George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Cognitively Priming Students for Learning

Hook students' attention by stimulating their hardwired need to know, and make it a satisfying experience so their brains recognize the value of energy spent learning.

There are some standards or units of instruction that, for whatever reason, you know aren't going to be runaway hits with students. While you can certainly reconsider the unit design, there are other strategies you can use to help prime student brains for learning.

Among the simplest of these strategies is promoting curiosity -- and students' natural tendency to predict -- by advertising the content the same way that a marketing company might. This promotes advance interest, and the resulting questions increase the student curiosity, opening the brain's attentive intake filter. In short, it preps their minds to engage.

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New Unit, 1-2 Weeks Prior

How might this work? Try advertising a coming unit by cutting up a related, compelling image, and then adding pieces daily to reconstruct that image as the "advertisement" gradually takes form.

Similarly, different clues -- visual or otherwise -- could be added every few days leading up to the new unit's introduction. For fractions, these clues might be:

  • An x-ray image of an arm fracture
  • Sheet music with half, whole, and quarter notes
  • A carrot cut into quarters
  • A photo of an iceberg showing the parts above and below water.

These both visualize the content and prime the mind to learn new content.

Even though curiosity gradually decreases in favor of caution, the need to find out if a prediction is right or wrong is part of the brain's permanent wiring. The brain strengthens future predictions and corrects any inaccurate prior knowledge leading to incorrect predictions through a prediction-reward system fueled by dopamine pleasure. (This will be a topic of a future post.) In short, even if students gradually become less interested, it won't diminish their need to know as the unit begins.

New Unit, Day 1

On the day the unit is scheduled to begin, students' curiosity, along with their written or verbal predictions, will tune their brains into the perfect zone for attentive focus. They are like adults placing bets on a horse race. Students may not be interested in the subject matter itself, but their brains need to find out if their predictions are correct, just as the race ticket holder needs to know if he holds a winning ticket. Now the students’ brains want to know what you have to teach! If nothing else, you're set to reach them from day one.

The brain is wired for high interest when clues prompt prediction, anticipating the pleasure of the dopamine reward response. There is no such intrinsic motivation for drills and memorization of rote facts and procedures. Isolated skill practice is contrary to the brain's instinct to preserve its energy, because there is no expectation of pleasure from energy output. On the other hand, when students want to know required information to create solutions to problems that interest them or to create products that they care about, the brain applies the effort to learn what is required to achieve desirable goals. This isn't a personality thing, or a characteristic of apathy, but a fundamental neurological system that preferentially attends to and stores input considered useful for desired goals.

Preconception Meets Cognitive Engagement

Consider, for example, starting a unit by showing students an image of two people or groups of people whose differences and known disagreements are likely to trigger historical or cultural assumptions (such as Native Americans and early Great Plains settlers, British and German soldiers from World War I, or police officers near a picket line of striking workers). Encourage students to evaluate and express with words or writing what emotions the picture evokes, what event they think is represented, and who the "good" and "bad" people are.

As the unit progresses, encourage them to journal or describe any changes in their feelings about the picture and their original prediction of the events they think preceded or followed the scene depicted. As the unit culminates, ask them to give their opinions as to who might have created the image and if art or photography can be a representation of fact or misleading advertising. In this way, you have connected the beginning and end of the unit by consistently asking students to cognitively engage with the content and their own thinking.

Make Learning Worth the Energy

So why the need to have students predict, engage, reflect, and monitor? It has to do with parsing learning events into segments that students feel confident about learning. In survival terms, withholding effort is beneficial when there is low expectation of success. This response will benefit a fox living in a region with limited prey when it avoids chasing a rabbit uphill because the energy expended is not likely to result in energy restored when the chase fails to yield a meal. The human brain weighs three pounds and uses 20 percent of the body's oxygen and glucose. It has the same survival mandate as the fox to limit energy and effort when it predicts a low yield of success based on past experiences. In short, students need to believe that they can, and that there is valuable reason for them to try.

The cycle for disengagement and the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure is sustained because, without effort, the student does not keep up with the foundational knowledge needed to understand the subsequent lessons and related concepts. A student might have excellent skills at creative problem solving and concept construction, but because he or she didn't have the opportunity to construct understanding with a relevant goal that would motivate the brain to hold the necessary factual or procedural information, this student fails to acquire the knowledge. His or her brain now adds another failure to its experiences that further reduces the likelihood of sustained effort toward the next goal. With decreasing expectations of future success and without the needed concept and factual knowledge to persevere in the topic or subject, subsequent information is increasingly decontextualized. The student can't see the forest for the trees. In response, the brain "unplugs" as part of its energy-preserving survival mechanism.

Stop this unplugging! Through sustained student awareness of relevance and context, and through incorporating cognitive interactions with learning, students' brains will ignite and hold what they learn.