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The Brain Biology of Learning:
Why the Success Pyramid Works

This article is from our series, Education Reform: A Simple Blueprint for Human-Friendly Education. For a directory of all articles in this series, click here. To get the full series in one downloadable PDF, sign-up for the free report in the black box on the right. 

The Brain Biology of Learning - Why the Success Pyramid Works


In the previous article, I introduced The Success Pyramid, a simple model showing the three elements of effective and efficient learning. These three levels have a direct link to brain biology.

The brain is powered by electricity, just like any electrical appliance. It is made of billions of tiny wires (neurons) that send electrical impulses across various regions of the brain.

These brain wires need power to send and receive signals; that power comes in the form of brain chemicals. You’ve probably heard of dopamine or serotonin, two of the most popular brain chemicals.

Effective and efficient learning is about managing the power supply in each region of the brain.

The Success Pyramid + The Brain


Region 1: The Emotional Center of the Brain -> “Confidence”

The “Emotional Center” of the brain correlates with the foundation layer of the Success Pyramid, “Have Confidence.”

In the picture above, place your index finger on the spinal cord, beginning at the bottom of the image. Now, trace the spinal cord up until it reaches the brain.

This path your finger just followed is the path that all information follows along your spinal cord. The very first section of the brain to receive that information is the Emotional Center of the brain.

This is why emotions are the “on/off” switch to learning; the very first region of the brain to process information is the Emotional Center.

“Threats” Make Learning Biologically Impossible

If the brain perceives a “threat” of any kind, it immediately goes into “RED ALERT! DANGER!” mode. This mode pulls brain chemicals from other regions of the brain as it prepares to respond.

That means, when the brain perceives a threat of any kind, learning becomes physically impossible. The brain literally “steals” power from the learning regions of the brain.

This design goes back to caveman days when we might encounter a tiger in the wild. Who could possibly think about memorizing theorems when a tiger wants to eat you?? Today, this region of the brain still does not know the difference between “Tiger!” and “Someone just said something really mean to me on my way to class.”

Both situations are threats. A tiger threatens our most basic physical survival. “Mean words” threaten our sense of belonging, which is also deeply important to our survival as a human, social species.

We Are Ignoring the #1 Roadblock to Learning

Our education system has completely ignored this fundamental aspect of brain function; if the emotional region of the brain is not in the Green Zone of “safe, happy, and content,” it is physically impossible for the brain to learn.

As you might imagine, to protect us, our brains error on the side of caution. Any sense of discomfort will put the brain in “RED ALERT! DANGER!” mode.

So, if a student feels…

  • like their teacher doesn’t like them,
  • uncomfortable around a peer or peers,
  • upset over something at home,
  • anxious about an upcoming test,
  • sad, depressed, stressed, or down for any reason,
  • disengaged or bored,

…the Emotional Center of the brain will hoard all of the brain chemicals needed for learning.

No amount of “education reform” will be successful if we do not embrace this critical aspect of brain function; Emotions are the on/off switch to learning!


Region 2: The Front Brain -> “Self-Management”

The “Front Brain” correlates with the middle layer of the Success Pyramid, “Self-Management.” 

When information makes it through the Emotional Center of the brain, it next travels to the Front Brain.

The Front Brain brain organizes everything about your life. It is the section that guides you through the sequence of getting a glass of water (walk to the cabinet, open the cabinet, grab a glass, close the cabinet, walk to the sink, etc…), managing your time, preparing food, organizing your supplies, communicating and interacting with others, etc.

The Front Brain is the most susceptible to “power outages.” What do you do when you feel fatigued? You usually hold the front of your head. That’s because this is the region of your brain experiencing the most significant power outage. That feeling of fatigue is a sign that your Front Brain is “out of juice.”

How to Refresh Brain Power in the Front Brain

Power is restored to the Front Brain through: consumption of food/drink with glucose (such as a piece of fruit or slowly sipping on lemonade), aerobic exercise, and rest.

However, the goal is to provide students with very efficient self-management strategies so they don’t exhaust their supply at inconvenient times, such as in the middle of class.

The best way to limit the strain of brain power on the Front Brain is by developing self-management skills, especially skills of organization. Successful organization skills help you convert everyday tasks into simple systems and routines, requiring as few steps as possible. The fewer steps required, the less demand on brain energy.

80% of the “organizing demands” a person encounters come from 20% of their tasks, usually repetitive tasks. In school, there are typically three aspects of self-management providing the greatest leverage points:

  • An ultra-efficient paper-management system to keeps assignments organized. (Or, an ultra-efficient digital-management system for organizing digital assignments.)
  • An ultra-efficient calendar/planner system.
  • An ability to work with teachers and peers, especially the ability to resolve conflicts.

As students get older, they are expected to take more and more ownership of their work. This can only happen successfully if students are effectively coached in the development of self-management and organization skills.

Middle School: A Critical Transition

Generally, students in the United States face a major transition as they enter middle school; they no longer spend the day in one classroom with one teacher who manages everything for them.

In middle school, students visit multiple classrooms with multiple teachers. Each teacher has her own communication style and set of expectations.

In middle school, students are now responsible for keeping track of all expectations (both explicit and implied), assignments, due dates, and test dates across MULTIPLE classrooms, each with a different teacher and a different set of expectations, assignments, due dates, etc.

At best, this transition is challenging. Often, however, it becomes debilitating for several reasons:

  1. Students have never been taught any skills for organizing all of these expectations.
  2. Each teacher has a different set of demands and expectations for how their students *should* organize.
  3. These expectations are typically implied, instead of explicitly taught.
  4. And, these expectations often contradict each other.

Region 3: The Back Brain -> “Learning”

The “Back Brain” correlates with the top layer of the Success Pyramid, “Learning.”

After information is processed by the Front Brain, it is sent to the Back Brain.

The Back Brain manages all learning. It also holds your long-term memory. Like the Front Brain, the Back Brain uses electricity to power connections across brain wires.

However, there is a fundamental difference between these two sections: the Front Brain has a limited amount of energy and burns through its resources frequently throughout the day. (Power is restored to the Front Brain through aerobic exercise, consumption of glucose, and rest.)

Unlike the Front Brain, the Back Brain has a far greater power capacity. Rather than “limiting” steps, as we need to for maximizing self-management skills, the Back Brain thrives on connections. The more connections the Back Brain can make, the more permanent new learning will be.

Memorizing vs Learning

It is important to make a distinction between “memorizing” and “learning.” If you’ve ever studied for a test –perhaps rehearsed definitions, theorems, or the steps to solve a math problem— then took the test and totally “froze” on something you rehearsed many times… that was memorizing.

You didn’t fully understand what you were memorizing. You could never have used what you memorized to solve any sort of real-life problem because you didn’t have a clue how the information related to anything in real life.

Memorization is entirely managed by the Front Brain. Your short-term memory is in the Front Brain. Memorization is simply a process of spooling things around in your short-term memory long enough to serve a simple purpose. Sometimes that purpose is to remember a phone # long enough to call someone. Or, perhaps that purpose is to remember the few items you need from the grocery store.

In school, however, students usually remember information just long enough to take a test. As soon as they turn that test in, their short-term memory “breathes a sign of relief” and literally releases its hold on the information. In this case, there is no long-term learning happening.

The reasons students “memorize” is because they’ve never been taught how to access their Back Brain, where real, true learning happens. For most students, any true learning that does take place has happened accidentally, not because they had any idea how to learn (vs memorize) information intentionally.

True learning –learning that is stored permanently and can be accessed at any time— happens when our brain can connect the new information to something it already understands. If this connection doesn’t happen, learning doesn’t happen.

Real Learning Changes Your Brain

When you learn something new, you literally change the physiology of your brain. The new information actually ignites a new brain wire. However, that new brain wire can only be created as an off-shoot from an existing wire (which is the “thing” you already understood).

A spider spinning a web cannot just spit out a string and expect it to stay suspended in thin air.  Instead, every string the spider spins must connect to something else in order for it to be a useful part of the web. The same logic applies to information stored in your “brain wires.”

The one, solid, key to all learning is to make connections to things, ideas, concepts, and emotions that students already understand.

For this reason, we don’t expect a toddler to understand a physics textbook. First, the toddler must learn some basics about physics. “When I let go, things fall to the floor.” As the toddler grows into a young adult, she has millions of experiences and makes millions of observations about how the world around her functions. Meanwhile, her reading skills gradually grow and advance, as well. After many years, she may be able to understand a physics textbook, *if* she’s had enough background to make sense of the advanced vocabulary and concepts described in the book.

The years of growth, from toddler to “proficient reader of physics,” is an ever-evolving process of new brain wires growing out of existing brain wires. Over and over again, ever growing in complexity.


Conclusion

The Success Pyramid is directly correlated with the path information travels in the brain.

Level 1: Confidence –> Region 1: Emotional Center

The first layer of the Success Pyramid tells us that students must be confident in their ability to learn, before any learning can happen. This layer correlates with the Emotional Center of the brain, which is the first brain region to receive all incoming information.

If the Emotional Center senses any kind of threat, it pulls brain chemicals from the other regions of the brain. This process literally shrinks our brain’s ability to learn.

Level 2: Self-Management –> Region 2: Front Brain

The second layer of the Success Pyramid tells us that students must begin to develop self-management skills before they can effectively learn. This includes the ability to work with others and organize themselves. This layer correlates with the Front Brain, which is where information travels, after leaving the Emotional Center.

The Front Brain is the region of the brain that handles all self-management skills. The Front Brain is always at risk of running out of power, so it is optimal to develop communication and organization skills that maximize efficiency.

Level 3: Learning –> Region 3: Back Brain

Finally, we reach the top layer of the Success Pyramid, which is “learning.” This layer correlates with the Back Brain. After the Front Brain evaluates information, it determines where to send signals in the Back Brain.

The Back Brain is where all learning happens. This region thrives on making as many connections as possible; the more connections you can make to things you already understand, the more permanent your learning will be.

Now that you understand the brain biology of learning and The Success Pyramid, next we’ll look at Solutions for the Three Core Problems with Education in the United States

To our students’ success,

Susan Kruger Signature

 

 

Susan Kruger, M.Ed.

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