• Arturs Pilkevics

Learning About Learning: I Can't Learn If Learning is Without You!



In the iconic love song "Without You" Harry Nilsson, and later also Mariah Carey, heartbreakingly proclaim: "I can't live, if living is without you". What if I told you that learning is as much of a social phenomenon as love is? In this post I would like to explore the concept of the social brain and its implications for teaching and learning.


The compound term social learning has been recently used and explored in cognitive neuroscience. The bottom line is that we are created to learn in a social setting and our brains are wired for social development. We are constantly on the lookout for social connection. We, humans, are beginning to understand our natural and life-sustaining interdependency and scientists have begun to view human intelligence as a collective rather than individual phenomenon. The implications for teaching and learning are indeed profound. Does loneliness hinder learning? Does social interaction promote it? Let us explore.


The Early Years: the Age of Superheroes

As we are able to peek into our brain and its development, we are ever more fascinated with the processes that happen in the very early stages of life. At first glance, babies may seem as incapable, helpless, thumb-sucking creatures that roam around, looking for trouble as they are starting to learn about the world. In fact, babies are learning superheroes. Researchers from Harvard recently claimed that babies are making around 700-1000 new synaptic connections per second, only to correct their own research in 2017 by stating that the numbers are much more impressive - a new estimate being as many as a million connections per second. Yes, no mistake here - a million per second! These researchers have put together a great resource for further reading and watching on early brain development and parenting - the so called Project Zero to Three.


Fascinating is the fact that a huge part of this early development is in the areas of the brain responsible for making social connections and involves the so called mirror neurons. Their mirror neurons are busy (check out the previous blog post) in preparation for navigating the realm of making first relationships. Babies are especially fascinated by faces of other human beings, looking to imitate facial expressions as they are learning how to connect. As we see in the picture dating all the way back to the last century, the scientists have been fascinated with the phenomenon for a while.



Imitation of Facial and Hand Gestures by Human Neonates in Science 198(4312):74-8 · October 1977


Now this research is backed up by neuroimaging techniques that reveal the fascinating processes behind these social mechanisms. Babies are laying the foundation for the life ahead and learning at a rate that will never be exceeded, and the primary focus of the brain is on learning how to develop connections and relationships with other humans. This is all subconscious, so we are indeed wired to connect from the very start of lives.


These findings might be a revelation to some educators and policy makers. We tend to think of school age as being more impactful. We may think this is the time when kids grow most. Almost every teacher I know, mentions as one of the primary reasons for choosing the profession, this notion of impacting student lives, playing a key role in moulding fascinating human individuals. More and more parents express to me that school is responsible for forming their offsprings into future leaders, innovators and astronauts. However, some fascinating studies confirm that early pre-school stage has the greatest impact on the trajectory of development which makes the impact of early caregivers more significant than later educators. The project Zero to Three specifically emphasises the growing realisation about parents playing the most significant role in the development of their children. Lack of parental care in the early stages of life has a stronger detrimental effect on the development of the brain than educational interventions after that.


One of the most renowned studies that speaks to this notion comes from Romania. In efforts to increase the population of Romania, the country's dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, banned contraception and abortion in the country in 1966. Along with achieving his goals of increasing the population, the initiative had its devastating side effects. One of them was a disproportionately increased amount of abandoned infants and children turned to state orphanages. When communism collapsed in Romania in 1989, an estimated 170,000 children were found warehoused in filthy orphanages. After the dictatorship was over, researchers from three prominent medical schools initiated a longitudinal study to look into the impact of neglect and early deprivation in children. Nathan Fox, Director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Maryland along with colleagues Charles Nelson, PhD, at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston, and Charles Zeanah, MD, at Tulane University, started their study in 2000 and called it the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. They studied 136 babies in age from 6 months to nearly 3 years, placing half of the infants into a quality foster care, and leaving another half institutionalised. Over the subsequent months and years, the researchers returned to assess the development of the children in both settings, also evaluating a control group of local children who had never lived in an institution. The study lasted for 14 years and the trio published their findings in a book "Romania's Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery" in 2014.


These findings are as heartbreaking as they are revealing for our topic today. Fox reports: "The most remarkable thing about the infant room was how quiet it was, probably because the infants had learned that their cries were not responded to.” The study describes babies laying in cribs all day, except when being fed, diapered or bathed on a set schedule. The babies rocked themselves to sleep, many stared at their own hands, trying to derive whatever stimulation they could from the world around them. “Basically these kids were left on their own.", says Fox. The researchers were interested in seeing the implications of this on brain development. As one may predict, they found many negative effects among these neglected children. They had delays in cognitive function, motor development, and language and showed deficits in social-emotional behaviors and experienced more psychiatric disorders.


The situation was different for kids who were moved into foster care. These children showed improvements in language, IQ and social-emotional functioning and were able to form secure attachment relationships with their caregivers. They made dramatic gains in their ability to express emotions. However, they still lagged behind the control group of children who had never been institutionalised. The study also pointed out that those removed from the institutions before age 2 made the biggest gains. "There's a bit of plasticity in the system," Fox says, but to reverse the effects of neglect, he adds, "the earlier, the better."


The researchers also used structural MRI to further understand the brain differences among the children. They found that institutionalised children had smaller brains, with a lower volume of both gray matter (brain cells - neurons) and white matter (remember, myelin, the coating that makes synaptic impulses fire faster - the “butter in the brain” from my last post). This was confirmed by other studies about neglected children revealing some stunning images of the brain size differences between the normal and extremely neglected by three years of age. The bottom line - a history of institutionalisation and neglect significantly affects brain growth. We are wired to connect from the very start of our lives.


This experience is certainly an extreme case of orphans or foster kids, but it makes the point that emotional connections or lack of those in the early stages of life determine the trajectory much more than our later interventions. By the age of two there were structural changes to the brain that determined the development and cognitive function for the years to come. Further studies have been inspired by this project and show similar findings.


Research in language acquisition speaks to this topic. It shows how early social connections impact the trajectory of brain development more than we had ever imagined, this time through language. In a fabulous longitudinal study on babies, Dr. Huttenlocker from the University of Chicago found that at twenty months old, the children of chatty mothers averaged 131 more words than the children of mothers who did not speak much. At 24 months the difference was 295 words. The impact on these differences on the development was studied in the later research done by the University of York. The researchers have discovered that the number of words a child hears does not just improve their vocabulary and linguistic development, but can also contribute to the development of nonverbal abilities like reasoning, numerical understanding, and shape awareness. The study included 107 children, using audio recorders to document their daily lives over the course of three days. What the researchers found was a positive association between cognitive abilities and the quality of adult speech children heard (based on both the number of words and lexical diversity). Finally, another extensive study confirmed the following major findings in American children: 1. Variation in children’s IQs and language abilities is partially predicted by the amount parents speak to their children. 2. Children’s academic successes at ages nine and ten can in part be attributed to the amount of talk they heard from birth to age three. 3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.


The School Age: Learning for Teaching

In the summary of his study on the Social Brain, Matthew Lieberman, the author one of the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect speaks to some incredible discoveries about the social part of learning. He reveals that opposite to an earlier view that social aspect simply enhances memory formation in circuits normally associated with memorisation, we now know that social interaction activates different circuits and provides an alternative, more stable mechanism for learning. He calls it the mentalizing network vs. memory network, where the first is associated with social learning and the latter one is memorisation without social context. Lieberman says: “Our brains can pay attention to dry history facts or a lesson on long division using the working memory network, but what the brain really wants to do, particularly during adolescence, is explore and master the social world using the mentalizing network. Currently, most classroom education treats this neurocognitive competition as a zero-sum battle between actual learning and social distractions like note passing or texting during class. It is worth considering the possibility that the social brain’s natural tendencies can be leveraged to enhance classroom education.” He encourages educators to harness this view by redefining the purpose of learning any material - doing it for the sake of teaching others, rather than for the sake of being tested on it. “This approach may invoke the mentalizing network due to the social motivations involved rather than the social content.” Lieberman goes on to mention several studies confirming the benefits of “learning-for-teaching” and “peer tutoring”. Lieberman also suggests increasing the amount of purposeful social learning in curriculums. He says: “If we retain less than half of what we learn in school, perhaps we should use some of that wasted time to learn something else. Our brain craves to understand itself, the social world, and the relation between the two.”

In the context of all these findings, there is no surprise that the most extensive summary of meta cognitive studies in education done by John Hattie places reciprocal teaching (students teaching students) amongst the greatest impacting factors on student learning. Besides, this understanding about social learning helps explain why, according to the same study, teacher-student relationships have a greater impact on learning outcomes than homework, teacher qualifications, and even classroom management and student motivation. In general, there is a change of paradigm in psychology, neuroscience, and education. The researchers have begun to move from an older notion of cognition being a strictly individual process to a realization that cognition is both an individual and a social phenomenon. We now recognize the intrinsically social nature of human intelligence.


A Secret of a Long and Happy Life!

The last point that I stumbled upon in my research goes beyond the school and education reveals fascinating findings about the impact of social interactions on our well being and life expectancy as adults. These findings come from the longest and most extensive longitudinal study in history. It started in 1938 with 268 Harvard sophomores and is still in progress. The study eventually expanded to the offspring of the original members and has followed the lives of more than 1300 people with the purpose of collecting clues to leading healthy and happy lives. As one may imagine, these were people of all walks of life, ranging from a US president (Kennedy) to the simplest of laymen. The task was to collect data on their academic achievement, health, career, social life and family in search for factors that correlate the most with the feelings of happiness and length of their lives. In other words, what makes us live longer and feel more happy?

The conclusions of the study were stunning - the factor that trumped such expected variables as levels of education and healthy lifestyle, was the quality of relationships. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School draws a phenomenal conclusion: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” In his famous TED talk, Waldinger explains: “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” The key factor in this satisfaction with the relationships was trust - people who had someone to trust, even in the midst of some occasional or chronic bickering, lived longer and felt happier than people who could not share a trusting relationship.

Robert Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer. Source


Before I offer my conclusions, I would like to make my last recommendation on further reading and watching on this topic. It is a series of four videos produced by the educational portal Edutopia that summarize the research and outline the implications for teaching and learning. Enjoy and thanks for reading!



Here are my implications for teaching and learning:


  • Preschool age is crucial in the development of children and has a larger impact on the trajectory of each child's development than the later stages of development. This means reconsidering priorities on many levels of society. For state policymakers it means increasing the social support systems for parents of your children, incentivizing longer parental care at home after the childbirth, and educating parents on the detrimental importance of the preschool age and the roles of social interactions during this age. For educational policymakers it means increasing the focus on preschool education, even if it means moving funds from colleges and schools. Solutions may include minimizing the teacher to student ratios in preschools and increasing pay for early childhood caregivers. For all preschool parents it means reconsidering their priorities. I would argue that investing time in the here and now with a toddler is wiser than working long hours to invest money for their college in the future.


  • At the school age level it is important to reconsider the way we harness the social environment for learning. For educators this means building strong relationships with students as well as looking for ways to involve them in teaching each other, peer-tutoring, collaborative work, and harnessing the social aspect of school and classroom whenever possible. I would argue that schooling conditions as we know them now are not in line with what we know environments conductive of social growth and development. With its crowded same age groups pushed into confined spaces for strict intervals of time ranging from 40 to 90 minutes the school is a mass management system and not really a community of family like environment. I believe that this structure is not school initiated but a result of processes, expectations and paradigm of our work lives outside of school. In another post I would like to explore this topic even further, but for now let this be just food for thought. For now, in the existing imperfect conditions and until we find ways to work less as a society, curriculum makers should consider Introducing the social and emotional learning program as part of the mandatory curriculum, as well increasing the meaningful social interaction of children and adults through mentoring programs, even if this means reducing the amount of academic content.


  • Finally, after reading the findings of the longitudinal study about happy life, each and every one of us, simple mortals, should be asking ourselves the two most important questions: Do I have a person in my life I can trust with everything? Am I such a person of trust to somebody?



P.S.- A Note on the Role of Technology

I do not want to dig deep into this in this post as I am planning to write another post on this topic in the future. Let me just state that the current research seems to indicate that technology has not helped us to replace human interaction, but somehow is making things worse. Research from both the UK and USA indicates that we find ourselves at the all time high levels of loneliness. These independent groups of researchers also conclude that isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. It seems that while we are more connected and informed than ever before in the virtual space, we are more lonely than ever before in real life. Technology seems to provide a hope for communication, but we still long for human relationships as we are wired to connect with humans, not technology. It breaks my heart to see more and more couples in the restaurant having dates with their phones instead of each other. Even more devastating to me is the picture of a family at the dinner table with every adult and child having their own screen time, including a one year old cutie whose little fingers swipe the screen before she can even utter a word. Giving kids screen time so that we do not have to do the work of pleasant and sometimes very unpleasant human interactions makes our lives easier, and it seems that children are happy with this solution, too. Even though the recent research summary from OECD on the impact of technology on child development states that most of the research is in the early stages and quite inconclusive, I wonder if children left to technology are almost as neglected and deprived of human interaction as the orphans. I have to do my job of summarising the research and sharing my conclusions in another post. For now I would like to mention one more study that speaks to this notion of the importance of social interactions in our lives.

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