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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
"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?


References

  • 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

katra137's picture
katra137
taught 1st and 5th for 4 years now sub and grad student from Memphis

I find this topic very interesting. We educators have the power in our classrooms to actually increase our student's intelligence by providing education that keeps our students engaged and motivated. I find it difficult to keep my students from zoning out during my lessons. I would love some suggestions for keeping them motivated when they are not working at grade level.

Laura Maestrello's picture

necessitates that anyone working to educate children have a foundational understanding of the anatomy and functionality of the brain as we understand it. Only with this base of understanding is it possible to make informed decisions regarding the most effective and appropriate techniques to apply in any given educational situation. The ability to understand and specifically justify the decisions made in teaching are what raise it to a higher level and truly require the application of the art and science of learning. Additionally, the research done regarding the positive effect of sharing a basic understanding of neuroplasticity of learning with students requires that educators have accurate, clear information to share. I look forward to the changes you are able to effect with your work Ms. Willis!

Dawn Rush's picture
Dawn Rush
Seventh grade science teacher from El Dorado, KS

Amazing article. I've always felt that to be a better educator, we need to understand how the brain processes information. If we can find new triggers, then we can incorporate those into our lessons and make them stick. Neuroscience is a definite area of interest for me!

Laurann's picture

I completely agree with what you have presented here about teachers needing to be more informed of how the brain learns. However, I think it will be quite some time before it happens. Right now the information is spreading by individuals passing it along but I know of no school district that has implemented this type teaching. There will always be teachers who grasp a concept, really understand it, and do a wonderful job implementing it but most others will need a lot of training and guidance. For example, computers, many teachers want to be the computer guru of their school and really implement it into their classroom but don't feel comfortable, are unsure how to do it, or not sure where to find and how to use the software, so they decide it's best left alone and teach how they always have or use the computer for reinforcement games. Another area I've noticed that is still deficient in the college realm is the knowledge of identifying children who have learning difficulties. While in college teachers are taught what learning disabilities are but it is in an all-inclusive class with all the other special ed. needs. So, when these teachers are in the classroom, they are not able to identify these students. Every year I inform teachers of how to identify children with learning disabilities and it continues to amaze me that the colleges have not made this a more in-depth class when the percentages of children with learning differences increases every year. Yes, some of the best brain training I had was from NILD (National Institute for Learning Development) out of Norfolk, VA. They are reaching out to schools through the therapists they train, who in turn are spreading this neurological news and knowledge to the teachers with whom they have contact. I hope this trend continues.

Andrea Sturzen's picture

I read this article with a hungry brain. I am a classroom teacher who has learned some of the ways my third grade students' brains work in the most primitive of ways, trial and error. I would love to have to be pointed to a resource that would help me to understand and implement more brain-aware teaching when I return to my classroom in August. I thank you for any input you might have!

Dani Powell's picture

I appreciate the content in this article. As a parent of a special needs child and a Kindergarten teacher, I have a passion for learning how the brain works. I am a very visual learner, is there a good diagram or video that you use to teach those of us who are still novice in the area of neurosciences? Thank you!

MrsSav's picture
MrsSav
Mathematics Teacher

I became aware of resources on how the brain learns when I attended professional development during our NJEA convention. I attended a workshop on "How the Brain Learns", based on resources by David A. Sousa. His e-books are reasonably priced. From this lecture, I immediately took back to my classroom that you should change the style of learning, and even the specific information every 10 minutes. My students enter the classroom and spend about ten minutes doing and correcting a spiraling "Do Now' in mathematics. By the way, this first ten minutes is when the most learning occurs. Then my students spend 10 minutes learning a new concept through direct instruction and practice using manipulatives. Then my students spend about 10 minutes in cooperative learning groups applying the concept(s) in different ways. During this time frame, I try to get them physically moving. Then my students spend about 10 minutes practicing the concepts individually using a worksheet or the computer. We spend the rest of the class assessing learning by assessing student answers on the whiteboard, and writing responses to the exit card/journal activity. This is the second most significant ten minute window students will spend in my classroom learning. From Sousa's workshop I learned that students, especially middle school students, give about ten minutes to learning before they "check out." Therefore, to make the most of the learning window you need to change up what and how the students are learning to keep the brain active. It works! My students love my class and cannot believe that it is over because it moves so quickly.

Cyndy Walters's picture
Cyndy Walters
5th Grade Teacher, Norfolk, VA

As an educator with over 14 years of classroom experience, I find myself excited about my chosen profession once again. I recently had the privilege of attending a workshop on "Brain Friendly Teaching". I believe it will truly have a profound effect on the way I teach, and in turn, the way my students learn. I agree that channels need to be opened between teachers and neuroscience researchers. Do you have any suggestions as to how interested teachers might begin to participate in any current studies?

Deepika's picture
Deepika
Helping students with LD in a pre-school in Tanzania

Resources.
I am currently enrolled in an online Masters Program and have had a chance to read about neuroplasticity and how we as educators can actually mould the brain and affect learning outcomes. This article has endorsed that view and I am looking forward to presenting this and more information to my colleagues! Having limited resources there is only so much we can do but i believe where there is a will there is a way.

BradSouthwell's picture

Great article, but if you've not already incorporated a few lessons on this topic into every course you teach, get on it. I've been teaching high school for 5 years now and for the last 4 semesters I have taught at least 1 lesson about how a memory moves through the following sequence of stages: sensory, short-term, long term and how every thing we learn needs to spend some time in each, ultimately finding a home in long term storage. The kids love it, it gets them thinking and you will notice at least a few of them trying out and practicing in the lessons that follow.

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