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Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning

By Wendi Pillars — December 20, 2011 5 min read

I’m an armchair neuroscientist, or at least I love learning about the brain, how it functions, and what recent findings mean for my practice as a teacher.

Bridging research findings to the realities of the classroom, however, is far easier said than done. In addition to navigating the daily challenges of our work, we must distinguish trendy “research-based” claims about the brain from those grounded in legitimate neuroscientific findings. And then we have to figure out how to apply what we’ve learned. Sifting through these claims to understand their origins is precisely the goal of my current research.

Remember when conventional science wisdom claimed that the average person could learn and retain about seven chunks of information at a time? (Hence, our seven-digit phone number protocol.) Well, recent neuroscientific findings have determined that our cognitive capacity is actually just three to four items.

This can be good: It forces us as teachers to narrow and hone our objectives, and to determine what is most important as we make decisions throughout the day. But it can also be overwhelming—like, how can we possibly help students master an extensive body of content when they can only learn it in such small chunks?

In keeping with this particular finding, here are three critical takeaways that I keep coming across as I explore the literature on neuroscience and teaching.

#1. Teachers are, in essence, brain changers.

We are the only professionals whose job it is to physically alter a child’s brain daily. I like how Judy Willis, accomplished neuroscientist-turned-teacher, refers to a teacher’s work as a form of “bloodless brain surgery.”

Here’s how it happens at a basic level:

• If a child takes in information through her sensory pathways and her brain makes the decision to keep that knowledge, the integrative process takes over and makes sense out of that learning as she sleeps.

• This consolidation occurs when neurons transmit messages to one another. The messages must cross microscopic chasms between the neurons—laboriously at first, and then more quickly with each subsequent moment of access.

• Eventually the learning is connected to several points within a denser and denser web of neurons, easing the information retrieval process for the conscious learner.

As teachers, we must understand that a neural pathway is like a new path in the woods. The more frequently that a neural pathway is traveled, the fewer the obstacles, the greater its capacity, and the smoother and faster it becomes.

This means that we must help our students make connections to prior experiences, knowledge, and learning—and connections to other curricular areas. The more connections we make in class, the more we are physically altering our students’ brains by creating and strengthening neural pathways.

Knowing this, it becomes all the more crucial to maximize learning opportunities during the 1,260 hours our students are with us during the school year.

Studies show that we as teachers spend 90 percent of planning time ensuring our lessons make sense. We tend to spend far less planning time (about 10 percent) on establishing the relevance of the lesson to previous and future learning. But neuroscientific findings indicate that relevance—linked to connections and emotion—is particularly important.

Reflecting on my own teaching, I see that it’s important to engage a range of sensory pathways more consistently as I provide explicit and implicit opportunities for the students to recognize and make connections.

#2. The one whose neural pathways are changing is the one doing the learning.

Self-evident, right? I admit that, initially, I just thought, “Well, duh!” But as I reflected honestly on my own classroom, I began to see that my mindset needed to shift. I was doing too much of the wrong kind of work—making too much explicit too quickly, rather than planning for opportunities to help students make connections themselves. So many areas of learning could be owned by the students, yet I was robbing them of that experience, either in total or in part.

What is the best way to support that ownership, to design ways to turn over the learning to the students, according to neuroscience? Two big ideas supported by the findings are that the brain is a pleasure junkie—and a pattern junkie. So, I’m finding more ways to bring laughter and pleasure into my classroom and creating playful ways to explore and learn. I’m also integrating more opportunities for students to work with patterns, sorting and interacting with the relationships among data, concepts, and experiences.

#3. Critical thinking is more important than ever—which means we expect different results from learning.

Scholars like Tony Wagner, Daniel Willingham, and others say the innovators of the future will be students who can formulate the “right questions,” sift through overwhelming amounts of information, and clearly communicate knowledge they have recombined in original ways. What can neuroscience show us about developing students’ critical thinking skills? About changing the way we approach teaching and learning?

As I mentioned, learning develops an ever-expanding network of neural connections within the brain. When students practice higher-order thinking—when they question an initial assumption or answer and explore it further—more connections and pathways are created in the brain. This also occurs when students are able to recombine their new knowledge with what they’ve learned in the past.

I’ve realized that I need to provide more opportunities for my students to explore the inquiry process: to take their learning to the next level, wherever that may be. This necessitates teaching them how to inquire and how to be comfortable taking risks. Technology can help us create these opportunities. But information is useless unless shared and explored effectively, so we teachers must continue to foster communication skills and relationships in all we do.

Reading about all this from a neuroscientific perspective makes the learning process seem more concrete and reassures me that we don’t need to scrap everything we know about effective teaching. In fact, many of us already approach teaching in ways that are consistent with neuroscientific findings—but knowing more about how our students’ brains function can help us fine-tune what we do, and remind us to be consistent with those ideas that are brain-friendly. This perspective also emphasizes the learner, rather than the teacher—a reminder that we would all do well to heed.

As Willis, the teacher-neuroscientist says, “This is not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about the mission of teaching in a way that changes brains for the better.”

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