A Neurologist Makes the Case for Teaching Teachers About the Brain | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
"Neuroscience should be required for all students [of education] . . . to familiarize them with the orienting concepts [of] the field, the culture of scientific inquiry, and the special demands of what qualifies as scientifically based education research." - Eisenhart & DeHaan, 2005



Do you recall some of your college professors who knew their subject matter but had zero teaching skills? Staying awake in their one-way-directed lecture classes required Herculean strength (or lots of coffee). They were never trained to develop the skillset of engagement strategies.

Even though I was a physician with a strong science background, when I decided to become a classroom teacher (and thought I'd teach science), I did not want to make that career change without the benefit of instruction and guided student teaching. The year I spent in my graduate school of education program was invaluable in my transition to becoming a professional educator.

Curriculum in schools of education has changed in response to changes in society, pedagogy and technology. As computer technology became an asset in classrooms, schools of education appropriately included that instruction in the curriculum. Many states made similar education program curriculum adaptations in response to multiculturism, increases in English language learners, and the use of the concrete-connect-abstract progression in math instruction.

Now that the neuroscience research implications for teaching are also an invaluable classroom asset, it is time for instruction in the neuroscience of learning to be included as well in professional teacher education.

Neuroscience Knowledge Strengthens the Lifeline

For today's students, educators are the lifeline they need to climb for access to the playing fields of 21st century opportunity, open only to those who acquire the necessary skillsets. Teachers who are prepared with knowledge of the workings of the brain will have the optimism, incentive and motivation to follow the ongoing research, and to apply their findings to the classroom. These teachers can help all children build their brain potential -- regardless of past performance -- bridge the achievement gap, and reach their highest 21st century potential starting now.

One example is the research about the brain's neuroplasticity and the opportunities we have as educators to help students literally change their brains -- and intelligence. To become a teacher without understanding the implications of brain-changing neuroplasticity is a great loss to teachers and their future students.

Beyond understanding the brain's neuroplastic response to stimulation -- how activation and use of memory networks makes them stronger -- future teachers need to recognize how stress inhibits neuroplasticity. It is only when information is processed in the brain's reflective, cognitive prefrontal cortex that new learning can be incorporated into networks of long-term, conceptual memory.

Seeing neuroimaging scans of students during stress states, such as those that build up with sustained or frequent boredom (information already mastered; no evident relevance) or frustration (repeated past failures in subject), offer powerful insights into the importance of classroom climate and differentiation of instruction. These scans reveal the increased metabolic state that blocks processing in the highest brain (prefrontal cortex; PFC) when this boredom or frustration alienates students from instruction. The amygdala is the switching station that, when hyperactive in response to high stress, switches input and output away from the PFC and down to the control of the lower, reactive brain. Behavior reactive responses from the lower brain are the involuntary survival responses of fight/flight/freeze (act out/zone out).

What Triggers Student Behavior

As students' stressors build, loss of information access to the PFC for memory construction means new learning is not retained. The lost communication from the PFC emotional control networks to the lower brain means the lower brain's reactive behaviors are in control. These students and uninformed teachers come to believe that nothing better can be expected. Students develop the fixed mindset in which the brain's primitive survival networks restrict effort toward goals that, by experience, are not expected to be reached.

Teachers who understand this neurological consequence of the brain’s programmed response to stress can change the educational and life outcomes for students who have been blamed and punished for unintentional acting out or zoning out. When teachers know about the brain's reactions to the stressors that promote the low brain control state of involuntary, reactive behavior, they become more aware of how much they can influence students' successful brain processing. When they understand that the brain responses in the high-stress state are neither voluntary student choices nor reflective of a student’s academic potential, knowledgeable teachers recognize that their interventions can reduce stress, return students' voluntary control of their behavior, and promote successful memory construction and cognitive processing in the PFC.

When new teachers understand how they have the capacity to reduce the stress of frustration or boredom by providing all students with opportunities to learn at their appropriate level of achievable challenge, their motivation will increase with the expectation of success. As we know, it does take dedication, motivation and lots of time to achieve the often onerous task of differentiation for all students. The background knowledge of neuroscience provides that extra motivation.

Bringing Neuroscience into Education

There are no more critical life supports than passionate, informed teachers who can resuscitate students' joyful learning. When educators learn about how the brain appears to process, recognize, remember and transfer information at the level of neural circuits, synapses and neurotransmitters, and when they share that knowledge with students, they share empowerment with their students. Informed teachers help students understand their ability to change their brains and experience success and renewed confidence. Students thrive in classrooms where teachers have the added tools from their neuroscience understanding. The result is nothing less than reigniting the joys of learning, even when they have been extinguished for years.

The most valuable assets for improving education won't be developed in a neuroimaging laboratory. It will be educators, with the foundational knowledge about the science of learning, who will be prepared to evaluate the validity and potential educational correlations from neuroscience research. These teachers will be the front line professionals who will recognize potential applications of laboratory research and develop the strategies that bring the benefits of this research to their students.

Frontloading is More Critical Than Ever

If you've read this far, you have probably developed your foundation of the neuroscience of learning knowledge through professional development, reading or professional learning communities in your schools. Sadly, those opportunities are increasingly limited for new teachers.

With decreased funds for substitute coverage, professional development conferences, consultants and prep time, it is becoming more difficult for teachers to access new topics of expertise after leaving schools of education. There is also the problem of integrating new learning into the classroom without guidance and feedback. The time for future teachers to build the foundations of neuroscience knowledge is during their studies and supervised teaching experiences while they are in schools of education.

The future developments in neuroscience, with the most extensive and useful classroom applications, will likely arise from input that educators provide to scientists. When experience reveals particular strategies as repeatedly successful, classroom-to-research lab channels will be open for teachers to suggest investigations into what is happening in the brain in response to those conditions. Through this collaboration, their observations about what works for their students will feed neuroscience research. As the data is analyzed, replicated, applied and adapted, and as strategies become even more effective, what started as a teacher's observations will be disseminated to benefit students worldwide. After all, isn't sharing what we teachers do so well?


  • Eisenhart, M., & DeHaan, R.L. (2005). Doctoral preparation of scientifically based educational researchers. Educational Researcher, 34(4): 3-13.
  • NCATE report recommended instruction in developmental and cognitive psychology and neuroscience in teacher education as having beneficial effects on teachers and students.

Links to additional information about the neuroscience of learning

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stacey's picture
5th grade science, math, and social studies teacher from Hickory, MS

Perhaps you could talk about the brain on a very basic level. Your upper elem. grades may have a model. Discuss and touch the front part of the brain and tell them that this is where the 'good learning' takes place. Talk about how important it is to pay attention with their eyes by looking at you, pay attention with their bodies by turning their bodies to follow you when you move around the room. When the children are totally engaged in a particular activity, tell them there is a lot of front brain learning going on and praise them for it. When they are disengaged and not paying attention, tell them...Uh, oh! I see a lot of back brain learning going on. By the end of the year, they will know exactly what you mean by front brain and back brain learning!

julie's picture

Hello, I am the sole teacher of a small one-room school room school for kids who are falling through the cracks in a small Missouri town. Just one hour after reading this blog, I interviewed a young boy, who fit right into what you were speaking of. I have had quite a bit of training through this when we were foster parents and dealing with many issues. I whole heartily agree that teachers should have a course about the brain. Having adopted two autistic children, we went through every training available to look for antecedents for their behaviors. I have taken all this training and implemented it into the classroom which has given positive results. Thank you so much for this article. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Judy R's picture
Judy R
First grade teacher, Maryland

Thank you for an insightful article about how important it is for teachers to gain a better understanding of the brain! Considering that as teachers, we are charged with filling this organ with knowledge, it just makes sense that we should understand how best to do that. I am sure that slowly research findings will be added to good teaching practices, but there is so much information out there that we could be putting to use now!

Belinda R.'s picture
Belinda R.
Math Specialist

I am new to Blog Discussions but I am going to give it a try. I have always been interested in how the brain works and how it affects the way we learn. I have only been to one training that discussed how this topic relates to learning. However after that one training, I did change several ways I taught but I want to learn so much more.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

This last year I learned a new technique based on brain research that really helped me keep students from zoning out. It's called mirroring. By having the students mirror the motions you are doing with your hands, you are activating their motor cortex and keeping them very engaged. The students love this! Here is what I found from using this in my classroom: http://luria-learning.blogspot.com/2012/04/engaging-your-daydreamers.html


Jobs for the Future's picture

(The following is from Christina Hinton and Kurt W. Fischer, authors of "Mind, Brain, and Education," part of the Students at the Center series. www.studentsatthecenter.org)

Judy Willis makes the case that, " future developments in neuroscience, with the most extensive and useful classroom applications, will likely arise from input that educators provide to scientists." We could not agree more. Collaboration between scientists and practitioners is crucial for progress in the field of mind, brain, and education.

In medicine, researchers refine newly developed medications and procedures through hospital testing. In agriculture, researchers improve new seeds, equipment, and farming methods through field tests. In field after field, practical results inform research-based developments. In education, however, sustained collaboration involving reciprocal interactions between researchers and practitioners has been difficult. Education lacks a fundamental infrastructure for connecting the work of researchers and practitioners.

The need for this kind of structure grows as research from biology and cognitive science becomes ever more relevant to education. Teachers often lack the background knowledge needed to interpret scientific results, and scientists often lack an understanding of pedagogical goals.

These new challenges augment the need to build an infrastructure that supports sustainable collaboration between researchers and teachers. We suggest that research schools can provide that infrastructure. In research schools, researchers and teachers work together to carry out research that is relevant to practice, and education needs a strong infrastructure for grounding practice and policy in research as findings in cognitive science and biology become increasingly relevant to education. Research schools can be living laboratories for field-testing new techniques, training teachers and researchers, and promoting dialogue between researchers and practitioners. They can lay a fundamental infrastructure for connecting research on learning and educational practice and policy.

Research schools would improve pedagogy by grounding research in practice and vice versa. In this dynamic interaction, research informs practice, and results from classrooms and other learning settings shape research directions, while data on learning supply invaluable information for fine-tuning theoretical models. To offer just one example, classroom results have revealed that phonologically based interventions are effective for some children with dyslexia but not for others. This result guided neuroscientists toward a more sophisticated and differentiated understanding of dyslexia.

Jan Kuyper Erland's picture
Jan Kuyper Erland
Project Manager, Innovative Learning Stratagems, Inc.

As a parent, classroom teacher K-12, Learning Disability Specialist, Educational Technologist, and researcher/practitioner with 30-years of published applied accelerated learning practice, this article reinforces the importance of brain research interfacing with the every-day classroom.

My work engages choral speaking, rhythm, and puppetry to improve cognitive skills, but more specifically, the ability to create the whole-brain learner with how to conceptualize and process new, incoming information. The training creates focus, attention,and retention. Perceptual changes are evident after 24 hours of intensive training. My published research is available on my website www.memspan.com/publications.html, and ERIC Clearing House.

The brain changes became immediately evident with puppetry instructional methodology - pub article - http://www.memspan.com/handwritingku.pdf

A summary of the research in school and private classrooms - The International Alliance for Learning (IAL) in June 2001 recognized this research as landmark Brain-Based Learning: http://www.memspan.com/abstract7.pdf This research is the tip of the future iceberg for instruction and learning.

I offer parent information through the nonprofit Innovative Learning Stratagems, Inc. website, www.StrategyTech.com, and develop educational, brain-based learning content through Mem-ExSpan, Inc. www.memspan.com.

Thanks for posting this important article!

Robyn P's picture

I think the challenge will be to take the discoveries being made in neuroscience research labs and construct bridges into classrooms. Modern pedagogy has been built on psychology, which is complex enough--now, through science, we can expand our knowledge of learning to include the physiological. One fascinating study by Alison Preston, PhD, (The University of Texas at Austin) is on what teachers call "prior knowledge." Dr. Preston writes, "At this point, we have several studies that focus on the fact that our ability to learn new things is profoundly interested in what we already know." However, in general, we are still a long way from clinical validation in school settings. Skillfully designed technology, including eLearning. may very well be the platform that will allow the integration of neuroscience into teaching methodology.

shieldthem's picture
Reading Facillitator from Trinidad West Indies

I agree that they should know because it makes you so much more aware of what is going on with your student,even teaching the student about their brain encourages them to protect their brain.Superb article.

shieldthem's picture
Reading Facillitator from Trinidad West Indies

I agree that they should know because it makes you so much more aware of what is going on with your student,even teaching the student about their brain encourages them to protect their brain.Superb article.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.