Learn to learn how geniuses do it


One of the emerging phenomena in this century is the progressive consolidation of international consensus on educational policies. This is the case, for example, of the redesign of the curriculum and its focus on competencies , understanding as such knowledge, skills, and attitudes and values.

This orientation is the result, on the one hand, of the digital revolution and its impact on the employability of young people and, on the other, of the need to combine such digital requirements with those of a personal, civic and social nature.

The cognitive dimension of skills

With regard to knowledge and skills of a cognitive nature, the competency-based curriculum approach has expanded the corresponding school repertoire by highlighting the possibility of applying the available knowledge in diverse contexts.

But, in addition, it has incorporated the development of metacognitive skills into academic programs (the ability of people to reflect on their thinking processes and the way they learn), among which stand out the resolution of complex problems, the ability to analyze , critical thinking or “learning to learn”, for example.

This modernizing orientation of the curriculum has brought with it new intellectual demands that are in line with what is known as “deep learning” .

The degree of depth of learning can manifest itself in various dimensions , such as the level of cognitive complexity of the information that students are expected to have, their ease of making generalizations, their ability to transfer to different situations , or the amount of prior knowledge necessary to capture ideas.

The importance of effective learning time

Effective learning time is one of the factors that has been empirically linked to school performance . And it is that deep learning requires a sufficient accumulation of that net time – focused on the task of learning.

As research on the biological and molecular mechanisms of memory has revealed , consolidation of long-term memory content involves anatomical changes by generating new synaptic terminals.

These are manufactured according to processes that involve the synthesis of proteins to form the structure of these endings, which join other places in other neurons where connections are established and structures that support long-term memory are established. There is, therefore, an operation of anatomical construction and functional organization that requires time.

The endorsement of cognitive science and the history of science

The role of time and attention in achieving deep learning is thus endorsed by the current state of cognitive science, but it is also supported by the history of science.

Great scientists have described the processes that led to their discoveries. For example, when Isaac Newton had to refer to the way in which he carried out his investigations, he did so in the following terms:

“I keep the subject constantly before me until the first diagrams slowly open up, little by little, until shedding a clear and intense light.”

Different biographical descriptions of the main features of the sages’ work have reiterated their tenacity in clinging to a problem , in returning to it over and over again.

All these behaviors suppose, in any case, a lasting and deep immersion of the scientist in the specific world of the problem, and are perfectly compatible with the discoveries of the neurobiological mechanisms of the construction of long-term memory and of cognitive learning in the human brain.

Facilitate this learning

The transposition of what I have described above into the field of school teaching and learning leads us to diagnose some of the frequent deficiencies in educational systems that would require a more efficient organization of time, content and methods.

A disproportionate number of subjects per course significantly reduces the weekly hourly load of most of them and, therefore, the effective learning time of students. But, in addition, its duration does not exceed, generally, forty-five minutes per class.

Some recommendations

In accordance with the above, if what is intended is to facilitate the deep learning that the education of the future demands, the following recommendations are relevant:

  • Assign double periods to the same subject , particularly in those subjects with the highest cognitive demand, and adapt, accordingly, and for this purpose, the teaching methodology.
  • Organize the distribution of the contents of a given subject not by courses, but by stages , avoiding unnecessary repetitions between courses and taking into account the level of intellectual demand of the different subjects, as well as the age level of the students.
  • Promote effective training in different subjects for students to transfer reasoning schemes and similar cognitive instruments to different contexts.
  • To develop in students non-cognitive skills and, in particular, perseverance, sense of effort and resilience – or resistance to adversity – without which deep learning will be highly improbable.

Will administrations be able to turn the conception of the curriculum – and teachers to implement it – so that students acquire the preparation required for personal life and for the jobs of the future? Now is the time to reflect on something for which neurobiology and the history of science provide us with a robust justification.

Author Bio: Francisco López Rupérez is Director of the Chair of Educational Policies at Camilo José Cela University