ATD Blog

We Think, Therefore We Learn

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Nearly everything we thought we knew about the human brain changed when we started putting live subjects into functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines (fMRIs) about 15 years ago. You may think that with the invention of the fMRI and other brain imaging technologies that psychology has gone the way of phrenology and other pseudo-science but this is not the case.

Cognitive science is a branch of psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by understanding how we think. Like cosmology, quantum physics, and many other branches of science, cognitive psychology employs models to describe something that can’t be directly observed.

While it may not be as trendy as neuroscience, many cognitive psychology models have stood the test of time, allowing us to consistently predict human behavior. In fact, many elements of these models have been validated and expanded by new discoveries in neuroscience. As a learning professional, you are probably aware of some of the models. Here are a few of the ones I find most useful.

Behaviorism attempts to explain how we learn as a reaction to an outside stimulus that becomes learned through repetition. While many today think that this model is too limited to describe the range of human behavior, some types of learning experiences work quite well with it. It also serves as one of the foundations of machine learning and neural networks. You might know it better by a more recent name: “reward learning.”

Constructivism assumes that every person is motivated to learn by an inner desire to make sense of the world. In this model, every learner is self-directed and a teacher or trainer plays the role of facilitator, helping the learner discover and “construct” their own meaning. This model is the foundation for learner-centered approaches to training and education.


Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development recognizes that a child’s ability to process information evolves as the child grows and the brain and body develop. While his work targeted children, many learning professionals have applied his theory to adult learning. If you’ve ever employed the concept of scaffolding or schemas to support learning, you’ve leveraged his work. He was also one of the first people to recognize that intelligence is not a fixed trait.

Gagne’s Nine Events of Learning

Robert Gagne recognized what he called the Nine Conditions of Learning:

  1. gain attention
  2. state objective
  3. recall prior learning
  4. present stimulus
  5. guide learning (showing examples, coaching)
  6. practice
  7. feedback
  8. assessment
  9. transfer.

These conditions or events must be present for learning to take place. While he developed his theory based solely on his own observations, it tracks well with what we know about how the brain processes, encodes, and retrieves information. It tracks so well, in fact, that I leverage his work in my Essentials of Brain-Based Learning workshop.

The Ebbinghaus Learning Curve, Forgetting Curve, and the Spacing Effect

Long before neuroscience existed, Hermann Ebbinghaus applied the scientific method to study how we learn, remember, and forget, using himself as his subject. He published the results of his experiments in 1885, yet his diligent attention to detail has kept his work relevant today. An older contemporary of Albert Einstein, Ebbinghaus was a true po lymath, performing at genius level in multiple scientific disciplines. If the L&D field has our own “Einstein,” Ebbinghaus is that guy.

Psychology Continues to Leverage Neuroscience

Today, psychology and neuroscience are collaborating to advance our understanding of the most complex object in the known universe: the human brain. While a few are still debating the value of neuroscience to L&D, the American Psychological Association has recognized the applications of neuroscience to understanding human behavior since at least 2011.

Other Sciences That Come Into Play

In addition to psychology and neuroscience, the learning professional can gain insights from chemistry, mathematics and probability, physics, anthropology, and many other branches of science. Discarding what works and is still validated by the scientific method would be a bit like refusing to employ geometry once Newton and Leibniz invented calculus.

That just doesn’t compute.

For a deeper dive into how to leverage the power of neuroscience to make your training more compelling, memorable, and effective, please join me for an upcoming session of Essentials of Brain-Based Learning.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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Very interesting Margie, in line with this I would highly recommend reading Nick Shackleton Jones' recent book 'How People Learn' which covers this and much else besides.
Thanks! I'll check it out.
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Really insightful @Marjorie
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It's always a thrill to see my writing on the ATD site! Thanks to everyone in my Essentials of Brain-Based Learning workshop for supporting the science of learning!
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