The Neuroscience of Learning

The recent advances in the neuroscience of learning support our argument that the reception and instant application of information result in sustainable learning. The key premise of the neuroscience of learning, according to Zull (2011), is that effective teaching and sustainable learning happen when learners' cognitive and emotional (brain) selves are integrated. He argues that a teaching approach that stimulates cognition through choices, decisions, predictions, and actions creates a feeling of satisfaction and joy through accomplishment, progress, and ownership. There exists an emotional, rewarding power of learners' success that can be explained neuroscientifically as immediate pleasure through dopamine releases. Zull explains that such joyful learning experiences help repress the fearful part of the brain—amygdala—that is often stimulated by the test-driven approach of “assembly-line education.” In such a model, it is important to regurgitate the information fed by the instructor rather than the student's own interpretation of it. The fear stems from the anxiety to give the absolutely correct answers and the fear of interpretation. In addition, the neuroscience of learning proposes that the way the brain physically processes information explains why the information that is simply heard is not registered and is forgotten by the learner. We suggest that the audiences' attention spans are also low in this manner of education. In contrast, integration, reflection, and action (also known as problem-solving) transform learning processes from mere “injection” of information into one's brain to “cementing” knowledge into one's mind (Zull, 2011). In other words, ownership of learning happens through curiosity, figuring out, and interpretation (not concretization).[1] The neurobiology of learning (Zull, 2011) also suggests that such “imprints” of classroom experiences, positive or negative, can be traced in the neural wiring and neuroplasticity of the learners' brains. Hence, in addition to educational philosophers such as Freire and Boal, neuropsychology supports the thesis of this chapter that the well-being of learners in the all-round and positive emotional stimulations of the mind.

In this chapter, we seek to contribute to this book and the general literature on social work education in two keys ways: (1) to provide an example of practical applications of critical pedagogy and theater of the oppressed (Boal, 1979) as content and method in social work classrooms and (2) to theorize their potential to promote holistic learning experiences. We present an example of a lesson plan that covers the material about, and applies the techniques of, pedagogy and theater of the oppressed. We offer our reflections on the process and potential outcomes of this learning experience that we think exemplifies teaching to the holistic self.

  • [1] Concretization refers to rote learning in which a set of information is repeated againand again so as to memorize it rather than integrating, interpreting, or reflecting on it.
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