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21 October 2021

Why teachers and students should know the neuroscience of learning

“I am an Education Specialist and as I work with teachers, I try to attach brain information so that they better understand why or how a particular activity/strategy will work in their classroom. I think if all teachers understood this, it would be the one thing that could make the most powerful impact in education.”

After receiving this from an attendee at one of my workshops, I set out to write down my thoughts about the “why” and “how” for educators to understand, and then teach their students the neuroscience of learning.

Teachers caretake the development of students’ highest brain as it undergoes the years of most profound change. When educators grasp this nexus of mind, brain, and education science, they acquire a rich toolkit of strategies. They add to their teaching and understanding of why their best strategies work, so they can expand them. In addition, sharing neuroscience with students reinforces their own brain’s powers and most effective strategies for learning.

Neuroscience research has given us the understanding of what sensory input has the greatest likelihood of passing through the brain’s emotional filters, transforming into short-term memory, and progressing to enduring understanding and long-term memory.  

The strategy correlations from neuroscience and cognitive science give us tools to promote learning consistent with the brain’s most effective and powerful processing now and in the future.

Top five things teachers should know and teach students

1. IQ is not fixed at birth

Brain development and intelligence are “plastic”, in that internal and environmental stimuli constantly change the structure and function of neurons and their connections. Teachers who understand neuroplasticity can help all children build their brains beyond what they previously believed to be limited in skill or intelligence based on past performance.  When teachers share the powers of neuroplasticity with students, they are encouraged that they can change their brains. Knowing that practice makes permanent, as neural networks of skills and memory are strengthened when used/applied, students are motivated to sustain effort and practice. Guiding students to recognize their progress with practice can encourage practice, and reverse negative expectations that often limit student achievement.

It was once believed that brain cell growth stops after age twenty. We now know that through neuroplasticity, connections (dendrites, synapses, and myelin coating) among neurons (brains cells) continue to be constructed in response to learning and experiences throughout our lives. These physical changes of brain self-reconstruction in response to experiences can fall under students’ control. The human potential for increased knowledge, physical skills, and “talent” in the arts could be considered essentially limitless.

2. High stress restricts brain processing to the survival state

Neuroimaging research reveals that a structure in the brain’s emotion system, the amygdala, is a switching-station that determines which part of the brain will receive the sensory intake (what is seen, heard, felt, smelled, touched, and moved) and where it goes. If in the state of high metabolism or overactivity provoked by anxiety, the amygdala restricts information passing onto the higher functioning memory system. Rather it diverts the experience into more primitive emotional centers. In school, these stressors can include fear of mistakes, frustration due to previous failures such that they believe the task is beyond their capabilities, and boredom when the information or skill has already been mastered but must be repeated for the class.

It is important for teachers and students to understand that reaction to stress shifts input away from the higher brains into the lower, reactive brains. This is part of the brain’s primitive control system, against a perceived threat is seen in animals as fight/flight/freeze. In students, it’s reflected as “acting out” and “zoning out”. When students understand that these are involuntary brain reactions to stress, that can be managed with strategies, they become less self-judgmental and pessimistic knowing that the past does not determine the future and they can build a new brain with their actions.

Strategies for achieving maximally potentiating emotional climates in the classroom or practice groups include strong group communities and teaching students (and practicing) stress reduction strategies such as mindfulness, calming breathing, thinking positive thoughts, and others. Recurrent practicing of these strategies is needed for neuroplasticity to solidify these circuits, so they are readily available to use when needed.

3. Achievable challenge

All learners are most motivated when they work and progress at their individual levels of achievable challenge while receiving feedback of ongoing goal progress. Recall that stress, such as a challenge perceived as too great or little, incites the amygdala memory blockade. To counter this, one goal is to plan individualized pathways to mastery best suited to learners’ Goldilocks zones…not too hard and not too easy, but just right. These can include variable practice modalities, reading levels, websites with practice and feedback, small flexible groups.

Scaffolding and enrichment can be offered through varied levels of models, rubrics, demonstrations, partner work, seeing or hearing examples of what they are expected to do at each progressive level. Exemplars of previous student work at the progressive levels can be used for this purpose. It is particularly important for learners to recognize evidence of their progress. This can be done by numbering each level, keeping visual or auditory records of their completion of each level, and conferencing.

4. Creating new memory

The brain is a pattern-seeker. It turns information that gets through the amygdala into short-term/working memory in the hippocampus. This encoding process requires activation of prior knowledge with a similar “pattern” to physically link with the new with the known in a pattern matching process. This is most successful when there is activation of the brain’s related prior knowledge before new information is taught. The probability of encoding increases, when teachers work to clearly demonstrate the patterns, connections, and relationships that exist between new and old learning (e.g., cross-curricular studies, graphic organizers, reminders of previous skills that are built upon by the new skill)

Embedding the art and music across the curriculum can increase memory and understanding because it gives the brain more opportunities to recognize and extend patterns.

With these experiences, the brain can pattern match by linking the new to incorporate new memory or skills into existing network-related memory circuits.

5. Long-term memory

Once encoded in short-term memory, the new learning needs mental manipulation to become durable, retrievable long-term memory and ultimately, understanding.  This produces the stronger connections from neuroplasticity that sustain the memory. Each time students participate in any endeavor; a designated number of neurons are activated. When they repeat the action, the same neurons respond again. The more times they repeat an action, the more dendrites and myelin grow and interconnect, resulting in greater memory storage and recall efficiency.

Mental manipulation involves reactivations of new learning and can be achieved in a variety of ways. One way is to further connect the new short-term memory with additional stored memories based on commonalities, such as similarities/differences, especially when students are guided to derive their own connections. Multisensory instruction, practice, and review also promote memory storage in multiple regions of the cortex, based on the type of sensory input by which they were learned and practiced. These distant storage centers are linked to each other such that triggering one sensory memory activates the others. This duplication of storage increases the efficiency of subsequent retrieval as a variety of cues prompt activation of different access points to the extended memory map.

The construction of extended or conceptual memory networks allows students to transfer learning beyond the contexts in which it is learned and practiced. When information is learned and stored in its own isolated circuit, it is only accessible by the same stimuli through which it was obtained. These transfer activities activate memories with additional stimuli. This can combine with other knowledge to promote solutions for novel problems or building related skills.

When students have opportunities to represent information in a variety of ways as foundational skills are building, they display greater engagement, discover relationships and patterns, and develop the power to apply new learning to creative innovations and unanticipated problems.

As neuroscience research about how the brain learns progresses, extensive information will emerge to further guide teachers. They will be further empowered to devise their own novel strategies to provide experiences best suited to maximize learning, proficiency, and to promote joyful learning for their students.

Find out more about neuroscience and the relevance to learning it has with Dr. Judy Willis in the first episode of our International Curriculum Specialist Series. WATCH HERE.

International Curriculum