Forbes Inteviews Dr. Kieran O’Mahony | This Is The One Critical Piece We’re Missing When It Comes To Learning And Deep Understanding

by | Jan 30, 2022

This article was originally published on Visit this link to read more about my interview with Robyn D. Shulman or listen to the audio version.

Written by Robyn Shulman

How many times have you sat in a classroom and felt like you were listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher? Most of us have sat in classes, business or faculty meetings with the thought, “Not again.”

Many classrooms and corporate training sessions still teach according to the obsolete traditional model—where a teacher or trainer is at the front of the room with a whiteboard preaching information that has no meaning whatsoever.

And, it’s not the teacher’s fault nor the students—as educators, we haven’t been taught any different.

Sound familiar?

You look up at the clock and count the minutes until it’s time to go home. You doodle on the perfect white materials, stare at the confectionery bakery items, and begin to make funny faces at your peers.

You want to go home, feel disengaged, and wonder if anyone will notice that you’ve closed your eyes for a brief second. You are tempted to take out your phone to avoid listening to the voice in the front of the room that never seems to end.

You arrive home with endless packets of paper. From a work meeting, you file those papers away forever or throw them into the garbage can.

If you have homework, you might push it aside until the last minute because the dread of reading and remembering endless terms is the last thing you want to do.

Whether you’re leaving school or work, you now have a headache that is draining, you’re starving, and your brain feels exhausted and empty.

And, like most people, you have no desire to go back.

Effective teaching

Most effective educators know that students learn best when they:

  • Feel safe
  • Are empathetic
  • Let all students share their voices in a safe place
  • Understand a student’s background knowledge
  • Can personally relate to the information
  • Are actively engaged
  • Feel emotion
  • Get enough exercise, nutrition and sleep
  • Are not labeled

What are we missing?

Most teachers and students don’t understand the most critical part of learning: how the brain works, and how we can use it to apply real learning and deep understanding.

Because of this lack of information, when teachers use traditional methods of teaching, learning can feel like a chore.

It’s not your fault as a teacher or trainer

The conventional methodology of teaching is how most teachers and trainers work—and it’s not your fault. Today, with the help of neuroscience, we know how to teach and engage learners in the best way possible.

Whether you’re teaching in the classroom or the boardroom, you can turn your learning environment around.

You can easily create a classroom environment where students can’t wait to come to class, engage, grow, and share their world. If you’re in the business of corporate training, your company can begin to flourish when employees feel valued, cared for, engaged, and find purpose and meaning in their work.

Stats Talk

In a world where almost everything is changing at a rapid pace, stats show us how our current education system and corporate lifestyle can hold us back from our true growth and potential.

According to Do Something, here are some facts about high school dropout rates:

  • Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds—or 7,000 a day.
  • About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.
  • The U.S., which had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries.
  • A high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his lifetime.
  • Almost 2,000 high schools across the U.S. graduate less than 60% of their students. These “dropout factories” account for over 50% of the students who leave school every year.
  • In the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes.

Mental Health Stats

And, mental health statistics are not good either. Here are some facts from The Parent Resource Program, The Jason Foundation:

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease—combined.
  • Every day, there are an average of over 3,041 attempts by young people in grades 9-12. If these percentages are additionally applied to middle school grades, the numbers would be higher.
  • Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.


According to Smarp, productivity, retention, motivation and innovation, and workplace well-being all go down when employee engagement is low.

Some of their data shows the following:

  • Disengaged employees cost companies $450-500 billion each year
  • 85% of employees are not engaged in the workplace
  • 81% of employees could leave their job today
  • Companies with a high-engaged workforce are 21% more profitable
  • Professionals cite boredom as their main reason to leave their jobs
  • Only 29% of employees are happy with career advancement opportunities

How do we change these stats?

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Kieran O’Mahony, who is the Founder and Chairman of the Board of Neural Education. He is also the Founding Principal for the Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning.

Before his work at Neural Education, he served as a Research Fellow Course Instructor at the University of Washington.

Neural Education is a nonprofit in Washington that accelerates learning equity so all children can reach their potential. His teaching methodologies, based on years of science, can be applied within school or the workforce—and they work every time.

His organization works primarily with teachers to equip and empower educators to deliver neuro-cognitive methods and practices in classrooms everywhere. Through their science-proven techniques, they improve student achievement, increase student self-esteem, and can make teaching less stressful and more enjoyable.

Neural Education translates neuroscience research into practical teaching and learning tools educators can apply within their classrooms.

Understanding how the brain works, what stimulates it, and how to harness these connections in a positive manner enables teachers and students to flourish.

Part of O’Mahony’s work shared on NED Learning focuses on six defining principles:

  • Neural plasticity makes us who we are
  • Stress prevents learning
  • Neurotransmitters are key to learning
  • All students have the right to reach their learning potential (rather than measuring)
  • Intelligence is not fixed
  • A growth mindset is essential

In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, I spoke with O’Mahony about his journey in the education field, how individuals learn best, and the best-kept secret out there regarding the brain—and the gift and love of learning that flourishes when we teach the right way.

Robyn Shulman: Please tell me about yourself and your current work.

Dr. Kieran O’Mahony: Shocked. I’m in the wrong country. I’m way too old. I’m a voice crying in the wind.

Shulman: Why did you come to the States?

O’Mahony: I came to Seattle for one weekend, which I thought was just enough time to learn how to prevent teen suicides.

Shulman: What happened when you came here?

O’Mahony: I was under the misguided impression that the solution would be easy to find here in the States. I could bring it back to my world. That world consisted of an inner-city boys high school in Ireland.

Shulman: What were the solutions you needed?

O’Mahony: Could we create a world where teens would not have to make such horrific choices? I thought I was asking the right question, but in the wrong space. “How can I make schools better?”

Shulman: What problem did you run into when searching for your answer?

O’Mahony: I was in a framework that I assumed was the true learning framework, but which turned out not to be the case.

Shulman: Did you find the solution?

O’Mahony: Yes, the good news is that there was and is a solution. The bad news about learning is that we are still entrenched in a model of rewards and punishments—and that is difficult to change.

Which of us was not rewarded by our parents and teachers, and which of us was not punished by the same people?

It is difficult to accept a model that (even with more than 40 years solid scientific evidence) steps away from both rewards and punishments.

It seems unthinkable unless you are a parent whose amazing child is acting up, acting out, or drops out of school.

I shudder to think how much potential we have left on the table over the past decades. Labeling and stratification based on rewards and punishments have brought out stress and trauma toward many children.

37 years later, I am alarmed that the solution was so available and obvious, and that I didn’t see it for so long. Millions of other teachers fail to see it every day.

Shulman: Why did you go into education?

O’Mahony: Education was my obsession from the moment I discovered books.

Today, I spend more time running an organization and physically teaching classes instead of hiding away in a shady nook with one of the myriads of books.

For me, like most educators, the incentive is intrinsic. We shy away from extrinsic motivators because they simply do not work.

Every time we see a child light up with new knowledge and learn a practiced skill, every time a child feels safe, connected, and smiling—teachers smile inwardly knowing they have been part of a significant achievement.

Every time a child is sad, broken, wilted, and outcast, we are in anguish to bring change.

Teachers know that there is no finer calling, especially when they have every opportunity to influence a human soul so that a child is happy, generative, and can contribute in their full potential.

Shulman: Can you tell me about your previous work at the University of Washington?

O’Mahony: There is a myth about Irish people and luck. For me, if you are Irish, you are lucky enough. However, there is inexplicable serendipity in my timing. I arrived at the University of Washington the same day that John Bransford arrived from Vanderbilt.

We met, and we both realized that there were significant questions and driving initiatives we could investigate and accomplish with research. How could we advance learning sciences with certain projects?

Shulman: Can you tell me about these projects?

O’Mahony: The first project had to do with the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, a geographic watershed that has been impacted for over 100 years. The project still impacted Native Nation people who had been relocated to reservations as soon as their land became inundated.

The resilient steel-head salmon came back year after year to try to scale the massive dam walls that blocked their spawning grounds. In 2015, after they removed the dams, they were able to go back to the source on Mount Seattle. Miracles do happen.

Shulman: The second project?

The second project was also a vast engineering airplane project.

The airplane project was a hefty learning science investigation into unlearning and shift-tasking with engineers in an airplane company that had gambled the barn on a shift from metals to composites.

Shulman: What did you discover?

O’Mahony: Surprising situations coalesced to excite a cascade of modeling events and methodological constructs that were grounded in both projects. At times, deep in labyrinthine thought in the largest factory in the world, ideas emerged that shed light on learning models.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that I had spent 30 years in education, and yet I knew hardly anything about the one organ that teachers must use every day.

The sad part was that what I thought I knew about the brain was wrong. I held the same misconceptions and neuro myths that I find most parents and teachers hold today.

I knew I only used about 10% of my brain, and I was convinced that I had done a lot of damage to my mind because of my party lifestyle when I was in my late teens and early 20s.

I was blind to the one thing that would have made my life as a teacher easier and more successful.

How could we have missed brain all these years? It is a staggering omission in our learning world. 

In retrospect, it is a mind-boggling quandary. Teachers who most need this organ are asked to change the lives of children who must use this organ. And today, we are still not training teachers in even the most rudimentary structures or functions of the said organ.

Shulman: You founded The Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning. Can you tell me more about it?

O’Mahony: I founded “The Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning” when it became apparent to me that the knowledge that emerged in the classroom when I taught education graduates in a seminar of that name (Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning) was critical for all teachers who would enter the profession.

Shulman: What did you notice?

O’Mahony: It soon became apparent that teachers who were typically struggling to reconcile their professional training with realities on the front lines were sorely in need of this information and methodologies as well.

The Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning (iCNtl) was both an asset and an albatross.

Shulman: How did people react to the project?

O’Mahony: “It’s too long, too academic, or it’s too something.” These were a few of the responses from teachers and volunteers who were struggling to launch a new program—online as well as face-to-face.

Shulman: What did you do?

O’Mahony: After arguments and discussions, everyone agreed that Neural Education was a much more appropriate name for reaching teachers and letting people know what we were about right from the get go.

However, we are doing our business as Neural Education. It makes everything much more palatable with websites, marketing materials, and branding.

Shulman: Can you give me a snapshot of Neural Education for educators who might be interested?

O’Mahony: We connect neuroscience with teaching and learning. We run institutes in professional development for teachers, and workshops for parents.

Shulman: How about the content?

O’Mahony: Typically, the 3Rs of the model (Reflect, Revised Thinking, and Report Out) carry the day, thus accomplishing what all great teachers desire—excellent engagement, and personalized learning with deep understanding.

Kids are happy, mom and pop are ecstatic, the principal is delighted, the superintendent is harmonious, and teachers are stress-free. They know tests will come easy for their kids.

We accomplish what we do without advertising, marketing, or trumpet blare. When a child is performing at peak, and achieving full potential teachers talk.

Neural Educators teach by understanding how the human brain works and how children learn.

Shulman: This can change the entire school environment.

O’Mahony: Yes, instead of usual faculty room negative talk about trouble makers and difficult cases, we are no longer labeling kids as “at-risk” or “high-risk.”

Only by knowing the catchphrase, “Structure before Function,” teachers can have incredible success with all children regardless of where they start.

Many teachers state firmly when first we meet, “If you knew the kind of children I am faced with every day, you would never suggest this approach.”

Shulman: And a little bit later after application?

O’Mahony: A few weeks later they rush back to say: “Why didn’t you show me earlier, how could I have missed this?”

Shulman: Do you teach in different capacities?

O’Mahony: We teach face-to-face, blended, and online anywhere in the world. We do not have an office.

We are virtual. We like to come to your school district and provide structure and support for teachers who are in the business of helping students achieve their full potential.

We can do that physically, or via the web using a software program called Sococo that is safe for groups of teachers to discuss and make mistakes with like-minded cohorts.

Teachers will immediately notice that our virtual office is brain-centric and teacher-friendly.

Shulman: Do teachers get credits or CEUs with the program?

O’Mahony: Teachers get CEUs and clock hours (STEM clock hours as well) for attending our professional development institutes.

Shulman: Is there a cost?

O’Mahony: Mostly, we provide these workshops for free for teachers by arranging to have a local business or school district comp them these credits.

Neural Education has been providing free institutes since 2016 so that teachers can attend and learn the methods and model that is so vital for their success in school.

Shulman: What’s the typical cost for a teacher to take a course with your organization?

O’Mahony: In 2019, we offered courses for teachers for $99.00. In the future (when funding will allow) teachers will be paid to take this training. It’s ridiculous to think of how much money has been squandered on an outdated model that never worked.

Shulman: If you were running the K-12 education system, what would you change today?

O’Mahony: Very simple. Teachers are critical. Adopt a neuro-lens. Stop all labeling and stratification. Switch focus away from content and into circuits and transmitters—neuro.

Teachers don’t usually plan lessons with norepinephrine or oxytocin in mind, but if they did, learning would be immediate and forever. Planning in this manner is so easy to accomplish, and results are self-evident.

Shulman: Can you give me an example?

O’Mahony: When children misbehave, teachers don’t automatically think, “Oh, Johnnie’s superior longitudinal fasciculus is not fully formed, but I know what to do to help grow that structure.”

Also, I would eliminate all high-stakes testing. Instead, I would use co-created online spaces to highlight childrens’ accomplishments and love of learning. Research has shown time and again that as soon as we remove stressors (social and emotional maturational regulation) from learning, all students excel.

Thousands of teachers experience every day the truth about learning—humans are hardwired to learn, and this confirms Neural Education’s model and method. Teachers are hard task-masters. If it didn’t make sense, or if it wasn’t working, Neural Education would be out of business a long time ago.

Neural Education is changing the world every day. When teachers, children, and parents know how the human brain works and how children learn, life gets easy.

Shulman: What is your main thesis surrounding this topic?

O’Mahony: My thesis is simple: If children can remember 10,000 Pokemon characters, they can learn and understand five essential things about their own brains.

Every teacher can learn how to grow important neural structures so their students can learn. If parents knew how to build relationships with children, if they knew how critical sleep and exercise and nutrition was for learning, we would have a different world.

Lessons learned for other potential leaders

Shulman: You were able to get your work into public school districts, which is usually a challenging task. Can you tell me how you went about obtaining these critical initiatives into the public education system?

O’Mahony: This question is an easy problem to solve. Teachers are starving for two things: time and a reprieve from stress.

Shulman: If you were talking with other potential education entrepreneurs who wanted to launch a company or nonprofit, what are the top three lessons you’d share with this audience?

O’Mahony: Motivation is critical. If you are doing it for an external driver like pride, money, prestige or ego, it is easy to lose hope; inevitable to burn out.

Three driving factors that align with how the brain works and how humans find fulfillment are outlined here (adapted from Daniel Pink).

  • Autonomy: We are hardwired to be self-directed and hard working. So why not go with this? Figure out what to do, be your own boss, and stay true to your inner instincts.
  • Mastery: We are hardwired to learn. With dedication and focus, it is easy to get good at doing something. Make it count. Don’t get caught up in ego stuff; stay true to your autonomy and purpose.
  • Purpose: We are hardwired to contribute. Watch any child. Humans find most satisfaction when they can help a fellow, rescue an animal, or give something anonymously. Actions of this ilk fill gaping holes inside that cause people to waste time, effort and money on pleasure seeking through external spheres.

Shulman: Any future events coming up?

O’Mahony: We are booked out one year in advance for these annual events.

Here are a few:

  • Neuroscience of Learning Institute at NCCE 2020: Seattle Convention Center: A day long summit for teacher Professional Development at the Northwest Council on Computer Education a leader for innovative professional learning.
  • In 2020 Neural Education is collaborating with two innovative Gates Foundation sponsored programs: Teacher2Teacherand Friends of Children.
  • Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted(WAETAG) annual conference October 2019. Presentation set for 600 members the Neuroscience of Learning.
  • In 2019, we launched an innovative program for parents called Parent University where PTA groups sponsor Neural Education programs for parents so they can support their children by connecting with what teachers are achieving in the classroom—common vocabulary, mental models, and understanding of brain concepts regarding how children learn.

For more opportunities, upcoming workshops, classes and information, you can Follow Neural Education at the following: