Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"A-ha!": Insight and Learning

Researcher Mark Jung-Beeman, leadership and coaching expert David Rock, and author Jonah Lehrer presented the seminar “The Anatomy of an A-ha” at October’s Neuroleadership Summit in New York City. An “a-ha” is an insight, often a solution to a problem, that seems to “pop” into an individual’s mind as a whole. Insights trigger thought reorganizing, foster new connections between concepts, and often come “out of nowhere” at a time when the individual is not consciously focusing on the issue or problem the insight addresses.

Insight formation (for lack of a better term) follows a pattern. An individual becomes aware of ideas, issues, or problems that prompt additional thought. Periods of focused reflection and mysterious, unconscious processing follow. During one of these periods, the insight arrives with the feeling of, “A-ha!” fMRI scans reveal activity in various brain regions, including the right anterior temporal lobe, seconds before an insight is recognized.

Researchers believe the periods of focused reflection and unconscious processing are critical for developing insights—as if the brain needs to be consciously distracted in order to engage in the unconscious processing that ultimately produces the insight.

My experience illustrates this pattern. Many of my best ideas seem to “pop” into my head when I’m out of my office doing something totally unrelated, such as running or riding my bike. Periods of focused attention followed by seeming inattention yield the insights. (The change in scenery may also play a role, some researchers are now finding.)

How does this relate to teaching? Authentic learning mirrors insight. To learn, students need periods of focused attention and indirect or unconscious processing. You can see this in the classroom when a student raises their hand in the afternoon to let you know that they suddenly understand something you taught that morning. New connections formed in during indirect processing produce the greater understanding.

Unfortunately, time for reflection, focused and indirect, is often sacrificed for coverage. With textbooks hundreds of pages in length, teachers often feel that unless they are constantly talking, they will never “cover the textbook” within the school year. This is an unfortunate trade-off. Schools are learning institutions, and as such should model teaching that understands the necessity of reflection in learning.

Recently a teacher shared with me that using Architecture of Learning caused her to “slow down a bit” and allow the students to actually think about what was being taught. As a result, she saw more than a 60% increase in the number of students who mastered the new content over previous years when she focused on just “covering the material.”

There’s an insight worth our conscious reflection: engaging students in thought produces learning and increases achievement.

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