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

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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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.

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Carrie Auer's picture

I enjoyed your article as I had not really thought about pairing teaching how the brain functions and how it changes during learning with teaching students metacognitive strategies. It makes sense. The strategies you present on how to get students engaged with taking control of their own learning and brain plasticity are very useful and challenge me to think about how I can incorporate them into learning experiences.

Research has shown that the most effective learners are those that can use metacognitive strategies astutely. That is learners who are constantly checking themselves during the learning process to see if they have understood what they read; to see if they can do something with it; explain it to themselves or someone else; come up with ways to apply it; and give some examples (Laureate Education, n .d.).

Picking up on the point that David Huizer made about potential, I agree. It is encouraging to know that we are not limited to a predetermined potential but rather have the ability to determine our own potential over the course of our lifetimes. I think that education has a huge role to play in helping bringing about the change from believing that 'kids are just wired that way' to knowing that 'potential' is a dynamic concept that changes in response to the kinds of learning experiences students are exposed to.

I've just read "The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, which is a book that reviews case studies and research and discoveries made on neuroplasticity. It was most interesting to note that brain plasticity was so vehemently opposed in the early days - too revolutionary an idea -- and only due to the persistent of some researchers and practitioners has this changed.

I believe helping children understand the critical role they play in their own learning could be very motivational, however, on the other hand it could be detrimental to some if not handled appropriately. Have you ever come across instances where it has had a negative impact on students' perceptions of their own abilities or seen as demotivating?

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Listening to teachers who teach using the pairing of neuroplasticity and metacognition is inspirational. Research supports the importance of teaching the effort attribution for learning too. However, to your last point, key to this strategy is for students to be explicitly taught strategies for learning so that they have a better chance of success.


Kitt Kelleher's picture

Hello Dr. Wilson,
I am currently enrolled in the Ed. S. program for BrainSMART. I have really enjoyed the articles and additional information posts and blogs including the above article. I have been so fascinated with brain-based learning for years. As an educator and now professional developer in the field of special education (specifically tying together mathematics and brain-based approaches), I find this to be the most pivotal component to our students' learning. Every opportunity I get I will sing the tune of brain-based learning, neuroplasticity and engagement.

This article truly brings the message for allowing our students to take control of their own learning. I loved Mr. Green's idea about the beginning of year/term presentation on the amazing brain to his students. He, like other teachers modeled in your article, present the realistic approach to human learning. It is inspiring to see more educators embrace this powerful and poignant component within teaching.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Kitt,

It is great to hear from you! We are delighted you are finding graduate study with us fascinating and useful. Indeed Mr. Green's lesson is one we hope you will encourage other teachers to apply. As you enjoy using our work please let us hear from you here and at nsu@brainsmart.org. Just as we have shared the stories of other teachers in this and elsewhere in our posts, books, and articles, we would love to share yours too!

Keep in touch!

Donna and Marcus

Johnny Shi's picture

It was cool to hear about Mr. Greens story. I love the idea of expelling the misconception that of intelligence being stagnant like you mentioned. It really is important to realize, your brain is amazing. To me it encourages handwork and personal responsibility for learning. I really think people want to believe this as well. Thanks for a great post.

Romane's picture

Great article.
I teach English as a Second Language. It is always a challenge to do something different in a field where so many experts have something to say about how we should teach another language. I think a good idea would be to start showing students how great their brains are, telling them clearly that we are not just complimenting them or promoting self-confidence so they stay focused on the lesson.
I'll continue thinking about how to make this real in a ESL class.
Thank you!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Romane,

Thank you for your comment! I think it's is a very good idea to start your ESL classes by teaching your students about their amazing brains and potential for learning with guidance from you and effort on their part! I would also suggest three other resources for you: BrainSMART 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning (2011) has a lot of strategies for pairing up visual and kinesthetic tools with vocabulary words and other verbal elements of language. Also, my other blog (google Donna Wilson Ph.D. Blogspot) has lots of tools to use in all content areas. Lastly, check out our graduate, Diane Dahl's blog at For the Love of Teaching. She has great ideas using our process of learning she received in her graduate studies.

Best wishes to you!!!!



Monique's picture

Ian, I love your response and reflection on the power of the creative process. Engagement in the creative process also offers opportunities for integration on multiple levels, exploring self-regulation, social-emotional wellness and so much more. I am inspired by this discussion!

DLFunderburg's picture

I'd love to hear about the specific exercises Donna Garland uses to practice cognitive and metacognitive skills.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your comment.

I have personally visited our graduate, Donna Garland's classroom. She introduced the metaphor of 'Driving Your Brain' we developed early in the year and referred to it often as she taught her students how to be metacognitive. You can find more on the topic of teaching for metacognition on the ASCD website in an article 'Boss of My Brain' http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct14/vol72/num0...

Here at Edutopia we have a post on teaching for metacognition at http://www.edutopia.org/blog/metacognition-gift-that-keeps-giving-donna-....

We recommend pairing instruction about the basics of neuroplasticity and how the brain changes when learning occurs with the teaching of how to be more metacognitive throughout the year. In June 2016 we will have a book launch with ASCD on the topic of teaching students to be metacognitive.

All the best to you!


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