• Peter Gärdenfors
    Peter Gärdenfors

Learning on the brain

A good teacher has an in-depth understanding of his or her subject, is able to read the students and offers a lot of sensible feedback. If the teacher is also a good storyteller and gives the students control of their own learning, then this creates the optimal conditions for them to be motivated to learn.

“We all have a natural desire to learn – the problem is that it is thwarted by the hidden rules in school”, says Peter Gärdenfors.

Peter Gärdenfors is a Professor of Cognitive Science and has written a number of books on human thinking. The latest, about how people learn, has broken all records and he has been a travelling salesman of learning for the past year. His book is on the reading list for the teacher training programmes at the universities of Gothenburg and Umeå, and when he speaks in schools he often hears the comment “why did we not find this out when we were training to be teachers?”

Peter Gärdenfors’s focus, however, is primarily on the individual rather than the school.

“I am interested in what happens inside a pupil’s head. However, the past fifty years of education research has missed this! The research has mainly focused on sociocultural factors and on things that can be weighed and measured.”

The new interdisciplinary brain research has been more successful and has provided new insights into what happens when a person learns. Cognitive science shows that learning is closely linked to internal motivation and understanding on a deeper level. It may seem obvious, but the importance of these factors has been underestimated by education researchers and has therefore not been given enough attention in teacher training, according to Professor Gärdenfors.

“There is a distinct difference between internal and external motivation.”

There is a distinct difference between internal and external motivation. It is internal motivation that is important, whereas external, for example assessment, may even disturb learning (see article on Beth Hennessey).

The problem is that schools often destroy internal motivation. Peter Gärdenfors claims this is because the hidden rules for work in the classroom are still roughly the same as they were in the 19th century. Despite all the group projects, investigative methods and ambitions to personalise teaching, school pupils are still expected to do basically the same things and to sit still and concentrate. That doesn’t work for everyone.

“Not knowing is bad, not wanting to know is worse” is an African proverb. This is what often happens to children in today’s schools, which also makes the work of the teacher much harder, says Gärdenfors. The children feel they are ‘wrong’, they lose their curiosity and desire to learn. However, there are ways to stimulate their internal motivation. We just have to look at how we learn things naturally from one another from a young age.

“Humans are the only animal that actively teaches. Parents, siblings and friends show and explain. It is a collaborative process, where those who are experienced offer their knowledge, including their mistakes, and those who are less experienced both imitate and have a chance to reflect on learning itself, which helps their understanding.”

The desire to learn increases if curiosity is stimulated and the pupils feel that they are able and in control. “I can do it myself” is not only a phrase that provides motivation for young children. If they also have the chance to learn together with others, it works even better – we are social beings and like to play. Peter Gärdenfors takes the world of computer games as a successful example. There are many games where the individual both has the opportunity to practise themselves and then to move on to higher levels in the game and at the same time has the chance to play in a team with others. With regard to motivation, schools could learn a lot from this.

Closely linked to internal motivation is gaining a real understanding of what one learns.

“A eureka moment is a great motivation in itself”, says Peter Gärdenfors.

Understanding produces what he calls ‘productive knowledge’, on which we can build. We see patterns and causal relationships and gain insights that we can use in other areas.

Facts on their own rarely offer eureka moments, but must be placed in a context to be comprehensible. If a teacher presents facts in the form of a story, the chances that the pupils will develop their own knowledge on a deeper level increase.

“Our brains are made to remember and understand stories – unlike numerical codes, which easily slip our minds! Facts in the form of a story are perceived as meaningful and natural; A is followed by B etc. This helps us both to remember and to comprehend what is said.”

Teaching using stories has for some reason been seen as a bad thing in teaching practice, but stories are an underrated tool, not least for explaining complicated contexts where not all the facts can be rooted in the pupils’ lives and experience. Peter Gärdenfors takes the water cycle as an example. Children are familiar with water in the form of the sea and rain. But groundwater and water vapour are invisible, or hidden, variables. They become comprehensible if they are presented as part of a story which includes the familiar aspects – the sea and rain.

A good teacher presents a problem as a story, but above all, he or she gives a lot of feedback.

“Feedback and the teacher’s knowledge of the subject are the most important things. These are the prerequisites to help the pupils move forward in their own learning process”, says Peter Gärdenfors.

Text: Britta Collberg

Photo: Kennet Rouna

Published: 2012


Peter Gärdenfors on...

… on the four most important qualities of a teacher – in order of importance

  • In-depth subject knowledge
  • Gives feedback
  • Gives pupils control over their learning (by explaining the point of the lesson and by using simulations, computer games, role play, peer learning)
  • Good storyteller

… on Minister of Education Jan Björklund:

“He seems to believe that knowledge is the same as knowledge of facts. The debate on grading is irrelevant – it focuses only on external motivation. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the Government invested money in helping pupils understand mathematics!”

… on how schools can draw inspiration from computer games

  • Create missions for the pupils
  • Allow pupils to compete against each other to solve problems
  • Playfulness and enjoyment help learning and understanding
  • Work even more with simulations, for example using role playing

 … how a teacher can become a good storyteller

“Use imagery – metaphors and similes. They don’t need to cover everything or reflect the facts perfectly, as long as they relate to the pupils’ lives and emphasise the hidden variables that are needed in order to understand.”

… on front-of-class teaching

“The important thing is not the form, front-of-class teaching or not. The important thing is that the teacher is knowledgeable and enthusiastic and relates to and interacts with pupils to encourage their learning.”

 … on “woolly teaching theory”

“Education theories are generally not woolly, but in my view they focus on the wrong questions. The sociocultural aspect has been allowed to dominate too much.”

… on brain researchers who study learning

“They need to become more interdisciplinary and take into account other factors in learning than those seen on the brain scans in experiments.”


Related articles