Exploring the how and why adult brains learn

(…and what that means for professional development)

While the neuroscience and study of brain development, aging, and learning continues to expand, here are a few insights I found particularly insightful to explain how adult brains learn differently from Chapter 8 Adult and Aging Brain from Brain Facts, a primer on the brain and nervous system, published by the Society for Neuroscience:

  • Neural connections and pathways are solidified and strengthened (from repetition over time) in adults
  • Adult brains compose more widespread connections working together (instead of relying upon local connections)
  • Fluid intelligence (problem-solving, identifying patterns) is thought to establish and possibly peak in the 30s
  • Working memory (a type of fluid intelligence mentioned above) declines, resulting in longer processing time of new information
  • Split or Divided attention abilities become more difficult to focus upon over time

Understanding these developmental differences in an aging adult brain are important when considering implementing various frameworks or elements of adult learning theories: andragogy, transformational learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning (SDL), project-based learning (PBL), and action learning (overview available from ispringsolutions). Evaluating each framework and understanding how each can be utilized to unlock the potential of adult learning and the power of collaborative team efforts is important, but not enough.

In addition to evaluating the structures or options of the professional development are additional factors that influence human connections and learning.


In a webinar series hosted by ISTE titled “Creating Authentic Professional Learning,” Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad emphasized the need to consider social-emotional variables and influencers of adult learning. In particular, examining the environment in which learning is expected to occur. Is there a feeling of safety, security, and warmth to allow learning to occur? Regardless of age, the neurological science of learning clearly demonstrates brains under stress, trauma, insecurity, or isolation do not learn. All stop. Period. Additionally, Dr. Lang-Raad recommends creating an alternative environment for professional learning that looks, feels, and is different from faculty meetings.

19 May 2019

Establishing a safe, welcoming environment is imperative to allow individuals to explore their pondering, ask questions, productively and appropriately struggle to problem-solve and collaborate. Part of creating a welcoming environment is to examine the learning culture and also the hidden curriculums. The video gives examples of how there are often unspoken, unconscious, hidden curriculums that are a part of group cultures and sub-cultures, often difficult for a newcomer to feel welcome and belong, resulting in discomfort, unease, anxiety, and stress making it difficult to participate and belong: “It costs each of us more effort to exist in an environment or a routine that isn’t familiar.”


Within all the different frameworks and adult learning theories is a clear, strong, intentional sense of purpose. Reaffirming and reiterating this purpose over and over again, Dr. Lang-Raad emphasizes, is important to establish with staff to avoid misconceptions, misinformation, or misdirection. Brené Brown’s research and insight about leadership emphasizes the need for clear voicing of “productively acknowledging and addressing the fears and feelings that show up during change and upheaval” to avoid spending “an unreasonable amount of time managing problematic behaviors” (Ten issues in the Way, page 36, Dare to Lead). Focus the energy on a clear purpose, articulate the direction, and reduce unnecessary distractions.

WHO (the human element)

Most professional learning situations include a diverse group of learners, different brain neurological processes and patterns, and their own unique sub-cultures that exist within groups (part or outside of the organization/school). The human element of professional learning is a central aspect of learning as evident in the frameworks of adult learning. Evaluating the preferences, learning styles, different mannerism, and establishing a common communicative culture to safely express ideas, challenge ideas, and problem-solve are necessary for all members to fill their role, contribute, feel valued and heard, and move towards the larger collective purpose or goal. Learning to maintain the balance of the paradoxes and tensions that exist within organizations and school cultures is an important aspect of leadership, and relies upon the relationships, empathy, and communicative skills of the group.

One emerging trend of professional development over the last ten years is the desire for choice, relevancy, and results in adult learning. When developing a framework for professional learning, it is imperative to incorporate these elements into the process while maintaining a clear purpose and overall goal of the learning. This allows for more creative problem-solving as well as the importance of acknowledging the beauty in how our brains interpret information and making meaning:

Tammet, Daniel “Different ways of Knowing” TED 2011

“Personal perceptions are at the heart of how we acquire knowledge”

Daniel Tammet, “Different ways of knowing”

We all learn differently, and that process changes as we age and learn more about learning processes. When developing professional learning, using a framework can help structure and guide the process of professional learning but ultimately the connections and collaborations will allow teams to venture into insights and create wisdom in order to achieve a larger purpose.

How do your learning teams create comfortable professional learning environments for meaningful, sometimes difficult, conversations and problem-solving?

Resources & References

21st Century Skills Framework for Developing Leadership PDF by OSPI

“A Qualitative Case Study Analysis for a Potential Model for K-12 Professional Development using Virtual Learning Environments” Doctoral Study from 2011

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Vermilion.

Carey, J., & Society for Neuroscience. (1990). Brain facts: A primer on the brain and nervous system. Washington, D.C: Society for Neuroscience. https://www.brainfacts.org/the-brain-facts-book

“Computational Thinking.” https://k12cs.org/computational-thinking/

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.

Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek.

“How teachers are learning: Professional development remix.” EdSurge, 2014. Viewed Jan 2021. https://www.edsurge.com/research/guides/how-teachers-are-learning-professional-development-remix

“How teachers are learning: Professional development remix – an in-depth report on the tools advancing teacher training.” EdSurge, 2014. Viewed Jan 2021. https://d3btwko586hcvj.cloudfront.net/uploads/pdf/file/3/PD-Remix-EdSurge-Report-2014.pdf

“It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development” by Mike Schmoker Education Week, 2015 LINK

ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). Nov 2020 https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Lang-Raad, Nathan, Dr. “Creating Authentic Professional Learning Experiences in a Distance/Blended Learning Environment” Webinar 02 Feb 2021.

Lipton, L., Wellman, B. M., & Humbard, C. (2003). Mentoring matters: A practical guide to learning-focused relationships. Sherman, CT: MiraVia, LCC.

National Education Technology Plan: Introduction and Learning sections

“Professional development for personalized learning practices.” Hanover Research, 2013. https://www.hanoverresearch.com/media/Professional-Development-for-Personalized-Learning-Practices.pdf

Tobia, Ed. “The Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle: Implementing a Standards-Based Approach to Professional Development.” SEDL Letter Volume XIX, Number 1, April 2007, Developing a Staff of Learners. https://sedl.org/pubs/sedl-letter/v19n01/professional-teaching-and-learning-cycle.html

“What is the Hidden Curriculum” by Camp Stomping Ground YouTube LINK

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