School & District Management

Brain Expert Offers Learning Principles for the Classroom

By Liana Loewus — November 20, 2013 3 min read
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It turns out there’s a reason people do their best thinking in the shower. And it’s one that could be of use to teachers.

In a captivating keynote last Sunday at the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston, G. Christian Jernstedt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, discussed some broad brain-science principles regarding how people learn that may be helpful for classroom educators.

The 60-minute talk covered a lot of ground. Here are some highlights:

The power of stories. Jernstedt gave an interesting example of—and explanation for—what’s known as stereotype threat. If you give two groups of girls a math test, he said, and remind one group that some people wrongly believe girls are not very good at math, that group will perform much worse. “The girls in the class that was told the false stereotype don’t use the math areas of their brain—they use the social-emotional areas. They look around and say, ‘I wonder if I’m one of them.’” He made the point that “stories carry meaning for us"—often even more meaning than reality.

Multitasking is overrated. “The brain is modular,” Jernstedt explained, meaning there are hundreds of places in the brain working all at once. However, we can only consciously do about one thing at a time. He said to imagine being asked to take a test alone in a room with a giant bowl of Oreos on the table. Before you begin, you’re told not to eat a single cookie. “Your score is terrible,” he said. “You’re devoting too much cognitive capacity to that thought. That’s why we can’t talk on a cell phone and drive.” (It’s also why teachers should probably not pass things out that they don’t want students to become engrossed in immediately.)

Cooperation gives a boost. Of the three basic “structures” for learning—cooperative, individual, and competitive—cooperative is the most effective, “across all ages and across all subjects,” he asserted. Individual learning is the next best and competitive comes in last. However, he emphasized that cooperative learning skills—positive interdependence, group processing, etc.—must be taught.

Shower time. The majority of what happens in the brain is “outside conscious awareness,” Jernstedt said. “When you say, ‘Don’t think about it for awhile,’ what you’re really saying is give it to the rest of your brain and [let it] work on it. It’s about trusting that process, and encouraging it.” People often do their best thinking in the shower, he explained, because “the consciousness is involved in another activity.” (A new argument for recess? Letting kids take a walk down the hall every so often?) Since the brain is modular and working in many places all the time, he said, it often comes to an answer well before the person’s conscious awareness is alerted. So when a student says he got an answer, Jernstedt noted, a teacher might say, “You got the solution a while ago. You just got told about it.”

Reading the symbols. Jernstedt also told an intriguing anecdote about reading. He said there was a study in which a group of early learners who were struggling to read “cat” were taught to read it in Chinese. Once the students learned the Chinese character—a single symbol—it was easier for them to learn to read the word in English. “It turns out there are a number of skills involved in reading cat—you have to put three things together,” as in the three phonemes, c-a-t. But Chinese only has the single symbol-word correspondence. “If you first learn that a symbol can represent something like cat, then you have part of the task.” (Isn’t this what early-learning teachers already do when they teach sight words first?)

He ended the session with a reminder to be patient and persistent with students because “progress is an uneven pathway.”

Teachers, do these brain principles make sense to you? Do they give you ideas for the classroom?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.