Chapters 4 and 5 of Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn covered how human memory works and principles for gaining and retaining attention. Dirksen covers the basics of human memory, including the different levels of memory—sensory, short-term (or working), and long-term—and types of memory—declarative, episodic, conditioned, procedural, and flashbulb. The one facet about human memory that Dirksen failed to mention that is particularly important is how long-term memory can act as an initial filter. That facet is one of the more important distinctions between the brain and the oft-used metaphor of a computer. The computer may store information for later use on the hard drive, like the brain encodes memories in long-term memory, but the information stored on the hard drive does not act like a filter for future information. Unfortunately, that is how the brain works. When confronted with new information that does not conform to our existing thinking, we either suffer cognitive dissonance (which can lead to learning as we try to make sense of the new information) or ignore the new information. The three videos on the Minds of Our Own site demonstrate this principle about why teaching often fails. One of the videos, for instance, on photosynthesis and trees, asks how trees build their mass. I have to admit that I was fooled by that one too, thinking that trees build their mass by pulling resources out of the soil. I knew that trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide but could not articulate that the carbon dioxide is converted into a tree’s mass. If you watch that video, “Lessons From Thin Air,” you will see a student do the exact same thing, completing a lesson without learning that gases have weight.
It is not just counter-intuitive information that can get missed. Because sensory memory must first be processed through the reticular activating system (RAS) and amygdala—the reptilian, lower, quick-response brain—new information that does not agree with an existing mental model may also cause an irrational reaction. Once again, the new information is not processed because it is perceived as a threat and can cause a stressed, even angry, response, no matter the veracity of the information. That also forms part of Dirksen’s metaphorical elephant.
Judy Willis, who is the source for the previous point on the RAS and amygdala, was a neurologist, who actually went back to school to became a teacher, because she was receiving so many referrals to check for behavioural problems in what turned out to be normal, healthy children. It turned out the schools were the problem, and that involves one more point that I wanted to make in parallel with Dirksen’s metaphor on the elephant and the rider that I don’t think Dirksen articulated well. While the human survival instinct is often labelled as the “fight or flight” response, Willis actually expands that to the fight/flight/freeze mechanism. That makes sense if we think of the “deer caught in headlights” phenomenon. The amygdala’s version of “freezing” in an educational context is “zoning out.” Thus, if a lesson is boring, the amygdala blocks the information from the prefrontal cortex (Dirksen’s rider) and “zones out.” This is one of two sources of “zoning out,” though. As Daniel Willingham says in the first chapter of Why Don’t Students Like School, “Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” Thinking is hard work. The executive function of the prefrontal cortex will erode over time and lead as well to “zoning out.” The brain must stop paying attention to new information (attention span) to replenish the executive function. These “brain breaks” allow for the consolidation of the new information. So, if the first case of “zoning out,” Dirksen’s metaphorical elephant has not been engaged. However, I think it’s also important to understand that no matter how much the elephant is engaged, the rider will still need to take breaks, the second case of “zoning out.”