Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘How the Brain Learns’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 25, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

David Sousa, author of the popular book, How The Brain Learns (now in its 5th edition), agreed to answer a few questions about it. David is an international consultant in educational neuroscience and the author of over 15 books that suggest ways that educators and parents can translate current brain research into strategies for improving learning.

LF: This is the 5th edition of your book. What are the two or three key new ideas/research results that you’ve added to it and that you think are most relevant to educators?

David Sousa: First, is the impact that technology is having on the developing brain. Students are spending so many hours every day interacting with their digital devices that the technology is altering their brains. This is because the brain possesses neuroplasticity—the ability to rewire itself as a result of input from its environment. For today’s students, much of the input from their environment involves hours of texting, gaming, and surfing the internet on digital devices.

Because of neuroplasticity, the brain adapts to this constant flow of information by reconfiguring cognitive, emotional, and social networks. Recent studies are revealing that the cerebral areas most affected include attention systems, memory networks, thinking processes, and social skills. These areas are critical for successful learning to occur. I discuss these changes in the book, and offer suggestions to teachers of strategies that can help these rewired brains focus and learn the lesson’s objectives.

Second, I have updated the research on how the brain learns through different stages of growth and development. Of particular importance is whether a child develops a fixed or growth mindset. Fixed mindsets believe that ability is pre-determined at birth and no amount of effort can really change that. Growth mindsets focus on effort and believe that working harder on learning how to learn will lead to successful achievement. I discuss ways that teachers can encourage students to transition from a fixed to a growth mindset.

LF: I, like many teachers, try to help our students understand what happens to our brains when we learn something new. How would you explain that process to a student, and what do you think is a benefit to them understanding this idea?

David Sousa: My experience is that students of all ages enjoy learning about their how their brains work. In my books, I try to explain the process of how the brain learns in simple language, using models and analogies, and avoiding overly technical terms when possible. Teachers can use this text to help explain the learning brain.

I would start by telling students how important emotions are to learning something new, and then use an emotional topic to introduce the new objective. I would explain that their working memory can hold only a few items at a time, and because the brain requires sense and meaning to determine whether to store the new learning, we will spend more time discussing fewer items in depth. Less is more.

Students also find other research intriguing and relevant. For example, explaining to students that their brains store new learning into long-term memory during sleep helps these students recognize the importance of getting enough sleep at night to allow that storing process to occur successfully.

LF: There’s been some concern about the possible overselling neuroscience research’s application to the classroom. What’s your perspective on that critique?

David Sousa: I was a high school science teacher and I got involved with looking at the applications of neuroscience to teaching and learning more than 30 years ago when brain research was beginning to intensify. It is true that early on some educators overstated the applications, suggesting it was a panacea. Publishers were putting the word “brain” in nearly every book title. This prompted legitimate criticism from cognitive psychologists who feared that non-scientists were misinterpreting the research and misleading teachers. Much of the overselling has subsided in the past decade now that a new area of scientific inquiry has emerged called educational neuroscience. This field looks at the substantial body of research evidence that provides insights into the teaching learning process and suggests practical applications to pedagogy. It has helped to separate scientific findings from brain myths.

LF: Based on all of your research and work in the field, what are the two-or-three most key points about the brain that you think would be most helpful for teachers to know and remember?

David Sousa: Simply put,

    • Emotion drives attention, and attention drives learning
    • Working memory is limited, so present a small amount for deep learning and maximum meaning (relevancy)
    • Deep learning is enhanced by challenges and inhibited by threats
    • Past learning always influences new learning

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

David Sousa:

In-service educators are now accepting the notion that findings from research in educational neuroscience can update their knowledge about how the brain learns and suggest effective strategies for their practice. One serious problem, however, is that schools of education have been exceedingly slow to incorporate these findings into their courses for pre-service teachers. Consequently, too many teachers are entering the profession with a kitbag of strategies from the 1980s to work with students who have 2017 brains. It is not working, and it is one of the reasons why so many beginning teachers leave the profession after just a few years.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.