Engaging Brains: How to Enhance Learning by Teaching Kids About Neuroplasticity | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

Enhancing Student Commitment

Explicitly teaching students about neuroplasticity can have a transformative impact in the classroom. A central facet of our work as teacher educators is teaching about how the brain changes during learning. Many teachers have told us that these findings have had a positive effect on their expectations for their students and on students' perceptions of their own abilities.

Lessons on discoveries that learning changes the structure and function of the brain can engage students, especially when combined with explicit instruction on the use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies that guide them to learn how to learn (Wilson & Conyers, 2013). Using these strategies effectively produces learning gains, which motivate students to take charge of their learning, which leads to further academic success and may have the additional benefit of alleviating classroom management issues. When students see this process as changing their own brains, the result is a powerful and positive cycle.

The force behind this cycle is students' belief that they can get smarter through study and practice, which enhances their commitment to persist in the hard work that learning sometimes requires. Nisbett (2009) reports on classroom research involving seventh graders who were taught that learning changes the brain and that intelligence is expandable. Students in this experimental group did better on math tests than peers who did not receive that instruction.

The same dynamic of persisting to succeed applies to teaching. Keeping the idea of brain plasticity at the forefront of your professional practice offers a constant reminder than when students struggle with lessons, it isn't because they can't learn, but because they need more practice and instructional support.

Strategies for Engagement

Lessons and activities about the power of brain plasticity can take many forms for students of all ages, as the following examples demonstrate.

License to Drive

Remind students that they "drive" their own brains, and teach them useful learning strategies. Second grade teacher Donna Garland leads her students in daily exercises to practice cognitive and metacognitive strategies that they can use in learning all their core subjects. Students' desks are decorated with colorful "brain car" cartoons as reminders that they are in charge of their learning.

Going BIG

Make these lessons a BIG deal. Nichole Galinkin designed a literature-based cognitive skills program she calls "Brains In Gear (BIG): Big Secrets for Thinking and Learning" for the K-3 students in her exceptional education classes. Children explore picture books that reinforce thinking skills, engage in role playing, and talk to teachers, aides and volunteers about how they benefit from thinking about their thinking.

"What I enjoy most of all is listening to the kids as they remind themselves of a catch phrase or a strategy and hearing them share those strategies with others," Ms. Galinkin says. "It's great to actually see them using the information they're learning."

In preparation for teaching, Nichole Galinkin and her daughter explore "BIG secrets" about the brain and learning.

Credit: Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Practice, Practice, Practice

Have a ready answer to the question, "Why do we practice so much?" For example, here's a great story about neuroscientists investigating how learning affects the brain. Medical researchers were fascinated with how veteran cab drivers could navigate the busy streets of London so effortlessly and remember all the shortcuts without consulting a map. So they did brain scans and discovered that the cabbies' hippocampal areas, the part of the brain associated with spatial reasoning, were larger than those of other adults. All those years of driving and remembering routes had literally changed their brains. Studies of musicians have found similar results of the impact of practice, practice and more practice.

Room to Improve

Encourage older students to make the most of their brain plasticity, too. By the time high school students make it to Jeremy Green’s AP psychology and U.S. history classes, some seem convinced that their academic shortcomings are innate and permanent. They are resigned to "making do" in their struggles with reading high-level texts, the most common problem Mr. Green encounters among his students.

With the goal of dispelling the misconception that "you're stuck where you are," Mr. Green begins the school year by sharing a presentation titled "Your Brain Is Amazing." He reinforces that message throughout the school year by teaching cognitive strategies alongside core content, such as explicit instruction on the organizational skills that students will need to complete a research project, and tricks for puzzling out the meaning of unfamiliar terms. The same message applies to the football players he coaches: "You're either going to get worse or better, but nobody's going to stay the same."

"Our role as teachers and coaches is to sell them on the idea that they can get better. If we improve, we win -- period," Mr. Green adds. "We talk about this on the first day of class -- how you're not just what you are today, and that hard work really matters."

How do you engage your students in learning how to learn?


Hinton, C., Fischer, K. W., & Glennon, C. Students at the Center: Mind, Brain, and Education [Executive Summary], March 2012.

Nisbett, R. Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. New York, NY: Norton, 2009.

Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2013.


Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dave Huizer's picture
Dave Huizer
Literacy/Numeracy/Resource Teacher from northern Saskatchewan

The above article provides great ideas for prompting students toward conceptualizing their role in the learning process. In my experience, school life is generally perceived as a dreary obligation society (personified by teachers) enthusiastically imposes on students. Teaching students about the plasticity of the brain in age-appropriate terms would undoubtedly motivate students to see the importance of their role as learners. Research concerning the ability of the brain is sure to convince many of both today's and tomorrow's students they have extensive capabilities. The remaining challenge is to teach students efficient and effective learning strategies to acquire the skills necessary to complete progressively sophisticated tasks. Clearly, students need to persevere in their efforts as well as pursue learning on their own time to meet their potential. As an aside, I think the language surrounding the word potential may change due to awareness of the brain's plasticity. My rationale: while people, in my experience, generally say "your potential" implying a person's limits are fixed, discoveries surrounding neuroplasticity reveal a person's potential can increase with the acquisition of new skills and thinking patterns. I intend to share the above article with my fellow educators at our next staff meeting. Through joint effort, our school staff can use findings of neuroplasticity to make students self-aware of their active role as learners.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching


We greatly appreciate your thoughtful comment and, as you would expect, think you are spot on! This contribution (brain plasticity) from neuroscience is best understood as a way to change societal beliefs about potential that often stand in the way of community responsibility for guiding virtually all learners to grow and succeed at school. Unfortunately, often the educational bureaucracy mirrors beliefs in society that end up limiting so many students in spite of the work of many excellent teachers. If policy makers and influencers better understood current findings about brain plasticity, they might take seriously the fact that test results and other manifest school behaviors should be seen as only a fleeting view of where students are in the present rather than their vast potential for continuing development given the proper learning conditions. (For example, a low grade in math is often seen as a student's inability to master material, rather than their need for more support and practice) I believe that now is the time for educators to lead others to embrace and act upon the hope implied by these and other key findings from cognitive and educational neuroscience!

Specifically, the implications of current research about neuroplasticity also provide policy makers, influencers, and administrators with a better understanding about life long learning and the importance of supporting teachers across their career path. Couple ideas about this are first to systematically provide teachers with this important current knowledge alongside research based strategies for increasing student learning (For an example of what I'm thinking, see our other blog post on listening for one example of such a strategy). Second, to ensure that teachers have a chance for meaningful, continuous, job embedded professional growth and lesson planning time together in their local learning communities.

You might also enjoy reading an online accessible review of one of our books that includes neuroplasticity as one of five big ideas educators need to understand. Even without the book, this is a helpful resource I think. Find it at ...

At the same site there I have another article with additional information on neuroplasticity linked to 21st Century skills. Find it at ...

Keep up the good work! Best to you, Donna

Jamie Deitz's picture
Jamie Deitz
kindergarten teacher from Cheboygan, Michigan

This was such a fascinating article to read. Its such a simple concept, yet many have not considered it before. I am wondering if you have any suggestions for how to teach this at a kindergarten level? I can't wait to share this article with my colleagues. Some kids seem so stuck in a rut and think that they can't do something because they just are not smart enough. How great to put them in control of their learning and teach them that they can change their brains! It is kind of like the well known saying, "If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you can't!"

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching


We have a lot of fun teaching people from pre-k to graduate school about neuroplasticity. When we have worked with kindergarteners we have used the following strategies:

1. Speak with an excited voice about how each of us has a brilliant brain that gets smarter every time we learn something.

2. Use colorful pipe cleaners to illustrate how learning creates new connections in the brain.

3. Illustrate that each brain is as unique as a fingerprint.

4. When your kindergarten students are excited about learning something, they can give their brains a kiss by kissing their fingertips and touching their heads.

5. Most importantly, explicitly model your own excitement about how your own brain is modeling new things every day! Watch for the magic of imitation!

Keep inspiring! Our best to you, Marcus and Donna

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