Cognitive learning might not sound like a useful phrase. Cognition, after all, means ‘to acquire knowledge through thought, experience and the senses’.
And as that is pretty much is what ‘learning’ means (what other ways are there to learn?), at first blush, it sounds like I’m just repeating myself. Fortunately, the idea of cognitive learning is a bit more interesting than me writing how we should ‘completely eliminate’ racism or how I ‘crept softly’ into my bedroom.
How so? Well, the idea of cognitive learning is best understood to mean learning using all the different features of the brain, such as embracing the interests, the biases, the strengths and the weaknesses. In this way, we work with the brain in order to help it learn, rather than trying to force it to learn despite itself.
Why that matters
The truth is, for most of our history, we’ve tried to force-feed the next generation the important lessons we felt they had to learn. So, school children not so long ago would sit there and repeat the times’ table back at the teachers over and over again, even though this bored everybody involved to tears. Enjoyment was thought to not belong in schools. It served no purpose and, therefore, had no place there.
As we come to understand how our brains function, we’re coming to realize that this theory of learning is severely lacking. Why? Because such things as interest and engagement are incredibly powerful tools to help students capture and retain information.
Similarly, by linking what people are learning to what is relevant for them already, we make use of what we understand of the semantic networks in our brains to fit the new lessons into what they already know. This means that information does not just float around freely but is actually anchored to what we already know.
This has several effects:
- We learn more during the time we spend on the task.
- We find it easier to spend longer learning.
- What we learn sticks around longer.
And that matters – particularly as the further our society advances and we gather ever more knowledge, the more we all have to learn as individuals in order to function. And so, it is important that we use these modern tools to learn more as adults and to teach more to our children.
So what are the ways we can use the power of cognitive learning?
This is what you’re most familiar with and what is traditionally thought to be learning. You sit down and explicitly try to learn something. This can be the times table, the internet, or how to write in a programming language.
Most of the advanced things we master in life pass through two stages. First, we learn them explicitly. This is where you sit down and study the rules of grammar, the place of keys on a keyboard, how to drive a car, or what six times three equals.
Then, at a certain stage, this explicit learning starts to become internalized. You no longer have to think ‘where is the a’ in order to type that ‘a’. Similarly, you start applying the rules of grammar automatically as you internalize them.
The thing is, what we’re realizing now is that it is entirely possible for some lessons to bypass explicit learning entirely. This is what a lot of new language learning software like Memrise and Duolingo rely upon. They expose learners to phrases and words and the people taking the test figure out the grammar rules behind those phrases on their own.
We’re social creatures. In fact, our greatest asset compared to other animals is how well we can work together. Naturally, as we evolved as a species of collaborators, our learning has evolved along with it.
As a result, as the psychologist Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber explain in their book The Enigma of Reason, the best way we learn is often through the cooperation and collaboration with others.
This allows us to combat each other’s cognitive biases and come closer to the truth than we can do individually. It also motivates us through a whole range of social emotions which keep us moving forward far beyond what we might do if we were going at it alone.
You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence by now. But did you know that if you teach people to be more emotionally intelligent, they will often be able to learn other things better as well?
In effect, this was a big part of traditional teaching. Students weren’t just learning how to multiply, they were also learning how to multiply while being incredibly bored.
Of course, now we know that there are other ways to teach emotional intelligence and the additional benefits. This ranges from simply teaching people to exist in the moment – like they did in one school through the practice of breathing buddies – to teaching them how to emotionally regulate.
Once these learn these things, they find it much easier to stay focused on the rest of the lessons they have to learn.