Héctor Ruiz Martín: "We say that in order to learn you have to do, but this is not true. To learn you have to think"

4 min
The neurobiologist Héctor Ruiz Martín

BarcelonaThe neurobiologist and International Science Teaching Foundation director, Héctor Ruiz Martín, has written several books to bring the evidence on learning and educational practices closer together.

What is learning?

— Learning is a change in an individual's behaviour thanks to experience. And it is also a change in long-term memory. Memory is commonly understood as a store of data, but memory is the capacity to learn anything, to retrieve knowledge. That is why we say that to learn is to bring about long-term change. 

What is the difference between learning and memorising?

— Often, when we talk about memorising we refer to learning without understanding, literal learning, in which we have not made any effort to understand. There are things that have no meaning on their own: you don't have to understand that the capital of France is Paris. But there are other things that would require understanding and sometimes students learn them by heart. They memorise the definition of a concept, but they don't understand it. As teachers, we have to ask them to use the concept to interpret a problem.

Do we need to change the way we assess?

— One of the most effective ways to change the way we learn is to change the way we assess. If the student sees that he or she is successful at memorising and reciting definitions, he will continue to do so, but if he is faced with a test in which he has to demonstrate that he has understood what he has learned, he will be forced to learn in a different way.

Can everyone learn equally well?

— Leaving aside extreme disorders, everyone has the ability to learn. The brain is extraordinary, but logically there are people with more facility to learn and others with less. Learning requires effort and confidence. In fact, one of the limiters of learning are self-limiting beliefs, which is when we believe that we cannot learn. Behind this is the concept of self-efficacy, which is whether we see ourselves as capable of achieving learning or not. It is one of the most important factors for learning, even more than interest.

How much of the learning is to the credit of the learner and how much is the responsibility of the teacher?

— Learning happens in the student's brain, and the teacher cannot generate it, but he or she can promote it by making students motivated. Motivation doesn't make us learn for the sake of it, but it makes us dedicate more time and effort to learning. In fact, we believe that motivation is important for achieving goals, but achieving learning goals is even more important for motivation.

What does this mean?

— Earlier I said that our belief about whether we will be able to learn determines our motivation. For this belief depends on previous experiences of success or failure. If we have always had difficulties with mathematics, it is likely that we have a low self-efficacy and think that we will not be able to understand it. To promote motivation, students' efforts to learn must be valued.

How is this done?

— We have to work on mistakes, because making mistakes doesn't mean that we can't learn something, but that we don't know it yet. And also with facts: when students decide to make the effort to learn, they have to see a reward. Here something very important comes into play: what efforts do we have to make in order to learn better.

What are they?

— To study, many students read and reread the syllabus and, as everything sounds familiar, they think they have already learned, but there is a much more effective action to consolidate learning, and that is to do it the other way around, that is, evoking what you have learned and read. The brain is more grateful for having to retrieve from memory what it has already learned than for not reencoding information.

So, instead of rereading the syllabus, should we explain it to someone else?

— To someone or to yourself. It is also recommended to study in a spaced way, without leaving everything for the last day.

Based on this evidence, what needs to be done in the classroom?

— There are basic ingredients: think about what we are learning, give it meaning, generate close examples. As teachers, we have to make sure that students are thinking about what they are learning. When we say that in order to learn you have to do, it's not true. To learn you have to think, but as a teacher I need to know if they are thinking or not, and the way to find out is for students to do things that demonstrate and make their thinking visible. This is what is meant by active learning: thinking about what you do, evoking what you have learned.

Do emotions help learning?

— There is a misunderstanding. For emotions to have an effect on memory they have to be intense, but if we have said that in order to learn we have to think and reflect, emotions do not help us to do so. This does not mean that emotions are not important: we need a good atmosphere in the classroom, that there is trust, that there is no fear of making mistakes. The key concept is motivation, which is the inclination to do what will enable us to learn.

When people in the media talk about rote learning, they are talking about traditional, outdated teaching. What do you think of the debate?

— It's a false dichotomy. In education we like to turn an opposing argument into a caricature. Memory is the ability to learn anything, and this doesn't just mean memorising. Without memory we wouldn't be who we are, we wouldn't be able to think! The real dilemma is whether we are achieving learning with understanding. Everyone agrees that learning has to be lasting, transferable, functional and productive. The question is whether we are ensuring that the current system is approaching this ideal. When a student is dedicated to memorising and reciting definitions, we are not achieving this. The debate about knowledge being necessary or not is absurd,because nothing can be done without knowledge. The debate has to be: knowledge, but how? The discussion has to be about how to make learning deep and meaningful.