Neuroscience and Learning by Ken McDonald St Paul’s School 2015

BrainInteractional model of interdisciplinary sciences for understanding learning consciousness and wellbeing:

We are beginning to learn the effects and influences of different cognitive processes – brain function – on the habits of the mind and abilities in learning. Yet little of this knowledge has been applied systematically to the practices and processes of teaching or educational learning management (Demos, 2005).

We are learning more about the complexity of individual brain functioning and what that tells us about our consciousness and wellbeing. Each of us constructs meaning that is relative to our individual perspective and adaptive needs. Educational neuroscientist Bruno della Chiesa suggests we know approximately 20% or 1/5th about the brain’s complexity, and that’s the easy bit. Learning more about the way the brain works [metacognitive] helps us develop the coping strategies for decision-making flexibility, within a changing world. David Price says, “…..our ‘metacognitive’ capacity [the capacity of the brain to learn about itself!], to know ourselves as learners has a crucial bearing upon how we actually learn” [Price, D. 2013].

Fuchs, 2012 describes the brain as a “relational organ that mediates the interaction between organism and environment”, and reflects this dynamic as a fluid and continual interactional web between mind, body, and environment manifesting in different reality contexts. This state of being is interrupted by sleep, which early research suggests is necessary for the brain to internally engineer its networks and internal capabilities for adaption and learning. This intrinsically personal experience of learning develops prejudice perspectives, and certain points of view used to interpret, predict and make assumptions and decisions about proceeding events. For other interpretations to be assimilated by an individual, information needs to be reasoned, experienced, discussed, and accepted by collusion, sharing, and trust. It is then that understandings will become more ‘common’ with others.  “Minds emerge from process and interaction, not substance” (Broks, 2003). The International Mind, Brain and Education Society was formed in 2007 to connect biology science, cognitive science, and education science (Fischer, K.W. and Heikkinen, K. (2010).

Education systems are being been challenged to consider and plan for the diverse needs of all students by personalising learning processes within the classroom teaching and learning framework. The Victorian government published a document titled ‘Personalised Learning: from Research to Policy and Practice’ (paper no. 11 Sept 2007), and I believe the Victorian Government have recently mandated that each child has a personal learning plan in certain parts of the state.

Personalising learning from a neuroscience perspective is more than an individualised plan for curriculum accessibility. Firstly, changing the focus for educators by understanding the symbiotic link between the environmental learning process, and individual brain development, and secondly, it helps students learn about their growing brain formation [plasticity], and exploring cognitive flexibility, and how these relate to their wellbeing and resilience. This enabling process helps the learner and the teacher to focus on a student’s intrinsic valued approach to learning. It is important for students to be less resolved about themselves as learners, and not foreclose on their abilities and capabilities when inevitably comparing themselves to other students in the social learning context.

Although there is a long way to go, neuroscience research provides increasingly new insights into the meaning of difference, and how neural bio-architecture is created through the brain’s sensory experiences, for adaption and growth within a psychosomatic unison of the brain mapping of the body (Damasio, 2012).  Freedom of expression and social interaction within the learning context, assists the development of conscious, positive, social learning adaption and resilience.

Brain growth and processing is a function of environmental interaction, and by understanding this as a neurological dynamic phenomenon increases the capacity of individuals to maintain control over their own self-development through better understanding themselves.

While in the early stages of cross-discipline or inter-discipline research between Learning Science and Neuroscience, including Social and Nutritional Science, there are some insights listed in this paper that may be helpful to teachers.

The way that each learner learns, needs to be explored and acknowledged with the learner as we trial new ways to enable learner confidence, and build on learner resilience by helping them understand themselves more completely in preparation for coping and responding within developing global knowledge networks. Paramount to this vision is acknowledging learner difference as near and as close as possible to their experience. Personalising learning dialogue and curriculum teaching and assessment should not be mutually exclusive, however increasingly, there is a need to put individuality and all that it means for wellness and internal integrity, ahead of developing a curriculum referenced student identity.

Brain research in the future will guide alternative and better ways to understand the interface between the human brain and the environment.  This research will provide methods to acknowledge learner strengths, as individuals exercise free will in choosing what and where they learn. This has challenges for educators, developing education delivery strategies that cater for the unique nature of individual consciousness, and more personalised learning for varied lifestyles as a human right! Without the promotion of individualism in this sense, we may be asking students may give up their rights to unique thought. Many examples of this are evident with ideological and commercial advertising and marketing creating wants over needs and valuing materialism over humanism. Central to focusing on student decision making efficacy and resilience is the shared expression of reasoned thought, and authentic emotions.



The context of social learning provides a rich forum for the teacher and student to share thoughts and “authentic perceptions” to learning.  This underpins a student’s intellectual security (McDonald 2012), internal integrity, and learning self-efficacy in the process of learning. For example, a 30min cognitive maths lesson may be followed by a non-cognitive reflective log using a range of activities including art, cooking, outdoor, and play acting etcetera, allowing the learner to explore an intrinsic understanding of themselves and others in their experience of learning. Building “authentic” representations and shared emotions, both negative and positive to their learning experience, is informative, revelatory, and personal in understanding brain prejudice, memory, and decision making options. Neuroscience research may help educators with tools to assist a learner’s self-understanding, self-direction and self-acceptance.

Brain Plasticity: Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to brain growth in children and adolescence, and changing the established brain thereafter beyond developmental stages. Female brains mature around the age of 21, and males at age 25. Plasticity through childhood and adolescence is present because the brain is still growing. Changes occur during (synaptic pruning) and after adolescence as the brain structure becomes more inflexible, and at the same time more efficient to itself, as opposed to the broader concept of general functioning and adaptive efficiency. This is a very complex dynamic and involves an understanding of both genetic loading, [what is given to us by nature], and epigenetics, [which is adapting to nature]. Adults have the ability to change thinking patterns and brain architecture. Although this can require hard work and involves, for example, changing established ways of behaving beyond the synaptic pruning stage of adolescence. Many psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and health care workers, have tried, and are trying, to assist people better adapt to life by helping them change their thinking patterns. If one was to ask any person who has a family member with a mental illness, how easy is it to change addictive behaviours and thinking?, one would discover how difficult this can be.

Patterns of thinking are like using a city road network. We keep using the same learnt pathway even if there are new and better alternatives. It is not until we get totally frustrated with “road restrictions”, or a pathway becomes unavailable to us, that painstaking motivation and sacrifice to change occurs. Simplistically, early neural pathways in the brain are like road construction, linking A to B to C, and so it goes on, developing and expanding activities, terminology, and network dynamics. Deviation and changing existing established roads and networking, requires motivation, reasoning, hard work, and re-engineering implied in the term brain plasticity. We work hard to maintain our existing neural patterns as this is perceived as fundamental to our intellectual security and survival. Challenging a student’s sense of knowing may be a bigger threat to them than is realised. There is much to learn about brain plasticity and the role of the emotions [Amygdala] in thought inhibition, as well as the nature of memory acquisition and memory storage in the learning process. The role of emotion in learning is critical, (Immordino-Yang, M, H. Matthias, F. (2010), and intrinsic to cognition and to the nature of our ways of knowing.

Brain timing: The issue of brain timing cannot be overstated as each student has a unique neural formation. Time perception also has a cultural basis [Boroditsky, 2010]. Events can slow down or speed up in the brain as a function of brain processing and cultural identity. This has implications for testing and question response times in learning. Each individual has a different way of calculating and using time, moment by moment within a particular event, thereby having differing rates of learning and timing and integrating sensory information[time to think]. Normally the speed of each sensory input is regulated to reach the executive integrative processing centre of the brain at the same time for decision-making. Imagine what is like for a person if this wasn’t the case!


Language and Dialogue: A fundamental basis of neurobiological development is gaining meaning from language. Language creates physical and neural network formation and growth in the brain. Teacher and student dialogue helps mutual understanding in co-constructing meaning, the importance of which cannot be overstated. The co-construction of meaning is essential to the learner’s brain development and functioning. Within a pluralist classroom the concept of time and the language used for meaning varies considerably as deep understanding is an intensely social experience.

The Mathematics Conundrum: Mathematics is at best a few thousand years old! The brain architecture is built to form arithmetic and algorithmic networks of space, time and number. Algorithms are performed constantly in the brain in all that a child does throughout their day, calculating their place in space, assessing interactions, distance, objects, and movements and so on, and yet a number of students say they cannot understand mathematics! The link between arithmetic, mathematics, the language of mathematics, and developing brain abilities is by and large not revealed to students. If students are conscious and functioning, they are doing mathematics! Boaler, J. (2008) describes mathematics as a human activity, a social phenomenon, a set of methods that help aluminate the world. Two days after birth, babies show knowledge of basic arithmetic [number sense 1-3] (Devlin, K. 2010), and, beyond this use their language faculty and associative memory training faculty, for conceptualising mathematics. However due to high variability of early developmental stages of growth this not the same for each child and will influence student internal decision-making about their abilities in mathematics. There is a strong argument for personalising learning plans for students in the early years, particularly for language and mathematics. A number of early education centres have personalised records of developmental data, however how this translates to more the formal of schooling in years one to three when students engage in the more formal curriculum is highly variable? The “priori-foci” of data shifts to curriculum assessment.

Mathematics learning is a process of brain confidence in time, and arguably and most importantly, language development. The English language can confuse the learning of mathematics more than some other languages such as Asian languages for example. Without the confidence in understanding, the brain will not be motivated to assimilate new information or try to learn, and, without time, the brain won’t have time to assimilate new information. This may result in foreclosure on wanting to learn.  Devlin, K. (2010) describes it as a process of awareness of the arithmetic capacity in the brain, after which comes understanding the rules that apply to understanding mathematics. The important issue to note is that not understanding mathematics is more likely to be due to a crisis of confidence, and language development, supported by a lack of flexibility of time and communication difficulties due to the use and nature of language used in teaching mathematics. Learning imperatives for understanding mathematics involve the process of reflective dialogue with students, building a language for understanding, time flexibility for brain assimilation and affirming and discussing memory assumptions about mathematics. Through this process false assumptions and memory to do with mathematics can be discussed, particularly during the early years of learning.

At First Sight: Due to the speed of the light and the nature of the visual cortex in the brain, children will process visual data faster via the Occipital Lobe. Facial expressions, for example, such as sadness, happiness, and anger, visual graphics and visual dangers, are all processed before the left prefrontal cortex can rationalize the event in more depth. If there is a perceived threat from the visual cortex, the non-neural amygdala could activate stress hormones resulting in possible non-rational instinctive action. The use of calm down time, or time-out, is a strategy that teachers use to help gain time for the prefrontal cortex to come online to enable thinking. This is different for each child and will influence their decision-making.


Fear: Perceived fear in the brain releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline [via. Amygdala] which basically means: don’t think take action! Subsequent actions may default to previously learned responses causing learning behaviours such as avoidance, lack of participation, and non-risk taking. This also includes anticipated, not actual threats when the brain defaults to “stored information about [previous] fear-arousing events…” (Fanselow, M.S. 1999). The amygdala “possesses no neurons able to process the meaning of stimuli” (LeDoux 1996). Rational evaluation may take time with calm dialogue to assist the child to feel safe and secure, reactivating the prefrontal cortex of reason and teacher guided understanding. Often this will largely go unnoticed, particularly with adolescents, and will be ongoing in your classrooms until triggered by an event. A strong, positive, trusting teacher/student relationship mitigates the extent of the fear reaction.

Modelling: In the words of Jane Elliot, who conducted the well-known experiment Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes, in Ohio in the 1970’s, If you are not modelling what you teach you are not teaching what you think!” Authentic teacher modelling can help the child interpret their environment. If teachers want to focus on having a “well” class, teachers and teacher organisations, need to model “well….ness”! This does not mean being perfect, but rather being genuine. Predictable behaviour is easier for the brain to interpret unpredictable behaviour should have a prescript or postscript of dialogue for understanding building references for the “new brain” to accommodate.

Thoughts: Contrary to belief the brain has one thought at a time stimulated by Beta waves, albeit in milliseconds! To change a thought, Alpha waves, which calm the brain to introduce another thought, need to be present to change a thought. A calm class is a thoughtful class. This is different for each student and so personal as well as group options for calming and reflection is helpful. Didactic teaching [sensory input] has a Beta wave length, or introduced sensory input that requires calm for brain’s internal thought processing and neural connectivity.

Memory and Prediction in the Brain: What we remember as observers to events through our short and long memory, may not be accurate or “common” in time, place or event sequence, and differs between persons. It is dialogue of different reflections on the one event, or theme, which provides a sense of commonality and shared reality. However the sensory intake system of the brain filters a few thousands bits of information from millions of bits available a second (Willis, J. 2010), it is not surprising then that memory is variable, intrinsic, and personal in the first instance. Social dialogue under the right conditions will modify memory. Prediction is a function of right to left pre-frontal cortex activity with consequential memory consolidation and it is a way of knowing what to expect. Event prediction is about memory of reoccurrence and congruence, by cross referencing information in the brain, a truism for the individual that forms a neural network connection, and in time, memories. Some “unlearning” may be necessary where the connections are based on false assumptions, misread experiences, false memories, and misinformation, creating unhelpful mal-adaptive predictions, known as fear.

In learning this could mean avoidance and lack of learning progression. An obvious statement taken for granted is that learning needs to make sense to the learner! Prediction is a powerful learning tool when used correctly and gives the learner a sense of self-directed control where the learner is building on previous knowledge and understanding. What is said may not be what is heard, or what is read may not be what was meant to be written. One reason why students misread exam questions is because their internal reasoning or predictive assumptions did not match the text. This is true also for verbal instructions as many teachers would know through experience. The brain tends to guess what will come next. In hearing a sound or word the brain will try predict what comes next and maybe misinterpret the meaning intended. Understanding, is an expose of aggregated assimilated meanings.


Memory and Prediction in the Brain cont. Problems may occur at this pre-selective stage, when predictive thought mismatches reality and triggers Cognitive dissonance or confusion, and lack of understanding especially for a student with low self-efficacy. The student may stop trying, avoid, and generate negative self-talk, such as “I will never be able to do this……” Reflective, supportive, accepted dialogue helps the teacher understand each child’s thought processing, and, by doing so, assists the teacher/student relationship, helping the learner to feel intellectually secure. This requires a class strategy or culture, not simply an understanding teacher who is listening more!

Known to Unknown Learning: The ratio and balance between what children can cope with in relation to known and unknown learning and new and revision work is a matter of self-efficacy. For example, self-talk like “I have done it before, so I will be able to work it out again” produces risk taking and persistence. Intellectual security (McDonald 2012) is a way of conceiving the rate a student can cope with learning new work from what they already know. This understandably complex ratio of how “open” a student is to embracing the challenges of unfamiliar learning has yet to be defined by research, however is usually known by sensitive teachers who use strategies that empower students within supportive relationships. Knowing the child through a collaborative relational connection, of non-possessive personal warmth and acceptance, is one of the keys to productive dialogue and understanding of each student’s self-efficacy and intellectual security.

Sleep nutrition and learning: Sleep and sustenance are pivotal to brain consciousness. Indications from research are that sleep is the transition from wakefulness, whereby the prefrontal cortex needs to become inactive with the increased production of melatonin in the brain.  For the prefrontal cortex to close off on the day’s events the brain needs energy to process information before sleep [Beta waves]. An over-tired brain will fall asleep only to wake at a later circadian rhythm cycle during the night, as the brain continues process thinking “catch-up” mode of unprocessed thoughts from the day. Debrief one’s day to help one sleep! To sleep is to learn! The prefrontal cortex needs to stop external processing [Alpha waves] for the brain to work on its internal bio-architecture and assimilate the gained sensory information, thereby forming neural network connections as consolidated thought, memory and knowing. The nutritional needs of the body are complex chemistry and a much written about topic.

Movement and Exercise: Our brains and body are linked in a reciprocal psychosomatic process by biofeedback interactions between brain and body. Sport exercise and movement generally can produce hormone such as dopamine that allow the brain to feel relaxed. Exercise is strongly correlated with increased brain mass, better cognition, mood regulation and new cell production. (Erik Jensen, 2008). Our body systems have not evolved that much from Palaeolithic times however our lifestyle, including what we eat, is much different today. Genetically we are still ‘stone-agers”, and our bodies react to the same physics of light and gravity to regulate functions. There are therapies that focus on releasing mind tension through body relaxation, such as kinesiology for example which uses body tension to assess mind stress. Physical movement was required for survival years ago, and genetically, physical movement and exercise remains a requirement today to maintain healthy body and brain function. Fischer, K.W. and Heikkinen, K. (2010) refer to learning as an “embodied process…fully acknowledging the role of physical health in learning, inviting discussion of school based nutrition and fitness programs.

Personalising learning from a neuroscience viewpoint will increasingly help educators reveal to the learner an acceptance of themselves and knowledge of their developing skills as unique.



Ken McDonald is currently working as a student counsellor at St Paul’s in Brisbane. He has over 30years experience as School Counsellor/Guidance Officer, Senior Guidance Officer, and District manager of Speciality Service to schools. His interest in neuroscience centres on helping individuals understand their intrinsic processes/processors for building self-efficacy and resilience in learning, decision making, and resilience. His email is if you wish to connect and share information on the topic.


Note: Some of the concepts noted in this paper form part of ongoing study on a Brain Learning Reference Framework by the writer Ken McDonald 2015.


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Glossary of terms:

Alpha brain wave length: Are present when we are in a state of physical and mental relaxation, although aware of what is happening around us. This state is ideal condition form creative thought and to learn new information.

Amygdala [non-neural]: Amygdala is the integrative centre for emotions, emotional behaviour, and motivation.

Authentic perspectives: The explicit expression and representation of “self” in reaction to environmental events and situations both planned and unplanned.

Beta brain wave length: Beta waves are emitted when we are consciously alert, or we feel agitated, tense, afraid, with frequencies ranging from 13 to 60 pulses per second in the Hertz scale.

Circadian rhythm cycle: Relate to the physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment.


Cognitive dissonance: In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.

Consciousness: The quality or state of being aware and responsive to one’s surroundings.

Epigenetic: The expression and changes of genes and genetic structure in response to environmental conditions.

Genetic Loading: Genetic inheritance.


Intellectual Security: Having self-effacing qualities of prediction without fear which is built on trusting self and understanding and promoting learner risk taking.

Metacognition: Having active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning, by an awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes.

Occipital Lobe: The occipital lobe is the visual processing centre of the mammalian brain, containing most of the anatomical region of the visual cortex.

Brain Plasticity: Refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

Prefrontal Cortex: the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is highly developed in humans and plays a role in the regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioural functioning

Psychosomatic: The interaction between mind (psyche) and body (soma).

Self-efficacy:  Psychologist Albert Bandura has defined self-efficacy as one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations. One’s sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges.

Visual cortex: The portion of the cerebral cortex of the brain that receives and processes impulses from the optic nerves.

New Brain: Referred to the top and frontal outer layer of the brain called the neocortex producing the capacity for rational thought, which evolved in time from the mammalian brain (emotions) and the primal or reptilian brains (survival) that sits underneath it.

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