In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

May 14, 2015
by annavarna

No brains will be harmed in the process

I don’t remember exactly when I started reading about neuroscience and learning. I don’t even remember which was my first book. But I remember that when I came here in Brussels I wanted urgently to understand, remember, revisit my readings on language acquisition. I brought with me the books of Lightbown and Spada (How languages are learned) and reread part of the Ellis book (Second language acquisition). I still found them interesting after all these years but a bit too technical. I needed something more practical. I read again the book on motivation by Dornyei. And then I did what was my first mooc online (but then it wasn’t called a mooc J  and it wasn’t so massive) and I got interested in critical thinking and thinking in general so from there it was a short step to brain sciences and cognitive sciences.


By then, neuroscience was becoming ubiquitous. You could see articles about it in the New York Times, covers in The National Geographic, advertisements, TV series and the whole nine yards. More and more books came out, specializing in neuroscience in schools, in the class, in language learning. TED has a whole series of videos making reference to it. All the conferences I have attended the last two years have had talks about it. It’s like a craze, it’s the flavor of the month. And still, I think there is so much to learn that I never tire of it.


So, this year I took my personal big step and started thinking about creating a talk out of the things I had understood about neuroscience and how it can be related to language teaching. In October I gave a short online talk about it for the Larissa English Teachers’s association and in December I proposed a fuller version for the BELTA day (Belgian English Language Teachers’ Association) and I was accepted. I gave this talk on April 25th and there was a lot of interest about it. The people who attended were asking pertinent questions and they seemed to be genuinely interested and entertained by it J. I hope that I gave them some insights into our brains and as I had promised I didn’t do any harm!

I promised I would put online the prezi and that the discussion would continue here. As I said on that day, I do not purport to be a neuroscientist and I may have made mistakes. By all means, tell me so and I’ll try to correct them. I know that the Prezi itself without the notes is not self explanatory but it can give you some good resources to search further. And if you want to hear all the details about it, well, come to see me in another conference!

Special thanks to James, Mieke, Helen, John, Jurgen, Joris, the tireless BELTA team, of which I am a proud member.

brain hat

sketchnote christina

(the sketchnote of my talk, courtesy of Christina Rebuffet Broadus – thanks Christina, it’s amazing)

March 11, 2014
by annavarna

Ever wondered how people learn?


Picturebook by L.C. Perry

This blog has been inactive for a long time for various reasons that have to do with work, work and work. But I have been writing a few things lately (for work) and I thought I could share one of them. There are about 30,000 employees in the European Commission (my current workplace), most of them what we call knowledge workers and as you can imagine the issue of how they learn and how best they can share their knowledge is crucial. This is a short piece I wrote for the internal publication, “Commission en Direct”,  summarizing what I have learned the last years about learning itself. I am not in a position to give a comprehensive bibliography and I was restricted to use online resources and books I could find in our internal library. Still I think the indicative titles can give you a starting point.

Here it is. my take about how people learn. I hope you won’t be alienated by the serious writing style 🙂

People have been trying to understand learning for well over 2,000 years. However, today’s developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and the use of technology are shedding new light on how our brains work and what this means for our personal and professional learning.

The importance of learning in the professional – or on-the-job – context is undisputable and it may be what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses. As the researchers Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robert Mason (2002) have noted, “an organisation’s human capital – the knowledge, skills, competencies, relationships and creativities invested in its people – has emerged as a key competitive factor”.

In this introductory article about how people learn, we look at some of the key ideas about learning nowadays and their implications for our professional lives.

Learning and our brain

We now know that our brain has a quality referred to as ‘plasticity’, which means that it keeps changing even at a very old age. Contrary to what was believed in the past, brain development is lifelong, and not predetermined at birth or within the first three years. There are periods of our life that are critical for some kinds of learning, but in general, as [Paul Jones (2009) states: “throughout life, the brain is plastic and its connectivity, functionality and even structure are influenced by experience, including educational experience”. Learning changes the physical structure of the brain through the process of continuous interactions between the learner and the external environment.

Contextual learning

The influential Lev Vygotsky was one of the first scientists to develop the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions. Now, we know that learning is a process of drawing connections between what is already known or understood and new information. Thus, prior knowledge is important to the learning process. People make connections and draw conclusions based on a sense of what they already know and have experienced. This means that in order to learn anything new we have to anchor it to something we already know. Teachers, trainers or our peers can help us to make sense of information by providing conceptual maps.

Mistakes’ added value

Mistakes are essential when it comes to learning. They mean that we act, experiment and evolve. As the American organisational behaviour specialist David Kolb says, essentially all learning is relearning. Of course, it all depends on how this culture of experimentation is supported at work. “Organisations that allow failure also provide the conditions necessary to support natural learning and innovation”. (Reynolds, Caley and Mason 2002).

Social and informal learning

Much learning occurs in groups and among individuals engaged in tasks together. People learn from each other as well as from experts. Learning opportunities in social contexts enable people to learn together and retain more of what they learnt. One noteworthy find of various studies is that “70% of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with” (Cross, 2007). Marcia Conner also mentions that “most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75 percent of the learning taking place in organizations today”

Learning with your heart 

Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process. Metacognitive skills —being able to think about and monitor one’s own thinking — enable learners to manage their own learning process, to learn difficult new concepts, and to problem-solve effectively. Emotions also play a role – when we are anxious, depressed, or distracted, we cannot focus to process information. Therefore creating emotionally safe learning environments can enhance our learning experiences and improve our retention.

To sum up, contemporary learning theories – influenced by new developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as well as the use of new technologies – recognise the role of experience and reflection in the development of ideas and skills. Different objectives require different kinds of learning. As a result, the role of teachers is changing and, to be successful, individual learners need to take greater ownership of their own learning. And this is also in organisations’ interests.


Marcia Conner,

Jay Cross, ‘Informal Learning’ (2007)

Linda Daling Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt and Jim Rosso, ‘How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories’ (2001)

Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire & Richard Churches, ‘Learning and the Brain’ (2011)

Paul Howard Jones, Neuroscience, learning and technology (14-19), Becta, (2009) (

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robin Mason, ‘How do people Learn?’ (2002)

Lev Vygotsky


Skip to toolbar