Learning to Learn

Keep learning

Going through the materials for units 4 and 5, especially the topic of meta-cognition, I realized that the entire time I was in school I was never taught how to learn. There is an expectation that kids will go to school for over a decade and learn the things that will be necessary for a successful future, but there is never any attention paid to teaching kids how to learn all of the things they will be required to learn. Primary and secondary school are meant to prepare kids for their future and for being productive members of society, but the expectation is that the kids already know how to learn. It is vital to a child’s success in school and in life that they know how to learn, which is why I think that Paul Andersen’s video, Metacognition: learning about learning, is so valuable. He goes over ten ways to learn how to learn and provides some excellent information that all teachers should have and implement in the classroom (BozemanScience, 2009). All of his strategies would be applicable to the language learning classroom, but there are a few that stood out – engage by paying attention (fake it if you have to) and have fun.

Samuel Johnson said, “the true art of memory is the art of attention” (tedtalks, 2011). Understanding that attention and memory are related does not require science, rather it only requires observation. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without the active process of paying attention, which is why learning to pay attention should be incorporated into the educational environment. Paying attention is becoming more and more difficult in today’s world of smart-phones and instant access to entertainment and distraction. Working memory has been directly affected by this constant distraction, in fact, we were once capable of holding seven things in our working memory, but that has dwindled to four for a span of 10-20 seconds (Tedtalksdirector, 2013). To help students learn to pay more attention and to block out distractions, mindfulness mediation should be taught. In a study on mindfulness meditation and attention, it was found that those who performed mindfulness mediation were much better at maintaining attention than those that did not meditate (Semple, 2010). Clearly, teaching students to meditate and having them make time each day to do it will directly benefit their ability to concentrate and to regulate their emotional states, which will, in turn, help them to become better learners.

(Resource for strategies to increase student motivation: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/strategies-getting-keeping-brains-attention-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers)

We learn more when we are relaxed and enjoying what we are learning. In short, we learn more when we are having fun. If learning feels like work, it makes learning hard. When learning is fun, students develop intrinsic motivation to learn, which is the kind of motivation that does not require external rewards, rather it comes from within. In fact, it was found that intrinsically motivated students performed better and were more engaged than their counterparts (Cerasoli, Nicklin, & Ford, 2014). In the language learning classroom, students need to understand why they are learning a second language so they can focus on their goals, they need to be able to connect the learning to the real-world, and they need to find the learning process stimulating. Without intrinsic motivation, a student will find it very difficult to overcome the hard parts of learning.

(Resource for teaching intrinsic motivation: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/nine-strategies-to-spark-adult-students-intrinsic-motivation/)

In conclusion, in order for students, adults or not, to improve their second language fluency, they must learn how to learn, they must learn to pay attention, and they must learn to be intrinsically motivated. These three things are an excellent way to prepare students to be good students, but in order for them to learn how to be functional in their target language, they must focus on incorporating the things they are learning into actual use. If a student learns a bunch of verb forms and vocabulary but never actually uses it in a conversational setting or in actual language production, they will not truly learn how to use their new language. David Perkins calls this “playing the whole game” and it is a fantastic way to engage students in true and authentic learning (Perkins, 2009).

(Here is a list of ten TED talks that will help the language learner be a better language leaner: http://blogs.transparent.com/language-news/2016/06/06/10-must-watch-ted-talks-for-language-learners/)


BozemanScience. (2009, October 4). Metacognition: Learning about Learning. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/E8klKdhNop8

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis.Psychological Bulletin140(4), 980.

Perkins, D. N., & ebrary, I. (2009). Making Learning Whole : How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Semple, R. J. (2010). Does mindfulness meditation enhance attention? A randomized controlled trial. Mindfulness1(2), 121-130. Retrieved from http://portal.idc.ac.il/he/main/services/studentsdean/develop_study_ability/documents/semple.pdf

tedtalks. (2011, April 17). Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD – Brain: Memory and Multitasking.          Retrieve from https://youtu.be/tiANn5PZ4BI

Tedtalksdirector. (2013, November 22). Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world. Retrieved at https://youtu.be/UWKvpFZJwcE


Cognitive Science and Language Learning

Learning a whole new language is a difficult task. Think about how difficult it is for you to remember a ‘to-do’ list, a phone number, or a line of poetry. Now, think about how difficult it would be to memorize the entire lexicon of a foreign language, say Icelandic. Finally, think about how difficult it would be to not only memorize all of those words, but to memorize how to put them together in grammatically correct ways that make sense to native speakers. In short, it is an infuriatingly hard thing to do. Fortunately, study into the way the mind works, or Cognitive Science (CS), has led to some improvements in the way foreign languages (FL) are taught by way of a better understanding of how the mind works. Understanding the mechanisms by which the brain learns has allowed FL teachers to teach students not only how to use the target language but also how to learn it. There is so much to say about the implications of CS on FL learning, but I only want to write about three in this post – how learning physically happens in the brain, learning styles, and how CS led to Artificial Intelligence that is helpful in the FL learning process.

Cognitive Science has led to an understanding of the way the human brain works, thereby giving us a window into the way a persomind gearsn thinks and learns. What we know about the way the brain physically learns something is that the brain is made up of billions of neurons that hold information gathered through a person’s experiences in the world, which are then encoded in the neuron as a memory, and that these neurons are grouped into individual circuits, which are made up of  10,000 neurons that have “tens of thousands of millions of connections” (streetwisdombilly, 2010) between them. These neurons transmit information, or memories, from one to the other by building connections, like a bridge, that they can then cross over more easily the next time that circuit is activated. Ensuring that the bridge holds requires repeated activation of that circuit by way of performing, or repeating, the action that created the connection in the first place. In fact, “when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks…shape themselves according to that activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or ‘prune,’ the connecting cells that formed the pathways” (Bernard, 2010). This means that practice is the best way to reinforce the neural connections created when something is learned or risk losing it.

Understanding how the mind works helps a person to understand how they learn, which, in turn, allows them adopt better, more effective learning strategies. In order to adopt a better learning strategy, a person should know more about their learning style. In fact, taking the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html) helped me to identify that I am prone to getting stalled on projects because I spend too much time thinking about them instead of actually doing anything. Take this assignment, for example. I thought about what I wanted to do, which direction I wanted to take my post in, and found myself stalled more than once. Knowing this was a part of my learning style, I just started writing something, which led us here. Learning styles essentially tell a person which sensory organ is their brain’s favorite with which to learn something new. When someone is trying to learn a new language, should they focus one organ over another? No, of course not. It is best to pump information into the brain through as many channels as possible. The more input the brain has – physical stimulus, visual, auditory – the more neural connections will form and more will be learned. Because “Language learning…is intertwined with the other language skills, such as reading, writing, and listening” (Wang, 2007, p 1), it is important to stimulate all of these senses in the language learning process.

Understanding how the brain works, has also led to the creation of artificial intelligence smart enough to aid in the language learning process. Take Lucy for example.Robot It is a program that has a massive dictionary and an algorithm that allows it to communicate on a rudimentary level. Since “generally speaking, one of the most important things for language learning is interaction” (Yang, 2007, p 2), Lucy allows language learners to interact with “someone” in their target language. This would not have been possible without Cognitive Science because understanding how information is transmitted along neural networks in the brain provided the template used in the construction of AI.


To conclude, there are billions of tiny cells in your brain that travel through tiny pathways to each of your sensory organs – your skin, your eyes, your ears, your tongue, and your nose – and carry information from your sensory organs straight to your brain, where the neurons share this information with other neurons by way of building bridges to between them. This means that thinking, learning, and being you is all because of the firing of these tiny little cells. Everything you are and everything you know about yourself and the world boils down to electrical activity in the brain. What an astonishing idea. Cognitive science has given us the tools to discover and understand this and to better understand how we learn about our world. Again, Cognitive Science has so many implications on foreign language learning and teaching, but there are too many to cover in this post and, besides, this post has gone on long enough.


Bernard, S. (2010, December 1). Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the Brain.

Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-neuroplasticity

Streetwisdombilly. (2010, June 10). How We Learn – Synapses and Neural Pathways. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/BEwg8TeipfQ

Yang, S. (2007, April). Artificial Intelligence for Integrating English Oral Practice and Writing Skills. Sino-US English Teaching, 4(4), 1-7