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How the brain works in tutoring and learning

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

There is nothing as fascinating and challenging as understanding how learners learn and how tutors teach.

Mother and child with interacting brains
The human brain and learning

And while you would have no second thoughts about studying carrots and the best environment if you were to grow them, or studying dogs or cats if you were to train them, it is remarkable that so many people involved in teaching and learning know so little about humans and how the brain works. What is it in our behaviour, brain structure and cognition that we need to know before we start teaching or learning?

This latest article on learning follows earlier blogs which we have posted by:

The biggest question we have to ask ourselves is what happens in the brain when we learn?

Different kinds of learning

The most fundamental distinction we want to make is what Geary1 refers to as Primary Biological Knowledge and Secondary Biological Knowledge. The claims in relation to both of these are they are different in how the learning takes place.

Why is this important? Sweller2 makes it clear that while primary biological knowledge is DNA driven and which we 'activate’, it is both very complex and achieved with ease.

DNA and learning

Hard study works

He goes on to say this ‘ease’ is not something that works for secondary biological knowledge. While there is a myriad of factors that influence learning outcomes, his contention is that the secondary biological knowledge we gain in schools can only be achieved through lots of practice and hard work, and when this is transferred into long term memory, it is the driver of culture and civilization. In short, our culture is what we remember, and we learn this through instruction and at school. This is a beautifully pithy understanding of the importance of education.

Studying hard is good for you

Let's return for now to primary biological knowledge and see what that is, and look at some of the evidence for the claims there are for it. We will return to some of the many examples of primary biological knowledge in future blogs, but for now, our examples are:

• interacting with others

• how we move in a physical environment

Interacting with others

Social interaction is not something we start generating systems for after we are born. It is something built into our brains, and clearly, we are making the assumption that it's built into our brains because it has evolutionary purpose.

"Being socially connected is our brain's lifelong passion," said Lieberman, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "It's been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years." 6

Interacting with others is DNA driven

The social brain

Of particular interest may be Lieberman's September 2013 TEDx talk on the social brain:

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We hope this blog has raised awareness of the many biological underpinnings to what we learn, and how we learn. When we have better knowledge of humans and the brain, we will be better tutors and better teachers.


1. American Psychologist © 1995 by the American Psychological Association

January 1995 Vol. 50, No. 1, 24-37

Reflections of Evolution and Culture in Children's Cognition

Implications for Mathematical Development and Instruction

David C. Geary

University of Missouri at Columbia


John Sweller - ACE Conference/researchED Melbourne


Katherine Harmon

4. Linda Palmer, project scientist at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine



7. Lieberman's September 2013 TEDx talk on the social brain:

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