The great brain battles in learning

Knowing our brains’ struggles can help us learn, and help others learn. 


‘It’s only a wasp! Ignore it!’ [uproar]

‘Got it, everyone? All clear?’ [tumbleweed] “Great!” 

‘You should know this! We only did it last week!!’ [blank looks]


‘Why is their attention span so short?!’

‘Why do they keep glazing over!?’

‘Why do they forget what they knew how to do?!’


As teachers, knowing who’s learning well in a class of 30 is tricky. Especially when we only see the class once a week (or fortnight!) and teach hundreds of students. 

To teach well and to learn well, it’s useful to know the great brain battles that the mind struggles with.

To teach without knowing the mind’s greatest battles is to teach blind. 

To learn without knowing the mind’s greatest battles is to learn blind. 

To lead schools without knowing the mind’s greatest battles is to fly blind.

To teach and lead schools without knowing human psychology is a bit like

prescribing as a doctor without knowing human biology.

operating as a surgeon without knowing human anatomy. 

flying a plane without knowing aerodynamics.

building a bridge without knowing the laws of physics. 

Here are three struggles the brain has when learning. Three that we as teachers, school leaders, teaching assistants and staff need to know to teach well. Knowing them well helps us succeed in teaching, in our own learning and in helping our colleagues’ and loved ones’ learning. Knowing them well is vital for our students – especially the most vulnerable.

Threats to learning we encounter again and again in teaching are distraction, overload and forgetting.

How much do we forget in our own learning? I used to be able to speak French fluently, living there aged 18. I’ve forgotten a *lot*! I used to be able to solve mathematical and scientific problems when I was 18. A casual glance at an exam paper today tells me that if I took an exam tomorrow, I wouldn’t even pass! 

We forget a lot!

In a world full of distractions, we find ourselves distractible. It seems harder to read and harder to write than before, harder to concentrate. 

We get distracted a lot!

In a world flooded with information, we find ourselves overburdened. Our headspace is easily overtaxed and overwhelmed. 

We get overloaded a lot!

Our brains have natural constraints. We need to know lots about them to teach really well. 


Brain battle #1: Distraction

We get distracted easily and quickly.

Example: try listening to two people talk at once without getting distracted from either one of their thoughts.

Why is it so hard for us to listen to more than one person at a time?

Our attention is limited and fast distracted.

To grapple with this challenge, we can draw on research into attention and its natural limits.

Research suggests that our brains have limited capacity for directing and sustaining attention.

Research suggests that distractions have detrimental effects on learning.

Studies suggest students may spend some 50% of teaching time off-task.

Studies suggest that time off-task is linked with lower learning.

Studies suggest that inattention is linked with lower educational achievement.

If students are beset with distractions, they can’t focus their attention on learning. 

If their attention is distracted and disrupted, so is their learning.


Brain battle #2: Overload

We get overloaded easily and quickly.

Example: try these sums – 

(1) 23 x 26

(2) 5 x 5

Why is the second question so much easier?

Two reasons:

  1. our mind is fast overloaded. Even multiplying just two-digit numbers can overload us.
  2. our knowledge reduces overload. Remembering what we already know well is far less overloading than working something complex out in multiple steps. 

To grapple with the challenge of overload, we can draw on research into our minds’ working memory limits: the constraints on our thinking.

Research suggests that our brains have severe limits for keeping things in mind.

Studies suggest these limits are especially severe when we have little knowledge of a topic.

Researchers suggest that novice learners’ capacity to keep new knowledge in mind is fast overburdened.

If students’ novice minds are overloaded and overwhelmed, their learning is inhibited. 

If their working memory is overtaxed, their learning is limited.


Brain battle #3: Forgetting

We quickly forget new knowledge we’re learning. 

Example: try meeting 10 new people and seeing how many of their names you remember the next day.

Why do we forget?

The brain is deluged with so much information each day that it’s impossible (and debilitating) to remember it all. The brain mainly remembers what recurs lots and what it thinks deeply about. That’s what it sees as most useful and most needed.

To grapple with this challenge, we can draw on research into memory. 

Research suggests that the human mind forgets lots and fast what it doesn’t revisit.

Studies suggest that we tend to forget most new knowledge we’ve learned within a few days. 

Scientists suggest that we tend to forget some 70% of new knowledge within a day or so.

If students forget most of what they’ve been taught, their learning is limited.


As teachers, we must keep distraction, overload and forgetting in mind.

If left unaddressed, they’ll result in confusion, difficulties and demotivation. 

If we forget about the great brain struggles, we’ll teach worse, and learn less.

What unites all learning is that the human brain is at the heart of it. The limitations of the mind are the laws of nature in learning. 

We get distracted lots, and fast.

We get overloaded lots, and fast.

We forget lots, and fast. 

Some of my most bungling blunders and most recurrent mistakes in teaching have been because I forgot about my students’ forgetting, got distracted from their distractions, and was overloaded by the overload experienced by the 30 brains in class and 200 minds a week I taught.

For years, (and still), I rushed on busily without revisiting and reviewing enough, leaving shallow rather than deep knowledge, so they forgot a lot they needed to know well.

For years, (and still), I didn’t make sure that all kids in class were listening and had a distraction-free environment; in fact, *I* distracted them by talking over their individual practice at the same time, by creating games that got them thinking about the wrong things, by letting them chat and not ensuring full focus on the subject rather than their more social whims.

For years, (and still), I’ve garbled and gabbled my explanations and overcomplicated them, confusing and overwhelming my students’ working memory limits. I still do all the time, especially in assemblies! 

I wish when I started in teaching in 2004 that I had known the research on attention, working memory and long-term memory. 

I wish that now I could keep forgetting, distractions and overload in mind – but I tend to forget about them and get distracted from keeping them in mind!

Know the battles. 

Don’t let distractions disrupt. 

Don’t forget about forgetting. 

Don’t be overcome by overload. 

Win the struggle for lasting learning.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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