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Learning, Like Breathing, Is Natural

Did you know you that when your lungs take a breath, you’re not inhaling? How’s that, you ask?

According to renowned yoga anatomy teacher Leslie Kaminoff, this can be explained with a bit of high school physics: volume and pressure are inversely related. After you exhale, there is more volume in your lungs and the air pressure is lower. Air flows towards places of lower pressure. But you don’t inhale it. Instead, air gets pushed into your body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere that surrounds you. In other words, the atmosphere breathes you.

Breathing is an effortless phenomenon, but you can choose to do it yourself intentionally, and that has many benefits. By becoming conscious of how your lungs work, you can control your it. And when you control your breathing so many other things become possible, like being able to focus your attention or relaxing in stressful situations. In a similar way, learning is also both intentional and natural.

In her book We’re Born to Learn: Using the Brain’s Natural Learning Process to Create Today’s Curriculum Dr. Rita Smilkstein takes a deep dive into how we learn and contends that when you understand the neurophysiological changes that take place in your brain, learning can become more impactful, easier, and accelerated.

Let’s Talk About Your Brain

picture of human brain showing prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum
Figure 1 – Spielman (2014)

Your brain is a marvel of biology and evolution. To understand how it learns, we need a snapshot of how it remembers. Sensory memory – the things you know implicitly, like the smell of a familiar food or the sound of a family member’s voice – are stored in the hippocampus. The amygdala regulates emotions and acts as an encoding mechanism to store long-term memories when they are emotionally arousing. The cerebellum is chiefly responsible for storing long-term memory and learning. The prefrontal cortex holds and processes information in working memory, and it plans complex cognitive behavior, expresses personality, makes decisions, and manages social behavior.

All of these parts of your brain coordinate how you’re able to store information over the long haul – things like multiplication tables and your mom’s birthday. They also explain how you might forget less than critical information that’s briefly held in your temporary or working memory, like a phone number you jotted down on a post-it or what you had for lunch last Tuesday.

Billions and Billions of Neurons

parts of a neuron described in the body of the blog post
Figure 2 – Blaus (2017)

Each of those parts of your brain are made up of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with other neurons to create pathways for communication between parts of the brain. A single neuron sends electrical impulses through a tube-like protrusion called an axon to other neurons via synapses. Synapses communicate with tree-like structures called dendrites which in turn send information to the nucleus of the neuron. As activity increases between neurons, more dendrites grow and as they do, more synapses form and they can fire more frequently, enabling learning to occur more quickly and effectively. As dendritic forests thicken, learning improves and deepens.

Practice and Time

You know the old joke, right? A woman gets on a New York City bus and asks the driver, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and the driver replies, “Practice.” Learning is the same thing. How do you learn something? It’s obvious, right? You practice. The part the joke leaves out is time. Practice and time are two fundamental elements that play a role in the depth and quality of learning. And, as you practice you increase the number of dendrites for the thing you’re learning.

There are other ways to stimulate neural activity, like interacting with others, getting feedback, and using what you’ve learned to solve problems. But if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The longer you have been practicing something, the better you will be at picking it back up after a period of disuse. If you’ve been playing the piano for decades and you stop for a couple of years, it is very likely that you will be able to pick it back up again with practice. But if you’ve been playing for only a short while and you stop for a couple of years, you will likely have to start all over again. You simply did not have enough dendrites that stored what you learned.

Natural Human Learning Process

Dr. Smilkstein describes a process for learning that she has developed to teach K-12 students and beyond using the natural and ever-changing learning potential of our brains. If you understand how the brain learns – practice and time increases neural development and the thickening of dendrites – you can learn more effectively. The natural human learning process (NHLP) has notable implications for learning and unlearning for adults.

For example, I learned how to edit film years ago, when it was… film! Today, editing media is done digitally on non-linear editing systems – computers with software. When I started, none of that technology existed, so even though I knew the principles and rules of editing, I had to learn how all over again. In essence I used my brain’s natural learning process. Let’s break down that process in a few distinct steps or stages.

StagesKnowledge – Skills – Actions
1Motivation: responding to stimulus in the environment Watched videos, read manuals, installed software on a computer, and got familiar with it
2Beginning Practice: doing it – repeated practiceWorking with the tools: learned keystroke equivalents, followed a workflow, made many mistakes.
3Advanced Practice: increase of skill and confidenceKept at it. Got new hardware and software. Learned new techniques. Watched more YouTube videos. Learned more at conferences. Joined online forums to interact with others. Took on more challenging projects.
4Skillfulness: creativityDeveloped my own style of editing and ways to organize and store media. Created my own processes for completing repetitive tasks. Added new skills: motion graphics and compositing.
Figure 3 – Natural Human Learning Process

Assess Yourself

Dr. Smilkstein has followed thousands of students who have used this process and assessed their own individual learning. Some of them added additional stages to their assessments, like refinement and mastery. Self-assessment has great value and is recognized in many learning theories including self-directed learning and reflective practice, but however you wish to craft your own self-assessment is up to you. Self-assessment is valuable because it offers you a way to see where you started and how far you’ve come.

Five Benefits for Adult Learners

Motivate yourself to begin learning something new using these seven words: See if you can figure this out!

Helps break old patterns and interrupt negative attitudes about your ability to learn

Learning something new inspires confidence in your ability to keep on learning

Once you’ve learned something new, you can use it to solve new problems and build greater expertise

Using NHLP empowers metacognition, self-assessment, and reduces fight, flight, freeze reflex permitting you the freedom to focus your attention on what you’re learning

Time to Learn!

Learning doesn’t have to be a chore or an unsettling undertaking. It can be exciting and as natural as breathing. So go ahead and sit down with that new guitar or that language app or that palette of watercolor paint, take a deep breath, exhale, and get started!

References

21st Century Skills: A Focus on Self-Directed Learning. (2020). Center for Assessment. https://www.nciea.org/blog/educational-assessment/instructing-assessing-21st-century-skills-focus-self-directed-learning

Blaus, B. (2017). Neuron part 1 [Illustration]. Https://Commons.Wikimedia.Org/Wiki/File:Neuron_Part_1.Png.

Confidence by ArmOkay from NounProject.com

Custom by Yu luck from NounProject.com

Fire by Arif Arisandi from NounProject.com

Getting started with Reflective Practice. (2021). Cambridge. https://www.cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswrp/index.html

Kaminoff, L., & Matthews, A. (2021). Yoga Anatomy (Third ed.). Human Kinetics.

Power by ainul muttaqin from NounProject.com

Skill by faisalovers from NounProject.com

Smilkstein, R. (2011). We′re Born to Learn: Using the Brain′s Natural Learning Process to Create Today′s Curriculum (Second ed.). Corwin.

Spielman, R. M. (2014, December 8). Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory – Psychology. [Illustration]. Pressbooks. https://opentextbc.ca/psychologyopenstax/chapter/parts-of-the-brain-involved-with-memory/

Stevens, L. (2020, September 1). Introduction to Psychology & Neuroscience. Digital Editions. https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages

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