What neuroscience means for personalized learning  

Blog 25/02/2019

What neuroscience means for personalized learning  

By Bradley M Kremer

During an educational course on curriculum leadership a few years ago, our teacher asked us students – all of whom were professional educators and school leaders – to define the term learning, since it is at the core of what we do every day. The definition of learning I crafted that day was, and remains, “the process of developing a skill not previously possessed and which changes the learner’s relationship with the world in some way.” Our class of approximately 50 educators came up with this consensus definition:  

Learning is the ongoing process of personal growth which changes how we engage with the world. 

I find three notable points in both definitions: their focus on process, the idea that learning is personal, and the impact on the learner’s perspective of the world.  

I’ve been researching some neuroscience as a part of the curriculum design process at New Nordic School, and what follows is a brief discussion of how neuroscience informs the Nordic Baccalaureate model my colleagues and I have developed.  

Here’s what cognitive neuroscience tells us about the process of learning:  

  • Neuroplasticity enables the brain to continually adapt in response to stress. Moderate stress is beneficial to learning, too little stress fails to produce new neural connections necessary for learning, while too much stress produces fight-or-flight responses which inhibit it. This means learning happens best at ideal stress levels. 
  • Active learning, in which students engage in a combination of individual and collaborative group problem-solving activities, combines the recall and understanding skills at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning with higher-level cognitive functions such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating.  
  • These more complex thought processes are more beneficial for learning because they involve a greater number of neural connections across multiple regions of the brain. 

Neuroscience also informs the personalization of learning:  

  • Sleep, exercise, and nutrition all impact both neuroplasticity and stress levels.  
  • Because of variations in each child’s diet, sleep, and exercise patterns, students exhibit a wide spectrum of cognitive, social, and emotional development at every stage of education. Developmental psychology concurs with this premise: Even though most people follow a typical developmental pathway, no two people are exactly alike. 
  • Personalized education is based on teachers’ understanding where each student is on that developmental spectrum and giving her the agency to shape a learning experience that begins at her current level. 

What about perspective? What can neuroscience tell us about the way a learner’s perspective is influenced by experience?  

  • The advent of MRIs and other advanced imaging technologies permits us to examine in real time the growth of neurons and increase in links between regions of the brain responsible for different kinds of thinking (i.e., decision-making volitional control in the neocortex, the memory function of the hippocampus, and the amygdala as the human emotional center). 
  • Our deepening understanding of neuroplasticity has made it clear that the human brain continues to change well beyond the high school – genetics, biology, relationships, and cultural and contextual influences all impact the way our brains arrange and interact with information.  
  • The relationships that students experience throughout their educational journey, therefore, shape the neural networks formed in their brains: A child’s first interactions with parents and siblings at home, then increasingly independent relationships with peers and teachers through primary and middle school, followed by interactions across a broader community of adults and other children through the middle school years, ultimately including people from multiple cultures and geographies in high school and beyond. 
  • The more people a child interacts with, the more neural connections are made between different regions of the brain, linking those emotional, memory, and decision-making functions to more and more far-reaching consequences.  

Therefore, if we want kids to learn well, we must provide a stimulating educational environment that produces just the right level of positive stress to promote learning, we should personalize their experience to account for individual developmental differences, and we should ensure that schools promote healthy interactions and relationships at all stages of learning so that our graduates engage with the world in positive and meaningful ways.  

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Bradley M Kremer
Director of Education for Curriculum
bradley.kremer@newnordic.school
New Nordic School
Espoo, Finland


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