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Six Things Education Can Learn From Neuroscience

We can point to six findings that give us new and profound insight into our grey matter.

Neuroscience studies a very complex system: the brain. Much has been learned through formal research of the brain, especially due to the advent of brain imaging technologies which afford increased breadth of research using human subjects. That said, what we know remains very limited, given the complexities of both the organ and the practical application of research findings.


However, we can point to six findings that give us new and profound insight into our grey matter.

1. Memory is not unitary from either a behavioral or neuroanatomical standpoint. [Squire, L. R. (1992)].p

There exist multiple memory systems within the brain—neuroscientists have actually known this part for a while, but they didn’t know precisely what it meant. Turns out, the different systems warrant different methodologies for optimal development. Explicit memories, those that can be verbally described, benefit from rehearsal, organization, elaboration, and additional cues such as keywords. Implicit memories are unconscious and cannot be articulated, but impact behavior through “priming.” Implicit memories benefit most from rehearsal and dual-coding (exposure to multiple stimuli).

2. Explicit and implicit memory systems are potentially both necessary for optimal memory and learning performance. [Wu, D. W. L. 2011].

Historically it was thought that the two types of memory merely competed with each other to form the basis of “habit learning.” More recent studies suggest that the explicit and implicit memory systems collaborate to produce optimal performance on memory tasks.

3. Testing and retrieval practice both enhance learning and slow down forgetting.

Rote memorization is often referred to as “drill-and-kill”—and while such methodology, when employed in a punitive fashion, indisputably depresses learner motivation, the amount of retrieval practice itself has been demonstrated to be in direct relation to both an increase in the speed of learning [Karpicke & Blunt, 2011] as well as a decrease in the rate of forgetting [Roediger & Karpicke 2006].

4. Practice under distracting conditions benefits implicit memory development and optimizes learning. [Lin, Knowlton, Chiang, Iacoboni, Udompholkul, & Wu, 2011].

This finding flies in the face of a “avoid any and all distractions” approach to education. The notion of "desirable difficulties" asserts that with certain forms of learning, “contextual interference” during study results in robust benefits.

5. Exercise of competing memory systems can be modulated by distraction. [Foerde, Knowlton, & Poldrack 2006].

Using dual-task methods the implicit memory system may be targeted and the explicit memory system de-emphasized. For certain learning objectives this phenomenon may prove invaluable.

The sixth and final finding: The exercise of conscious effortful recall necessary for explicit memory physically tires the brain. [Rock, 2009].

Blood oxygen and glucose levels in the temporal lobe, the area of the brain utilized for effortful cognition, decrease noticeably with use and result in the subjective feeling of being “tired of thinking.”

The above findings can individually be used to improve educational methodologies and outcomes. I propose one specific methodology that brings all six together in a novel memory development game. I’ve called it Know-It-All , and it intends to deliver faster memory development and decreased rates of forgetting by using distraction to target the implicit memory system with fun, not tiring, brain exercise. Users will be able to play longer, and that increased “rehearsal” time will result in increased memory and retention.

Visit my Kickstarter page for more information on Know-It-All.

Image from (cc) flickr user brewbooks

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