The traditional model and false assumptions
During the presentation, Nicholas explained how the traditional teaching model, as we know it, stipulates that teachers possess expert knowledge, which is transferred to students. We have been operating under this common assumption for at least 100 years.
The sad truth is that this model is based upon some false assumptions. In fact, according to Lieberman’s chapter (2013) on education and the social brain, learners remember only a small fraction of what their teacher taught. Therefore, school learning is not efficient. So, what can we do better? How can we make learning more efficient? To do so, Nicholas proposed that we look at how the brain works.
Brain size and social complexity
Nicholas began by explaining the strong correlation between brain size and social complexity. Species with a more complex social group tend to have larger brains. Of all the species, humans have the biggest brains and the most complex social groups.
Why are our brains so large? As humans, our brains must track and manage in our memory an astonishing number of human-to-human relationships, with our brains being able to handle up to 10,000 potential dyads. However, humans have not evolved to remember information, as the traditional model might suggest, but to live in groups.
Thanks to our big brains, humans can manage all these relationships. We can keep track of other people and make sense of their mental lives in terms of:
- their mood
- their motives
- their goals
- their thoughts
- their feelings
- their dispositions
Nicholas emphasized that our brains are optimized to remember this information when it’s relevant to the social context in which we live.
Social communication in the classroom? Why not!
Research shows that engaging in social interactions and thinking about others helps us retain information. However, socializing in class is largely discouraged most of the time, and our classrooms are not optimized to encourage social exchanges. Many classrooms are still arranged in rows and columns to separate students from each other and to discourage interaction among them.
Because socializing is considered a problem in our classrooms, teachers tend to put a stop to it. We believe that socializing interferes with the ability of students to encode information into their long-term memory. Social interaction is often seen as competing with learning instead of facilitating it.
The good news is that, according to a study by Lieberman, we encode information in 2 possible ways, using either our information brain encoding system or our social brain encoding system.
The information brain and the social brain are complementary, as they don’t operate simultaneously but rather in a mutually exclusive manner. When one is active, the other remains inactive. For instance, when the information brain is engaged, the social brain remains inactive, and vice versa.
Nicholas explained how the information brain focuses on facts and discrete information while the social brain encodes information in a social context. So, when teachers try to suppress social interaction in class to enhance information transfer and encoding in the information brain, they actually suppress the social brain.
Evidence of the social brain advantage
Nicholas presented some significant studies providing compelling evidence for the advantage of the social brain.
In the 1st study, conducted by Hamilton, Katz and Leirer (1980), participants were asked to read statements about past everyday events framed in the past tense, such as:
- washed the dishes
- cleaned up the house before the company came
- read the evening newspaper
Two groups were formed for this experiment. Group 1 was instructed to memorize these events for a forthcoming test, while Group 2 was directed to imagine the person involved in each event and consider sharing their impressions of this person later.
Following these 2 preparations, both groups underwent a post-test. Surprisingly, Group 2, who was asked to think about the social context of the events, remembered approximately 25% more than the group instructed to memorize the events outright.
These results suggest that our brains are optimized to retain information that bears relevance to a social context.
In the 2nd study by Bargh and Schul (1980), students were tasked with remembering scientific facts, basically a list of information. Group 1 was instructed to simply memorize this information for an upcoming test, while Group 2 was asked to prepare as if they were going to teach this information to someone else, even though they never actually got to do so.
What’s fascinating is that both groups ultimately took the same test. The results showed that the group that was asked to prepare to teach others (Group 2) did significantly better on the test than the memorization-focused group (Group 1).
This study shows that engaging the social brain leads to better encoding of memories into long-term memory.
There is even more evidence that humans have evolved to think about the needs of others. Indeed, with Hattie’s metanalysis (2009) on the acceleration of learning, more robust evidence of the advantages of social learning have emerged:
- Reciprocal teaching (when students engage in teaching each other within small groups) leads to a 37% acceleration in learning.
- Peer tutoring leads to a 28% acceleration in learning.
- Cooperative learning results in a 27% acceleration in learning.
- Classroom friendship leads to a 27% increase in learning compared to isolation.
Hattie’s research emphasizes the importance of classroom friendships, as students without friends tend to be less engaged and perform more poorly.
Based on these findings, Nicholas reminded us not to underestimate the importance of icebreaker activities in the early weeks of the semester that promote social interaction because friendship does have an impact on accelerating learning.