Defusing Insights from the Neuroscience of Learning | Alden Blodget | 6 Min Read

May 20, 2024

Recently, I have heard a few interviews focusing on the misunderstandings, lies, and distortions spread by the social media filters through which passed the evolving scientific insights into covid during the worst of the pandemic. These discussions reminded me of what can often happen to any new scientific research—the cherry-picking and desire to ignore revolutionary implications that suggest a need for rethinking our comfortable assumptions and, perhaps, changing our behavior. People tend to resist fundamental change. This tendency has characterized the reactions of too many educators to new insights about learning.

In 2007, Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang published “We Feel, Therefore We Learn.” They presented results of their research that established an inextricable connection between emotion and cognition. Emotion, they wrote, is “the rudder” for thinking; we “think in the service of emotional goals.” Given our tradition of treating emotion as separate from and an impediment to rational thought, I was stunned by this explosive insight. I could feel the foundations of our schools shake and was certain that the insight would lead educators to consider its implications for how we might rethink schools. That hasn’t happened.

In 2009, Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth explored the role of emotion and learning even more deeply. They wrote about “skilled intuition”—how “efficient learners build useful and relevant ‘intuitions’ that guide their thinking and decision-making” as they gain knowledge and experience in solving various kinds of problems in different academic domains. And even more recently, Immordino-Yang noted, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things you don’t care about.” People think and learn about things that matter to them. 

Here was a series of seismic observations that, to me, explain so much about the flaws in our current school designs. We claim to foster “deep learning,” yet few of our students achieve this goal, perhaps primarily because they don’t care about their studies. What they find emotionally relevant are those things that the system has taught them to care about: their grades and test scores—the keys to college—not developing intellectual skills and conceptual understanding. The skills and understanding that students feel they must develop are strategies for pleasing teachers, passing tests, and finding shortcuts up the GPA mountain (ah, the sweet Sherpa of AI). What happens between the potency of new insights and their existence in our schools? The insights disappear into the shadows.

With the notable exception of a few outlier schools that take these insights to heart, what I observe has been a process of avoidance: First, take from the insight the key idea or word (“emotion”) and acknowledge its significance (“emotion is important”) while divorcing it from its research context (emotion as “the rudder for thought”), and tuck it into more familiar stuff (like creating classrooms that feel emotionally safe), and voilà: no need to think more carefully about the uncomfortable, dangerous suggestion that we need to rethink everything. This is the process of cherry-picking the research and then claiming that our schools are research- or brain-based. 

Yes, safe classrooms and good teacher-student relationships are, indeed, important and are supported by research. It’s a good idea to develop strategies that create belonging and safety; it’s great that teachers want to shake hands with students as they enter the classroom. But all that misses the more profound discovery that Damasio and Immordino-Yang presented: “We think in the service of emotional goals.”

The tendency to divorce a key word from its research context also seems to be working with Immordino-Yang’s insight that deep thinking requires people to engage with subjects and ideas that matter deeply to them. Some educators have begun to use the word “mattering” in the sense that students need to feel that they matter—certainly an important concept. But the idea of their STUDIES mattering TO THE LEARNERS is different from LEARNERS feeling that they matter TO OTHERS. The focus on this latter interpretation of “matter” has resulted in an increase in community service opportunities and classroom practices like having older students read to younger students. Again, these are beneficial activities, but they allow us to avoid having to consider the more frightening prospect of, say, structuring schools built on individualized, self-directed programs of study so that students can engage in ideas that matter to them.

And, of course, not all the results of this process of avoidance are beneficial. For example, some educators enjoy associating themselves with researchers like the late Kurt W. Fischer. Yet, instead of delving into the implications of one of his most notable insights—that learning results from the building, collapse, and rebuilding of skills and conceptual understanding—these educators continue to equate learning with recall, so they develop strategies for improving memorization and retrieval and only focus on long- and short-term memory. They also ignore Fischer’s discussion of regression (the collapse that occurs as the context changes—as the complexity increases or as circumstances become more stressful); the result is the continuing treatment of regression as failure (an F) instead of as an essential part of building understanding. And a further consequence is that we never rethink our destructive approach to assessment and grading, anchored as these are in retrieval and right/wrong answers.

A second part of this process of avoidance is to create new “interventions.” Some teachers, with the best of intentions to improve “learning outcomes” as measured by test scores, quickly latched onto the idea that “emotion is important.” So they developed “research-based” emotional intelligence (and grit, growth mindset, empathy, social skills, motivation, metacognition, neuroplasticity) programs that can be applied in traditional classrooms. The intervention movement has turned into a lucrative consulting industry. Use key words to suggest a connection to research; then create and sell materials and professional development for applying them. Incorporate these into existing school structures; watch scores improve; and don’t bother with thinking more deeply about the research and perhaps the obligation to redesign the existing structures. The outcome is that the intervention industry has joined the testing industry as an obstacle to meaningful change.

I recognize that emotional intelligence, growth mindset, safe classrooms, and feelings about mattering are all important and essential for effective education, but what if we could design new school structures that obviate the need for interventions because the designs themselves develop all these attributes quite organically?

Researchers have given us a gift: real insight into the processes and neurological activity that support meaningful, profound learning. Most of the teachers and administrators I know are eager to understand this research, and many are even impatient to explore its implications for designing substantially new structures and practices that will nurture more engaged students—a daunting task. To succeed, educators must remove the filters (including mine) that stand between them and the research. We all must go to the primary sources—to the research itself, the texts—and study and understand these for ourselves. There are no shortcuts, no easy ways to tinker with a system that was built on an entirely different understanding of learning.

If you are a teacher or parent, imagine the joy of hearing more student voices like this one, a high school senior who experienced such a structure:

“I remember feeling like I wanted to give up if I had to follow the standard coursework that was in front of me. I was not engaged, and I desperately needed the physical and emotional freedom that came with a course of study that was created out of my own interests. . . . I remember feeling as if a burden was lifted from me when I was given the opportunity to create a program of study just for me. . . . I went from feeling caged to being freed. In this program I was trusted and respected. The feeling of being judged for my shortcomings dropped away because I was good enough. I could shine, after all. I taught in a preschool downtown and worked on my poetry as much as possible with my writing teacher. I saw school as a place of possibilities for my future instead of past failures. I can’t tell you what this did for my self-confidence! I didn’t need to ‘fit in,’ I just needed a place where I could be myself.”


You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.

Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom. He is the editor for, a free online resource focusing on issues affecting young people and the adults who work with them.

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