Food For Thought


Clip art courtesy of

Clip art courtesy of

Halfway thru my Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning course and my mind, brain and emotions are full of facts and information!! Here’s a summary of a few insights into what educators can do to help students crave learning and what ultimately makes the game worth playing, the savory chocolate dessert worth devouring!

The concepts that relate to my setting, a college environment from the student’s perspective are: the cognitive connection between emotions, attention, the brain, memory and learning and from the educator’s standpoint; anticipating the hard parts. This anticipation can help to facilitate learning, making it easier for the student to digest the material.

Generally, understanding the brain holistically has been the theme or the norm. It’s as important to understand the unique parts, as it is to truly understand and digest the integration of these parts and how ultimately they affect learning. Let’s look at the ingredients:

Emotions impact the learning process of the brain; it is the study of interpersonal neurobiology, the relationships and the brain. The brain is the social organ of the body and learning is a social experience (Siegel, 2009). The brain, the mind and emotions all influence each other and work together. Siegel calls it relations, the emotional side and that learning is a social experience. As with a family dinner where stories are told, food is shared or information is exchanged, this experience and exchange of information, relations according to Siegel gets neurons firing. When neurons fire together they wire together and we learn. Skills are then created, as the 100 billion of neurons help create the myelin sheath in the brain. This activity and flow of energy is what enables the brain to learn and gain skills and ultimately makes the “game worth playing” (Siegel, 2009). Here’s a link to an article that applies to adult education and reiterates what Siegel emphasizes: Learning Rewires The Brain (Stevens, 2014).

Attention is the present state of the mind. It is the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate and actively process information that is presently in one’s environment. Attention is the working memory, and refers to the present moment, not the long term memory which, is information from the past (whether yesterday or years ago). Attention enables people to be alert and focus, to be in a present state of consciousness. Attention requires effort and has its limitations. Consciousness is a state of awareness of one’s surroundings from all levels: emotional, such as how we feel: happy, hungry, energized, etc. Sensually, are we hot or cold? Cognitively, what we are processing at the moment; driving to work, while preparing a grocery list? In a state of consciousness (we would be dead or in a coma if not) we are aware of our surroundings and functioning, but we may not be paying close attention to one thing in particular.

There seems to be a debate about the state of consciousness and attention and whether they are essentially the same or uniquely different. Either way, the two aspects of attention and consciousness are connected. Attention and its importance are viewed as the path towards cognition. Attention also has two components: top-down selective attention and bottom-up attention. Top-down is internally driven whereas bottom-up is externally driven. For example, top-down attention would be following a recipe while making a cake. Bottom-up attention would be responding to the smoke detector, because your cake is burning in the oven.

Attention, Cognition & Memory
Just as we need food for survival and possibly college students need more, we need attention for cognition. Attention is like opening our mouth to eat food. Without attention, and even directed and selective attention, our ability to take in and process information cognitively and then store the information for long term memory (i.e. learning) is significantly reduced. Thus, to improve cognition it would seem clear, that selective focused attention would open the pathway for cognition. Difficult to eat soup with your mouth shut! Maintaining selective focused and singular attention is complex and challenging. However, focused attention fires up billions of neurons, creating connections and adding to the myelin sheath a process called myelination. “Scientists have found that myelination increases the speed and strength of the nerve impulses by forcing the electrical charge to jump across the myelin sheath (a grey matter made up of fatty tissue) to the next open spot on the axon” (Shen, 2013, p.3).

Learning (and practice) rewires our brain, produces more myelin and is stored as memory. Memory is the recall and the recognition of what we have processed. Its way beyond the photographs in our mind, that spill out when we remember a vacation at the beach or a long past grandmother. Memory is the data that is stored for future recall, so we know how to tie our shoes, ride a bike, play an instrument, read a book, and basically function. We don’t have to relearn how to tie our shoes every day. Memory is the foundation of knowledge of which humans and the brain builds and builds on every single day. It’s not just what we have learned but it’s how we learn! And every day we live – we learn. It’s learning for life and its lifelong learning. So more practice equals more myelin, which is the icing on the cake!

Challenges for Educators and Students
Tough to swallow? Is it understanding the cognitive explanation of how connections are made in our brain between attention and memory? Or is it the connections between educator and student? Actually both. The hard part for the student as mentioned above is not just learning the material but digesting the process of learning. Singular focused selective attention on the student’s part will enable the material to flow into the brain, stimulate a few billion neurons and process, program and save the data into memory. The educator truly only has (some) control over their own brain and very little control over another, so the attention process is most entirely left up to the student. What the educator can do is engage, motivate and anticipate the hard parts. These hard parts are not time and circumstances (Perkins, 2009). The hard parts are the nuts and bolts, the stumbling blocks, playing out of town, what makes the material difficult to understand. Educators have no excuse on their part for not thoroughly knowing their material. Educators must know their material so extensively that they can troubleshoot and anticipate learning challenges. Even a simple subject can have tweaks that cause stumbling blocks and challenges for the student to learn. In order for the educator’s objectives and learning outcomes to be reached, the educator must have an influence over the material by understanding the students need to focus and pay attention as well as anticipating the hard parts.

Anticipate the Hard Parts
Educators need to play an active role in designing and presenting their material by anticipating the hard parts. Perkins (2009) has outlined specific areas that identify the challenges in learning and the need for educators to anticipate and address them. The areas of knowledge which make it challenging for the student are as follows: Ritual, Inert, Foreign, Tacit, Skilled and Conceptually Difficult. For a detailed explanation of these areas of difficulty refer to this link: Perkins Seven Principles

Educators in a college setting of adults can, by understanding their material and conditions that make it challenging, as well as understanding why the aforementioned six types of troublesome knowledge, influence a student, with the use of various methods and strategies. In an adragogy setting, there can be group discussions, group projects, class activities and hands-on applied learning through internships, which can supplement learning that will ultimately have a positive influence on these hard parts.

Another great link :
Why Practice Actually Makes Perfect: How To Rewire Your Brain For Better Performance
Perkins, D. (2009) Making learning whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, Calif. Jossey-Bass.

Shen, J. (2013). Why practice actually makes perfect: how to rewire our brain for better performance. Retrieved from

Siegel, D. (2009). We feel, therefore we learn’ at Mind & Its Potential {Video file]. Retrieved from

Stevens, A. (2014). Learning rewires the brain. Retrieved from



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