Teaching Opinion

Response: Teachers as “Brain Changers”

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 04, 2012 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a series on “brain-based learning.” You can see Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here)

The question asked two weeks ago was:

What are the best ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching?

I’ve seen the phrase “brain-based learning” used often, and sometimes in ways that do not seem particularly helpful. However, it is short enough to fit in a blog post headline....

This post is the final one in a four-part series on this topic. The first post included responses from three neuroscientists associated with BrainFacts.org. Last week, educators Wendi Pillars and Wendy Ostroff shared their ideas. In Part Three, Dr. David Dockterman, Renate N. Caine, Ph.D., and Kevin D. Washburn, (Ed.D) contributed their thoughts on the topic. Today, I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts, a guest response from well-known author and researcher David A. Sousa, and comments left by readers. In addition, I’ve brought together my favorite useful related resources here.

I’ve used what I have learned about the brain and learning a number of ways in my classroom. Here are three examples:

* Helping students learn that intelligence is not fixed at a certain level and that they can actually “grow” their brain by learning has been shown by research to develop intrinsic motivation in students. You can see the related lesson plan I use, and read more about this concept in Professor Carol Dweck’s guest post in this blog last month. Those who understand that their ability will grow as they work harder, and that their brain cells will physically grow the more they learn, are often more focused on learning and are more resilient.

* Using stories in teaching is an effective instructional strategy. As I’ve written elsewhere, community organizers (which was my occupation for nineteen years prior to becoming a teacher) learn people’s stories and help them develop a new interpretation of those stories, which they can use to propel themselves to action. It’s similar to a challenge we face in the classroom--we need to help students connect our lesson content to their background knowledge and then attach new understandings and learnings to it.

For example, one year our rather dry World History textbook listed several qualities of feudalism, including people who spend most of their time working in the fields and not owning the land they farmed, and flatly declared that feudalism ended with the Renaissance. After students talked with their families about their lives and shared their own experiences, we concluded that the textbook was wrong. Students subsequently clamored to learn more--and read more challenging texts--about the Middle Ages. Students embraced these new opportunities because the lessons took place within the framework of their own stories and those of their families.

Neuroscience researchers Renate and Geoffrey Caine reflect on the importance of stories in their study of two types of memory systems: taxon and locale. Taxon learning consists of lists, basic skills, and habits. Locale, on the other hand, involves creating stories out of a person’s life experiences. Taxon tells how to turn a key in our house door and locale tells us what to do when we lose the key. Taxon memories must be rehearsed regularly to move into long-term memory. Locale memories, however, go automatically into long-term memory.

Our students come to us with a wealth of experiences and stories, and we all too often neglect making use of this gift in our classrooms.

* Recognizing that self-control is a “limited energy resource” that needs to be replenished as it get depleted has had a major impact on my classroom management strategies. Professor Roy F. Baumeister has written in this blog and elsewhere about self-control’s impact on the brain. Previously in this blog, I’ve shared ways I’ve developed practical ways to apply this research in my practice, including by having students do self-affirmation exercises, by remembering better times, and through eating healthy snacks.

Response From David A. Sousa

David A. Sousa, EdD., is a consultant in educational neuroscience and author of more than a dozen books that translate brain research in learning strategies. He has presented to more than 200,000 educators around the world. He taught high school chemistry, and was an adjunct professor of education at Seton Hall University and a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University. He is past president of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) and has received honorary degrees and awards for his work:

Researchers have discovered so much about how the human brain develops and learns that a new field of scientific inquiry, called educational neuroscience, has been born. It explores how research findings from education, neuroscience, and psychology can inform our knowledge about teaching and learning, and whether they have implications for what we do in schools and classrooms. This interdisciplinary approach ensures that recommendations for educational practices are based in scientific research. Here are just a few areas of inquiry where the research is sufficiently robust for educators to consider translating the findings into practice.

• Teaching less with meaning leads to remembering more
. Our understandings about working (temporary) memory are changing. We know it has age-related capacity limits that are often exceeded when teachers try to cram too much into a lesson because they have so much to cover. Additionally, the capacity of working memory seems to be declining, but no one knows exactly why. It could be that, instead of remembering facts, the brain remembers where to find them with search engines. That takes less memory capacity.

Learners can hold items in working memory longer than previously thought--up to several weeks. They then discard them when they serve no further purpose--for example, just after taking a test. This explains why students can pass a test on a topic today and hardly remember it several months later. Ever had that frustrating experience? Yet teachers hope students will remember forever what they were taught. When teachers have the new knowledge about memory systems, they can make that possible.

Sense and meaning appear to be among the major criteria the brain uses in deciding what to encode into long-term memory. Teachers work hard on having their presentations make sense, but not hard enough on making the learning meaningful, or relevant. Teachers should consider a greater focus on curriculum that the students perceive as relevant to their lives, especially in this technology-driven global society.

• Get students moving and keep recess. The typical classroom setting where students just “sit and get” was challenged by research findings showing that the brain is much more active when learners are moving around. Movement brings additional fuel-carrying blood to the brain. It also allows the brain to access more long-term memory areas (an ancient survival strategy), thereby helping students make meaningful connections between new and past learnings.

Exercise stimulates blood flow to the part of the brain deeply involved in forming long-term memories. It also triggers a powerful chemical that supports the health of young neurons and encourages the growth of new ones. Yet many elementary schools are reducing or eliminating recess to devote more time to preparing for high-stakes testing. We are eradicating the very activity that could improve cognitive performance on tests!

• Remember the impact of emotions on learning.
Teachers in elementary schools are accustomed to dealing with their students’ constant display of emotions. But teachers at the secondary level are trained to deliver content-- and lots of it! They have little time to deal with their students’ emotional development, often assuming that they should “act like adults.” All educators need to understand the biology of emotions, especially stress, and recognize that students cannot focus on the curriculum unless they feel physically safe (i.e., no weapons, violence, or bullying) and emotionally secure (i.e., they perceive that teachers respect them and actually care about their success).

• Maintain a positive social environment.

The long-held notion of nature (genes) versus nurture (environment) is obsolete because the discovery of gene expression has changed all that. Now it is a mix of nature and nurture. Certain genes, for example, those moderating shyness or aggressiveness, have the capacity to express themselves when provoked by circumstances and behaviors in the environment. This implies that school climate has a far greater impact on personality development than we ever realized.

The recent discovery of mirror neurons that anticipate another’s mood or mimic one’s actions means that schools must pay much more attention to their social environment. Schools are so focused on academics and testing that they are often unaware of the powerful impact that social and cultural forces have on students. Do students feel welcomed and respected by their peers and teachers? Will they succumb to peer pressure and take risks to feel socially accepted? School culture is characterized by an openness in communications, a high level of expectations, a recognition and appreciation for effort, an involvement in decision making, and a strong degree of caring. All of these affect an individual’s self-esteem. Educators need to pay much more attention to strengthening the positive aspects of the school’s social and cultural climates. Regrettably, we have seen the kinds of violent acts that students can commit when they feel disaffected from their school.

• Teach in depth and encourage creativity.
Contrary to a long-standing belief, neurons do regenerate, a process called neurogenesis. Diet and exercise contribute to this process. So does learning, which causes neurons to rewire themselves and establish new networks, especially when the learning is pursued in depth in a creative environment and with low stress.

• Maintain the arts. We recognize more than ever how the arts contribute to brain development. Consider this: We have never discovered a culture on this planet that does not have music, art, and dance. Yet these activities are often thought of as frills that are reduced or discontinued when money gets tight. The arts develop the critical skills students need to succeed in the 21st century: visual-spatial ability, attention and concentration, collaboration, and creativity (yes, it can be learned!). Different brain regions are involved in processing logical and creative tasks, implying that teaching strategies can raise the intellectual level and increase the creativity of all students.

• Helping those with learning difficulties.
We know more about learning disorders, such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. These newer understandings are leading to successful interventions with children who have these learning problems. The success with dyslexia is breathtaking, but too few teachers know about it. Research evidence shows that the brain can rewire itself (a process called neuroplasticity) as a result of environmental input, and at a faster pace than originally thought. In an amazing application of neuroscience, this finding has led researchers to devise computer programs that help struggling students rewire cerebral networks to perform more like good readers. The good news for adults is that neuroplasticity continues throughout our lifetime.

• Get enough sleep.
During sleep the brain is incredibly active, carrying out processes that help it to learn, make connections, remember, and clear out clutter. Studies show that sleep-deprived students are more likely to get poorer grades and more likely to get depressed than students who sleep longer. Teachers and parents should encourage their students to get sufficient sleep, so they have a better chance of remembering all the good information and skills they learned that day.

For centuries, effective teachers discovered through experience what strategies to use, but they did not know why the strategies worked, or did not work, on various occasions. That is what the findings from educational neuroscience are providing: the why. I call teachers “brain changers,” because that is what they are trying to do each day. It makes sense, then, that the more they know about how the brain learns, the more successful they can be at improving the quality and effectiveness of the educational experiences for our children.

Responses From Readers


It’s difficult/almost impossible for most teachers to weigh through all the brain-based research--much of which is gobbledygook. The words “brain-based” are thrown around with little scientific backing by pseudo-experts. I’ve greatly benefited from the research and corresponding books by UVA Professor Daniel Willingham. His blog and book have shaped my teaching and made me a better teacher.

Teaching students how the brain works and why you chose an assignment, greatly benefits the students. It demystifies the learning process and creates a culture of shared learning responsibilities.


The challenge is taking good findings and using them effectively in a room of kids grouped by age instead of needs. Additionally there is no extra time, resources, professional development, etc. Why don’t some higher-ed folks visit on occasion, bring a couple of lesson plans and help out? We need collaboration and ideas!

Nina Kuhn:

One way teachers can practically implement brain-based learning in the classroom is to give students choices. Students’ engagement is dramatically increased when they have choices. Additionally, research shows that when students have choices, they are 2.5 times more academically successful than those that do not have choices during their learning experiences Teachers can easily give students choices when choosing projects to complete, utilizing rubrics when completing tasks, or even by giving them the choice of completing any 20 of the 35 problems on a homework worksheet. The use of choices in learning also helps students feel that they are apart of the education process, not being dictated to.

Thanks to Dr. Sousa and to many readers for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

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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.