Hacking the Brain: How Errors Drive Learning

Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, Director, Science of Learning, will deliver a keynote speech inLTE this year illustrating how the brain affects learning behaviours. Let’s take a glimpse of what he is going to tell us!

  • How does the brain affect learning behaviours? Can you raise a few examples to illustrate your point of view?

Believe it or not, there are FAR more examples of how learning behaviours impact the brain.  Too often people view the brain as the ‘driver’: somehow in charge of what we do and think.  In reality, the brain is incredibly passive:  it’s major function is simply to adapt to whatever we ask of it thereby making our chosen thoughts and actions easier to undertake in the future.

This is why practice works so well.  A year ago, I didn’t know the first thing about golf:  I picked up a club and was beyond dis-coordinated.  After 12 months of diligent practice, however, my brain has changed to make my ability to swing the club much easier and better.  The brain didn’t drive my behavior… my behaviour drove my brain.

With that said, there are a few ‘hard limits’ to the brain that do dictate certain behaviours.  For instance, due to hardware issues, it’s only ever possible for the brain to devote explicit attention to one task at a time.  For this reason, it is impossible to multitask – which SHOULD have ramifications for learning behaviours… but rarely does.  Similarly, it is impossible for the brain to simultaneously process oral speech and written words (there’s a hard physical bottleneck in the brain when this happens).  Again, this SHOULD have learning ramifications – but people rarely notice or account for these brain hiccups.

  • Why is it important to understand the relationship between the brain and learning behaviours? How would it help to enhance learning effectiveness?

You need to know the rules before you can bend, break, and adapt them to suit your purposes.

I liken this to a cooking:  if you simply gave me the recipe for a cake, I could probably bake it just fine.  But, in this instance, if I lost an ingredient or didn’t have the right utensils, I’d be totally de-railed!  In the end, I was simply following a recipe with no deeper understanding.

If, however, you taught me the WHY behind the recipe (why each ingredient works, what purpose they serve together, the underlying structure of the process) – then   I could make the recipe my own!  Once I understood the WHY I could substitute ingredients, change utensils, make a whole new cake.  In short – I could own my cooking.

Knowing how the brain does (and does not) function gives learners agency – it allows them to know the WHY behind behaviours and processes which, in turn, allows them to adapt, personalize, and own these processes.

  • What is the role of “errors” play in the process of human learning? How does it drive learning eventually?

Errors are the only biologically ingrained method of learning human beings have.  Love it or hate it, when a mistake is made (or, more accurately, when a prediction fails), human being HAVE TO enter active learning mode – it is a subconscious biological reaction out of our control.

Unfortunately, once the ‘error alarm’ is triggered, then human beings have a choice:  they can engage with it (and learn) or disengage with it (and return to their failed prediction).  This choice is just that – a CHOICE.  As such, we need to consider ways to support engagement with errors and enter into post-error learning with students.

  • What do “Bottom-Up” and “Top-Down” mean in human learning? What are the relationships between the two terms and “mistakes or errors” / “the functions of the brain”, and how do they affect learning effectiveness?

Very rarely are human beings actively engaged with the present moment – the vast majority of the time human beings are simply predicting.  For instance, right now you’re not actually reading these words – you’re simply using context and your past learning to predict what the words should say – and so long as the world is close enough to your prediction, you simply live in your  prediction.

This is ‘Bottom-Up’ processing:  when the brain is in prediction mode and people are simply predicting the world around them.

Occasionally, however, we enter the present moment:  we connect with the here and now and begin to re-write our understanding of the world.  This active re-writing of programs is ‘Top Down’ mode.  Unfortunately, Top Down mode takes a LOT of energy – which is why we  have adapted to rely on Bottom Up mode to survive.

Earlier, when I said mistakes trigger the error alarm, this is what I meant.  When a prediction fails, the brain will automatically flip from Bottom Up (prediction) to Top Down (re-writing) mode.  It is hardwired into us to learn from errors.

Unfortunately, as noted above, once the error alarm is  triggered, the choice is ours as to what to do with that.

In the end, a lot of learning is about helping students move between Top Down (new) learning and Bottom Up (automatic) predictions.