information. Schemas allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

What if the ability of our brains to group knowledge and experiences together so that we can quickly interpret the world around us is an important developmental aspect that has allowed our survival across time? What if the development of schemas in each child is unique, is the product of opportunity and learning over time (particularly in the first few years)? What if the early architecture of the brain provides the framework and structure for later learning?

Essentially, the more adept you become at a skill, the less work your brain has to do. Over time, a skill becomes automatic (hard wired) and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill. (important to teaching as well as student learning)

What if these connections, schema and the physical and chemical altering of the brain to create long term memory is a game changer? … our minds are expandable vessels, shaped by various things we do throughout our lives…

“…no such thing as predefined ability – the brain is adaptable and training can create skills that did not exist before. This is a game changer. Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Ericsson)

What if Daisy Christodoulou is right?…

“When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our education system… one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education… What you think about is what you remember. What you remember is what you learn.” (Daisy Christodoulou quoted in Alex Beard, 2018)

What if the following demonstrates the growth of connections in the brain? What if these show the  growth of connections as a child learns (right)… and the growth in brain size over time (left)… and the impact of extreme neglect that limits future learning?

What if we experience cognitive conflict when we experience new information and attempt to make a connection to it in our brain? If this new piece of knowledge or skill is in the proximal zone, connects into our present schema and is re-visited/reinforced over time it becomes available for application and wider understanding in the future. (it becomes retrievable from our long term memory)

What if Myelin acts like layers of insulating tape surrounding connections in the brain? What if deliberate practice, revision and revisiting supports the wrapping of myelin around connections? What if the application of new knowledge and skills, particularly in new contexts allows both greater solidity of connections and more securing connections to be added? What if overcoming cognitive conflict and permanently assimilating new knowledge, understanding and skills into schemas (secured as long term memory) is progress?

What if this is Myelin; the layers wrapping around a connection in the brain?


What if the sparking and cementing of new connections is often revealed in our language? What if this is an example of how the developing connections in the brain have located “elbow, shoulder and soldier” in the same area?…

Daughter: Can I have some elbows with my runny egg? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean elbows do you?

Daughter: No, ..(pauses, thinks).. can I have shoulders? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean that either, do you?

Daughter: No, ..(shakes head, pauses, smiles). I mean soldiers with my egg? (new myelin formed)

What if early learning, in the first few years, is the key to establishing the architecture of the brain and on building the connections that provide the basis for later learning? What if the research suggests that differences in genes only accounts for 3 to 7% of an individual’s IQ?

What if there is no innate talent? What if differences in levels of attainment are the result of the following conditions over time?

  1. growing up in a family that consistently provides opportunities, over time.
  2. where significant others support and encourage effort. Often an expert coach or tutor whose direction enables deliberate practice.
  3. where risk and failure is embraced.
  4. and where expectations are high; it is not ok to give up.

What if this is why deliberate practice is key to the altering of long term memory and to automation; the use of hard wired, often visited, set of connections that enable sub-conscious-like recall or execution of skill? What if this is a useful summary of deliberate practice from Malcolm Gladwell…


What if the concept of a proximal zone is useful when we consider how connections are formed in the brain? What if Vygotsky is still relevant; that learning occurs when children are taught and supported to think and seek meaning in their proximal zone … that area where a child’s existing schema (connections) are in place to connect to the new knowledge?

What if the following diagram shows connections in a brain and the location of the proximal zone around the outside? What if the yellow dot highlights the impact of pitch of learning on how this is responded to by the Brain? (Highlighting when securing, conflict and rejection of new knowledge occurs)


What if the ability of teachers to dance between cognitive conflict (middle) and consolidation (left) is the key to sparking and consolidating the connections in the brain that alters long term memory so that it can be recalled and used over time (progress)? What if there is also value in exposing brains to that which is not yet comprehensible to the individual – perhaps to reveal elements that are motivating a sense of awe and wonder and to sow seeds for future progress? What if reading a text to a child that is more complex than they can read supports vocabulary growth and provides hooks for future learning? (Doug Lemov, in TES, 2018)

What if we should seek desirable difficulty? What if connections are formed when we are focused and not distracted, when we experience cognitive conflict, when, because of this effort, there are physical and chemical changes in the brain that fuse and then harden, altering long term memory?

“Comfort (is) the enemy of progress.” (Barnham, Greatest Showman)

“Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.” (Matthew Syed)

What if the purposeful and ordered accumulation of knowledge and skills within a progressive knowledge-based curriculum is essential to building schema and understanding? What if we understood that it is the application of this knowledge and skill that has greater leverage on the growing of myelin and supporting the greater stickability of learning so that it can be used in the future? What if we took more notice of the specific impact of the curriculum on learning; prioritising our understanding of the “learnt curriculum”, in comparison to the “planned curriculum” or the “in-acted curriculum“… when it comes to learning and progress the learnt curriculum is the one that matters? What if the identification of key concepts and mis-concepts by age and topic within the curriculum is key to supporting the conceptual awareness that children need for the next stage of their education?

What if some connections grow stronger (greater wrapping of myelin) when the learning is rich and experiential? Riding a bike or driving a car are good examples of this hard wiring of connections in the brain.What if emotional reaction and seeking/reflecting on meaning significantly enhances the chance of assimilating new knowledge into an existing schema and then consolidated as a change in long term memory?…

“A very important element of learning was therefore the process of how you paid attention to something, thought about it and thus ended up with it stored. … You couldn’t learn something you didn’t pay attention to. Yet the process of paying attention to something was complex, and not always under our control. It could be enhanced… in a few ways: things that created an emotional reaction were much more likely to be remembered; repetition helped a little; wanting to remember didn’t help much; reflecting on meaning had a positive effect, such as knowing where something fitted in a story or schema, whether personal or general.” (Alex Beard, 2018)

What if “a teacher’s goal… should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” (Daniel Willingham, quoted to Alex Beard, 2018)

What if feeling safe and ensuring that all basic needs are met is crucial for supporting a child to focus on learning? What if learning and committing abstract information (not essential to survival) to long term memory can only be done when we do not feel under-threat or anxious?

What if formative assessment is the key to understanding what a child can and cannot do so that teaching is more often pitched in the child’s proximal zone? What if the support of a knowledgeable other/coach/ teacher catalyses the opportunity for a child to connect with new content? What if this means that the planning between learning episodes based on formative assessment and how teachers respond to learning in classrooms is key to maintaining as many children in their proximal zone as possible, over time? What if these are the conditions that grow connections in the proximal zone?..


What if the specificity of feedback is key, as it has greater potential to overcome cognitive conflict and conceptually be the next area for the child to learn? What if too much feedback is presently too generic and not focused on cognitive science, which tells us that new connections, consolidation of existing connections and linking across schema to create new meaning requires specific pitch and precision of feedback (and teaching)? What if we are highly specific about the knowledge and skills being taught in a learning episode – reflecting the connections that are being sought and how this fits into the schema?

What if precise and specific feedback has much greater impact on leveraging learning? What if this specific feedback needs to happen in the moment when children are in cognitive conflict or we need to take children back into cognitive conflict when they receive feedback? What if we re-evaluated our present approaches to feedback through this lens?

What if we should develop different ways to explain and show the same concept or idea? What if this increases the chance of making a connection to existing schema in a child’s head? If a child does not understand or connect with new information, we increase the chances of connection if we seek to connect to other parts of the child’s schema.

What if modelling is a key aspect of pedagogy that seeks to support the growth of connections and the development of schema? What if modelling systematically consolidates previous learning and takes children forward with their learning – actively building schema?

What if teachers need to support children to remain in their proximal zone so that they wrestle in cognitive conflict and make gains in their learning? What if we let children give up too readily and that children are often inclined to de-select themselves when it gets hard? (particularly if they are disadvantaged) What if low level disruption is the enemy of forming and establishing connections in the brain?

What if “ah ha” moments occur when schema connect to provide a new view of the world? What if such moments can be planned for?

What if the opportunities, experiences and support that we receive (particularly in our first few years) shapes the architecture and web of connections in the brain and that this is the key difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children? What if this early advantage accumulates over time to accentuate the gap?  What if the following represents that difference in size of schema, amount of connections and size of proximal zones between advantaged and disadvantaged children?


What if  the lower exposure to words, vocabulary and conversation for disadvantaged children  reduce the opportunity to overcome linguistic under-privildge? What if Alex Quigley is right and that the hidden growth of vocabulary significantly determines success?…

“We know that a great deal of our vocabulary is learned incidentally and implicitly outside of those (school) gates. This largely subconscious, hidden growth is like a child’s physical development… By paying attention to vocabulary growth at the micro level, we can better understand it, we can go to cultivating it and in so doing every child will be gifted a wealth of words.” (Alex Quigley, 2018, Closing the Vocabulary Gap))


“The accident of birth (context and upbringing) is the greatest source of inequality in the US” (James Heckman) … also true in the UK. 

What if the differences in schema and proximal zone is evident in presently lower, middle and higher attaining children…


What if in a class of 30 children the structure, size, connections (architecture) of each child’s brain is different? What if pitching learning and meeting the cognitive needs of 30 children is the art and science of teaching? What if the Yellow dot represents a particular episode of learning and how just 3 individuals may be able to access this new knowledge, understanding or skill? What if this means that differentiation and pitch by child is the key to supporting more to work in their proximal zone? What if this is not about hitting the sweet spot for all children every lesson, but more often over time … perhaps a different 80% each lesson?

What if we need to “think differently” for presently high attaining children; who need to do different to ensure that they are challenged and stretched in their proximal zone more often?

What if progress is better described like this… (that connections form, erode, stabilise, become hard wired over time; accumulated connections afford the opportunity for new understanding and meaning)…

“Siegler’s image of surging and receding waves helps to explain the seemingly random retreats and swells we experience as we grapple with new skills and tricky concepts. Rather than feeling ashamed about ‘slipping back’ into the old ways of thinking and acting we thought we had outgrown, such episodes are better viewed as part of the natural ebb and flow of learning. Slipping back is part of the process of integrating new and troublesome concepts into our mental webs.” (David Didau, 2016)

What if story telling and narratives have the ability to draw learning together and connect schema in the brain that build greater understanding and bring meaning to the world? What if George Marshall is right and that…

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

What if stories are uniquely powerful in securing new knowledge and understanding? What if these stories mirror the schemas developing and adapting in the heads of young people? What if stories tap into the narrative instinct that we all share; and use from birth to navigate and comprehend the world? What if this is deeply linked to human evolution and how humans have evolved to understand the world in story form; developing useful schemas about the world? What if stories tap into our emotions, attract our attention, and light up areas of the brain that allow us to secure change in our long term memory? (anyone who has delivered assemblies over time will immediately recognise that power of story, particularly when it is about you.)


What if the curve of forgetting describes the need to consolidate connections and wrap myelin so that new knowledge is assimilated and committed to long term memory? What if interleaved curriculum and re-teaching and revisiting is key to securing changes in long term memory and supporting retrieval; allowing children to apply understanding from one area to seek meaning in another? What if connections break and erode over time if they are not revisited or significantly secured? (adding to the advance and retreat of progress over time)


What if Dan Coyle is right and that greatness isn’t born it’s grown; talent is physically (and chemically) built through purposeful practice…deep practice?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).”

The challenge then is not to accept poor or wrong assumptions about what our children can achieve, but to develop culture, curriculum and teaching based on cognitive science. An enabling education system that does not limit what individuals are capable of – there is no magic involved in learning something new – it is about sparking connections in the brain, hard-wiring this understanding so that children build schema that allow them to understand the world and to seek meaning.

“From our first steps to our last words, we are what we learn.” (Alex Beard, 2018)


Maybe then we will…

  • …see learning as a physical (and chemical) process of sparking new connections in the brain and firming these connections with myelin that secure changes in long term memory so that learning can be applied over time and in different contexts.
  • …understand that only when knowledge, understanding and skills are stored in the long term memory as a permanent feature that children have genuinely made progress – recognising that even then these connections can erode over time.
  • …realise that learning happens when children work in their proximal zone, when there is desirable difficulty and when effort is required to overcome cognitive conflict to assimilate new knowledge, skills and understanding into schema.
  • …build progressive, knowledge (skills)-based (including application) and concept-sensitive curriculum. So that children are supported to systematically build knowledge and understanding over time and in-line with their growing schema. Each stage of education purposefully building the knowledge and conceptual understanding that readies individuals for the next stage.
  • …realise that the “learnt curriculum” is what matters when we consider the efficacy of teaching for securing learning and progress.
  • …realise that this is why teaching is so complicated as every child has schemas and brain architecture that is the result of their unique opportunities and experiences to date; so that each proximal zone and existing architecture will react differently to learning episodes.
  • …realise that disadvantaged children are not innately less able, but the product of lower opportunity and linguistic under privilege. Building knowledge, systematically and applying this knowledge will accelerate learning; vocabulary and heightened exposure to words over time is key.
  • …understand that the real impact of the 30 million word gap by age 3 is a connection deficit in the brain of maybe 60..90..120 million? On this basis it is unsurprising that early advantage and accumulated advantage is so strong in education and underpins the reasons why it is so hard to convert low attaining children age 11 to high attaining by age 16.
  • …stop seeing the gaps in attainment as being the result of differences in innate talent and open up a world of possibility for all children regardless of their start in life and opportunities to date. (the tendency for disadvantaged children to de-select themselves means that too often they do not create or sustain enough connections in long term memory to realise any appreciable progress)
  • …stop using the word “ability” and replace with “present level of attainment.”
  • …realise that it is what is planned between learning episodes based on formative assessment and the skill of teachers to respond in lessons to learning that will keep more children in the their proximal zone more often.
  • …create more specific feedback that seeks to spark and consolidate connections in the brain. Find time to recap, revisit and respond to feedback to build reinforced connections over time.
  • …seek response to feedback when children are in cognitive conflict.
  • …seek greater differentiation so that we can support more to work in their proximal zones over time. Seeking to support children to grapple with desirable difficulty, because we plan more specifically to meet of cognitive needs of children. Thinking different for presently high attaining to secure stretch and challenge in the proximal zone.
  • …use modelling to support schema development.
  • …understand that new connections are fragile and erode over time if they are not fired/used. We would build in to learning opportunities to spiral back to content and ideas with the intention of firming up long term memory.
  • …work harder to plan and create curriculum that is ordered and progressive over time so that concepts and misconceptions and knowledge are visited in an appropriate; supporting the growing schemas in children.
  • …tell stories and tap emotion in passages of learning that heighten both interest and emotion so that children fire across the areas of the brain increasing the chance that physical and chemical changes in the brain are solidified and committed to long term memory.
  • …understand why it is important to taking different approaches to explain new concepts, so that we can access and anchor new learning to different parts of a child’s schema.
  • …teach content and skills in a way that moves up and down through complexity. So that schemas are purposefully developed and consolidated over time and that new knowledge and understanding are introduced to lay the foundation for future learning.
  • …challenge children to seek meaning in their learning; taking risks and thriving in desirable difficulty to build knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • …ensure the highest expectations of attitudes to learning and focus in lessons. Committing learning to long term memory requires cognitive conflict and desirable difficulty; a significant level of focus. Dis-organised or disruptive classes will reduce focus and limit a child’s ability to convert learning to long term memory.

…there are many more implications for education when we consider learning and progress through this lens; but it would appear that Malcolm Gladwell might be right…

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities…” (…that spark connections, build schema and commit knowledge, understanding and skills to long term memory; that is the foundation for success(Malcolm Gladwell)

Dan Nicholls | May 2018 | Twitter: @DrDanNicholls


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s