Home » Biology Rocks Edition 2.2 » The Evolution of Learning

The Evolution of Learning


Be more than a mouse that can read.


One of the hallmarks of evolutionary biology is imperfect design based on what came before it. The human brain gets treated like a unique and clearly-identifiable single attribute that makes humanity a snowflake in nature’s rain storm. That’s a nice story, but it just isn’t true! Our brain is built of multiple layers which originated in previous populations.

Brain parts

The most basic layer of the brain is the brain stem. The medulla oblongata, pons and midbrain work together to filter incoming information. If you were consciously aware of the temperature of your left foot, the moisture on your right shoulder, the acid levels in your stomach and the oxygenation of your blood… your perception would never reach beyond the confines of your own body. The brain stem allows you to pull your hand off a hot stove before you think, “Wow that’s too hot.” We need this filter to survive. As teachers, we must first get information past all the noise being filtered at this primitive level.

The next layer of the brain gets the information that passes the brain stem. Imagine the limbic system as the emotional center of the brain (forgive me neurologists). Emotional reactions are rudimentary algorithms that have produced, on average, more desirable consequences than negative ones. If a student is afraid, they will execute escape procedures despite whatever they may consciously think about the situation. Whatever they are told, if they are afraid or stressed, their brain is short circuiting any learning that may be occurring. A student that is afraid of failure or punishment literally can’t think about what they should be learning or doing.

Teachers sometimes lament emotional interference, but the limbic brain is our friend. It kept us alive when we were still several rungs down the food chain. Predators made us flee and food made us happy and pursue more of it. Learning also feels good. If students can perceive themselves becoming skilled at something, their limbic system will crave more progress. Competency feels good and we can USE that.


Students crave these moments of understanding just as much as teachers.

Information that passes the emotional reaction gets to the sensory cortices and the multimodal association areas that create the first instance of a thought. After all this filtering and sorting, the information has now reached the internal narrative of our moment to moment consciousness. An engaging and highly effective teacher will create an environment where students must act on that information. The transfer to action puts the thought into the working memory in the frontal lobe. Activities in the working memory lead to connections that produce learning. Yay! But hold on, we’re not done. We need to store those associations across many places in our cerebrum. The disaggregation is important to creativity, transfer and synthesis.

When students want to know information and concepts they learned in the past they must reload the working memory from the dissociated places where the concept was stored. That process is hard and we often can’t find the whole concept. Rebuilding the knowledge later is what it means to know an idea. When a person sees the incomplete idea they recalled from a previous experience they must fill in the blanks and restore the concept again. The process of rebuilding is critical and must be done MORE than the learning.

Mice can remember. Dogs have emotional reactions to treats and door bells. The unique thinking of humanity requires a deliberate process of rebuilding complex ideas from previous experience. Knowing is harder than learning and requires more time for practice. We as teachers must honor this process and scale up our formative assessment and feedback processes, by several orders of magnitude, to properly support students as they come to know the information that we too often only help them learn.

BioRx 2.2 Cover

How do we support the process of knowing in addition to learning? If I’ve got you on the why, I have some thoughts on the how also. Check out Biology Rocks! Ed2.2, which is an update focused on addressing how to differentiate for students at various points in the knowing process. The foreword lays out the pedagogy associated with supporting knowing in addition to learning, and the labs show examples of how to actually do it.



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