Neuroscience and Learning

Have you ever heard (or said) that spirituality is ‘caught, not taught’? While it’s true that good models and experiences are important for spiritual development, spiritual ideas and practices can also be learned through effective teaching. Understanding how children’s brains work can help you plan lessons that nurture children’s spiritual lives without overwhelming them with information that they will forget in a few days.

Barbara Oakley, an expert in neuroscience and social behavior, says that learning something new is a bit like juggling a set of balls. Our brains take information into our working memory, which is a kind of mental storage space. Only about four balls of information will fit in working memory at one time. Add any more balls, and our brain begins dropping information because of the overload.

The trick to retaining more information is moving ideas from working memory into long-term memory. This can happen in one of two ways. Facts follow a declarative pathway, in which naming and repeating information (as one might with multiplication tables) helps us hold onto those facts. But more complex forms of information (such as geometry proofs) follow a procedural pathway, which involves practicing skills to anchor the information.

As spiritual educators, this means we have some decisions to make in our lesson planning. First, we need to decide what are the three or four pieces of information we want children to explore in a lesson. Perhaps our theme is ‘care for the earth’. Rather than trying to cover everything we can find on this topic, we might reduce our focus to ‘clean water’, one or two causes of water pollution, and one-way children can help address pollution. Or, if we’re planning a lesson on mindfulness, we might focus on the steps of this practice, two of its spiritual benefits, and a significant fact about its origins.

Second, we need to consider whether these pieces of information are likely to make their way into children’s long-term memory via a declarative or procedural pathway. Facts about the causes of water pollution can be learned through statistics and photos, so teachers might share this information and then ask children to recall what they’ve heard. The same is true of information about the origins of mindfulness. But learning how to address pollution is better remembered through practices, such as letter-writing campaigns, cleanup days, and changes in personal habits. Children are also more likely to remember the spiritual benefits of mindfulness if they experience them. And we might teach the practical steps of mindfulness both ways: talking about the steps and also inviting children to try them out.

Oakley has another piece of advice for teachers trying to take seriously the limits of working memory: provide memory aids and time for processing. Sharing a fact sheet about water pollution or a list of mindfulness steps means children don’t have to hold that information in working memory because they can check their facts externally. And occasional processing pauses offer children a chance to reflect on what they know and what they still don’t understand.

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