Witchy says: "We teachers always complain about ineffective learners and low academic results. But are we sure that we always create a good learning environment for our students? And what do we know about the learning process? Perhaps it's time to revise our presuppositions about learning and learners..." Let's listen to what she (that is... me!) has to say on the subject..
First crucial question:

How would you describe learning? As a linear sequence...

In Italy, as in many other countries, at the beginning of the school year headmasters ask teachers to present a modular curricular planning. This means that they have to cut down the syllabus into small pieces and arrange them into a line of modules which progress from the easiest language items and, finally, lead the learners to the mastery of the most complex ones. It sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it?
But let's go back to our previous question:
How would you describe learning? As a linear sequence...
... or maybe it is more like a reticular and chaotic process?

This is  a fractal that is an image of CHAOS!!!
Let's try to remember the days when we were students: how did we come to terms to what we had to learn. Did we learn History in a perfect sequel of cronological events or we did start by learning A, then we dropped A and passed to B, we reviewed A and went to C, while learning C we also understood more new things about A and B and so on and on...

The truth is: learning is messy!!

Learning is not a linear orderly process because the brain does not process inputs in a linear process. By the way, a new question:

What’s a brain like?

  • Each brain is different from another one: there are not two people with a similar brain
  • A brain weighs three pounds
  • It is about the size of your two fists held next to each other
  • It looks wrinkled because it has to contain the cerebral cortex which is about the size of a newspaper!
It's not enough to say that the brain does not process inputs in a squence: the brain has not even a command centre!!
The brain is like a rain forest!!!
  • There’s no central police station
  • The law of the jungle is SURVIVAL!!
  • We only learn what our brain perceives as necessary to our physical (or social...) survival

    So we shoud ask ourselves: "How does learning (not only language learning) happen in the brain?"

    If language learning is perceived as necessary to survival…

    IT WILL BE LEARNED!!! Otherwise students will only memorise what is useful for next examination and store everything in the short-term memory. After passing the exams you may be sure they will forget everything...

    Let's talk about real effective learning and not short-time memorization:

    What happens to the brain when learning takes place?

      Neurones and synapses:

    1. Learning takes place when neurons communicate with each other
    2. When neurones receive sensorial inputs they form extensions called dendrites
    3. The axon is a long thin fibre which starts from a neurone and stretches towards another neurone.
    4. Dendrites and neurones make up networks
    5. The communication between neurones is facilitated by myelin. The point of conjunction is called synapse. The liquids which make neurones communicate are the neurotransmitters.


    We have talked about brain as it were only one. Forget it!! We have at least two brains in our skull: a left one and a right one!!!In fact a brain is composed of two hemispheres: a left one and a right one


    The left hemisphere is specialised in sequential and linear operations (logic, maths and language) while the right one allows a holistic global vision of reality (music, and spatial intelligence).


    Don't you believe into brain specialization? Well give a look at the next images!




    Give a look at the two hemispheres!

    An optical illusion


    Does the picture portrait two human profiles or a vase?


    • Draw the left profile on a sheet
    • draw the right profile too while pronouncing the names of the parts of the face


    Was the task rather difficult? Was it almost impossible to pronounce the names of the parts of the face while drawing them simultaneously? No wonder! In fact while the first task required the full attention of the left hemisphere the right one was obliged to intervene in the drawing. The corpus callosus, which is a sort of brain relais which switches brain impulses from one hemisphere to the other at light speed, was overcome by the stress involved in this difficult job!

    However, our brains are never at rest. You wouldn't tell that when you look at your students' homeworks, but that is not learning, it's only an attempt at academic survival... Actually a brain is like an interactive telecommunication wide-band centre which is never tired of finding new meaning in what he sees, hears, touches, feels, smells, tastes,...


    The search for meaning

    The proof of what Witchy's saying:

    what is the image in the centre of the page: three circles or a triangle? And are you sure there is a triangle in the picture?


    Why do we see a triangle which doesn't exist? Because...
  • ... the left hemisphere sees things in a sequel
  • while the right one sees wholes and adds what is missing


    The search for meaning is innate


    Another evidence of the brain's search for meaning:

    What do you see in the picture, two trees or Napoleon?

    Aren't our school curricula too full of information and data?

    Too much information makes it impossible the search for meaning. School drowns students with information and starves them in meaning


    If we think the whole thing over a little, we must admit that our Western school is traditionally left-brain oriented: we learn everything in a sequel. Even music, which is a right-brain business par excellence, is learned sequentially. And what about creative writing? It ends by not being creative at all. In Italy we ask kids learn the articles, then the nouns, the verbs, the prepositions, etc. and we forget to ask ourselves how thei poor children's right brains will cope with the awful task of putting all the puzzle pieces together.. We can't forget we have two brains and if we really wish to be effective teachers, we must devise activities which engage both hemispheres. (Whole-brain learning)

    Activities for the left and the right hemispheres

    • keep up to a schedule
    • give detailed clear explanations


  • integrate scattered information into a global view
  • introduce music and arts
  • usemind maps

    back to homepage! Teachers' development