Learning & the Brain – Taylor & Lamoreaux (adult learning)

At their Teaching with the Adult Brain in Mind page at Saint Mary’s College of Education of California, you can read Kathleen Taylor’s and Annalee Lamoreaux’s description of their Learning and the Brain session. I found Kathleen and Annalee to be relaxed yet passionate facilitators, eager to help all of us in the audience be active learners as we thought about our roles as adult learners and our roles in helping adult learners to learn.

This session was very much interactive, and a number of times we were asked to break into small groups to discuss specific questions, the outcomes of which were then shared with the larger group. Aided by our responses, the message imparted by Taylor and Lamoreaux included the following as it applies to learning that lasts:

  • involve people in experiences, or to paraphrase that Chinese proverb: Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
  • provide time for reflection – time to mull over ideas, allowing them to jell
  • encourage conscious construction of narratives, which to me translates as relating this to your own life and pondering ways to make it useful
  • and now that you’ve thought about a way to apply the narrative, go test it out in the world beyond ideas and see where it leads

While the process above, which is very much akin to Kolb’s and Zull’s models, is practical and relates to dealing with content, the next step involves thinking about how this impacts the learning process. Thinking about one’s thinking and learning (known as metacognition) can help bring about a change in mental models, ideally leading to transformative learning.

Understanding that we have the ability to change our mental models, also known as an epistemological change (a change in the way of knowing), will let us open the door to transformative learning (being willing to change and having an understanding of how to change).

Taylor and Lamoreaux sum this up quite simply:

Information adds to and fills the form.

Transformational learning CHANGES the form itself.

How do we make use of this in actual practice? They suggest it is useful to foster learners’ awareness:
• of their tacit assumptions
• of multiple perspectives
• of themselves as makers of meaning and constructors of knowledge
• of their capacity to make meaning in new ways
• of their responsibility for the meaning they make

This very much reminds me of the research done by Carol Dweck relating to a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset”.

In my role of working with faculty, I am always trying to find ways to engage people in moving beyond their current positions of comfort. Kathleen and Annalee point out that one reason for adult anxiety in learning stems from dredging up memories associated with their past learning experiences. Think back to your learning experiences in elementary school, for instance. Maybe you can recall a teacher who said something that just squashed your hopes for a day, or embarrassed you in front of classmates. According to Kathleen and Annalee, those past experiences can inhibit one’s interest in further learning as an adult.

Another obstacle related to learning is the realization that something new is going to be learned. This, in itself, can make people nervous as they contemplate… will I be able to learn this, will I look silly in front of others, it’s been a long time since I had to do this, why do I need to do this. Hmm, some of those questions sound just like what younger students may be thinking when sitting in a class…

Feel free to view the slides related to this presentation, including some thoughtful quotes.


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