Sunday, September 17, 2006

The lag time in social learning

I have been taking a course designed for teachers at a local community college. There has been a nod to some social science research on generational differences and a general sense that teens and adults might learn differently. There has been no discussion of the neurological bases for those differences.

Every day (literally - I read several neuroscience blogs and they have lots of news) someone is learning something new about how our brain works and how that relates to how our minds work. Today I watched a video (on Google video) of a young academic discussing what neuroscience tells us about music and what music tells us about neuroscience. Brain scientists are at the beginning of a magnificent voyage: they send us tantalizing postcards.

None of these postcards are more dramatic than those describing the differences between the teen brain and the adult brain. It now looks like we do not fully develop an adult model of thinking until we are 25-30 years old. Until then, young people use different centres in their brains to make decisions, they have different circadian rhythms, and their brains exhibit remarkable plasticity (which means some areas get bigger and others get smaller).

What does this tell us about how those same young people learn? At community college, everything is supposed to be goal-directed: it's possible that very young college students (those under 22) do not understand goals in the same way adults do. They cannot use the same equipment to chart their course or understand the relevance of skills and information. They really do see the world differently.

Why is no one teaching teachers to use these differences to give the best possible education to these students? There is a lag time between what the best minds in our society explore and what we actually use. Sometimes, that lag time eats up important innovations (the next great thing distracts us before we implement the changes we need).

There is no necesary reason for this. The human mind has not evolved for slow, step-by-step, trickle-down learning. It is brilliantly evolved for rapid, simultaneous processing of multiple stimuli. We are better at "AHA!" than we trust ourselves to be.

Reduce the lag time in your own learning. You are so much faster than you believe yourself to be.

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