How can we use our understanding of the brain to promote better teaching and learning?
An essential understanding about brain-based education is that most neuroscientists don’t teach and most teachers don’t do research. It’s unrealistic to expect neuroscientists to reveal which classroom strategies will work best. That’s not appropriate for neuroscientists, and most don’t do that. Many critics could cite this as a weakness, but it’s not.
Neuroscience and many related disciplines (e.g. genetics, chemistry, endocrinology) are what we refer to as basic science. The work is done in labs, and the science is more likely to provide general guidelines or suggest future directions for research. Of all the neuroscience studies published each month, only a small fraction of them have potential educational relevance.
Brain-based teaching is the active engagement of practical strategies based on principles derived from brain-related sciences. All teachers use strategies; the difference here is that you’re using strategies based on real science, not rumor or mythology.
Here are just two examples that are highly relevant.
First, it appears that there are very few emotions “built-in” or “hard-wired” in our DNA.
Several dozen researchers have studied this issue and, while their numbers vary, it appears that we are born with less than a dozen emotions. The relevance of this is simple: What we are not born with, we must be taught.
School demands the presence of emotional responses such as respect, patience, empathy, shame, gratitude, and remorse. But some kids hit other kids in school and show no remorse. Other kids talk back to teachers and have no concept of respect for adults or shame for doing something wrong. This means the K-5 teachers must teach appropriate emotional responses, not criticize kids who lack them. Teachers who understand this stop demanding that kids act a certain way and they start teaching them HOW to respond.
The second example involves attention.
The brain is hard-wired to pay attention to anything that is related to survival. That includes kids walking by, flying objects (movement), gross bodily sounds (novelty), other kids (affiliation or mating opportunities), and other things you may view as distractions. Stop telling, begging, or imploring kids to pay attention: They already pay attention to everything that is important to them. To get student attention, create “buy-in” and give students a goal to reach. Attention will take care of itself. Younger kids will need to have their attention re-directed more often than older ones. Teachers who understand this principle change how they introduce things to kids. They use more curiosity-builders and have less stressful days while kids learn more.
One final example of the value of research in education is the importance of movement.
While many schools are reducing physical activity because of NCLB time constraints, a large group of studies has linked physical activity with cognition. The researchers have come at the topic from a wide range of disciplines. Some are cognitive scientists or exercise physiologists, while others are educational psychologists or physical educators. The applied research, where academic achievement is compared in schools where kids do or do not have physical activity, also supports the studies above. Like six blind men or women at different parts of the elephant, they are all addressing the same issue but from different viewpoints. They’re all correct in revealing how physical experience affects the brain. Each of their viewpoints is valid, yet incomplete by itself.
From the neuroscience perspective, we find exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells. We know exercise is correlated with improved learning, mood regulation, weight regulation, and memory. While careless policymakers reduce physical activity, many administrators are unaware of the inverse correlations with adolescent depression. It’s scary, but each year, one in six teens makes plans for suicide, and more than one in 12 teens attempted suicide in the last year, with overall high rates of 18% of students reporting anxiety or depression.
However, educators can’t see the new brain cells being produced when students exercise. That’s one reason to know the science: to show everyday, easy-to- influence school factors that regulate neurogenesis and subsequently, cognition, memory, and mood. Those are the kinds of connections that should be made. They are not careless, there’s little downside risk, and there’s much to gain. When the studies are well designed, there is support for physical activity in schools and the interdisciplinary promotion of physical activity as a “brain-compatible” activity is well founded. Again, we see the brain involved in everything we do at school.
Brain-based teaching is the active engagement of practical strategies based on principles derived from brain-related sciences. All teachers use strategies; the difference here is that you’re using strategies based on science. The strategies should be generated by verifiable, established principles.
An example of a principle would be “Brains change based on experience.” The science tells us HOW they change in response to experience. For example, we know that behaviorally relevant repetition is a smart strategy for learning skills. We know that intensity and duration matter over time. Did anyone know the optimal protocol for skill-building to maximize brain change 20 years ago? Yes, some knew them, through trial and error. But at issue is not whether any educator has learned a revolutionary new strategy from the brain research. Teachers are highly resourceful and creative; literally thousands of strategies have been tried in the classrooms around the world.
The issue is this:
Can we make better informed decisions about teaching, based on what we have learned about the brain? Brain-based education suggests we not wait 20 years until each of these correlations are proven beyond any possible doubt. Many theories might never be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
It’s possible that the sheer quantity of school, home, and genetic factors will render any generalizable principle impossible to prove as 100% accurate. As educators, we must live in the world of “likely” and “unlikely” versus the world of “certainty.”
Yet, in the example from above, the data from neuroscience is highly suggestive that gross motor voluntary exercise enhances neurogenesis and that neurogenesis supports cognition, memory, and mood regulation. The neuroscience merely supports other disciplines, but it’s a discipline you can’t see with your naked eyes, so it’s worth reporting.
Brain-based advocates should be pointing out how neuroscience parallels, supports, or leads the related sciences to enhance student learning.