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Learning and the Brain


The field of cognitive neuroscience has grown rapidly in the last several years, providing teachers with much needed information about how students learn and how teachers can best support that learning through the pedagogical choices they make.

Preconditions for Learning

Neuroscience tells us that, as a species, we are hard-wired to learn. It is a survival mechanism, like other animals' protective coloration or speed.  For us, the ability to learn - and to transmit what we learn - has allowed us to find food, avoid danger, build shelters, develop and improve skills and pass that knowledge on to our offspring and those in our group.


However, we have also come to learn that certain conditions influence and optimize learning:


  • Emotion

For evolutionary purposes, it makes sense that emotions such as fear and pleasure have been central to our learning. To survive, our ancestors had to attend and respond to anything that posed a threat. They also had to pay close attention to sources of food, shelter and warmth (pleasure) and opportunities for procreation (also pleasure) as those things ensured their survival and the survival of their offspring. These instincts remain intact today and influence the things to which we attend and respond. Thus, when a lesson, a reading or an interaction engages our emotions (negative or positive), we are more likely to pay close attention and remember.


  • Novelty

Our attention is drawn to novel things for similar survival reasons.  If our ancestors came across an unfamiliar plant, animal or situation, they paid close attention because their attention (and quick, appropriate response) could mean the difference between life and death. The object could pose a threat, or it could be a new source of food, shelter, etc.


  • Safety

Learning happens most easily when we feel safe and supported.  As Leah Levy writing for Edudemic asks, "Would you be able to memorize the times tables when you were being chased by a bear?" For many students our classrooms do not feel like safe places because of their peers, because of things happening in their lives or because of the challenge of learning.  Yet, research shows that when we can make our classrooms feel safe and places where students feel welcome, when we are perceived as adults who are caring, approachable and trustworthy, and when we can make the learning at hand feel possible, student achievement improves.


  • Challenging but not Overwhelming Tasks

Hattie and Yates' book Visible Learning tells us that we are drawn to gaps between what we know and what we are trying to learn, but we are turned off by chasms between what we know and what we are trying to learn. Their words bring to mind George Polya's wonderful advice in How to Solve It that teachers need to build scaffolds for students to develop their problem solving skills. If they can't answer the first question, he advises, ask a slightly easier one and keep asking until you ask a question they can answer. The experience of "desirable difficulty," of crossing a stream, no matter how narrow, is what builds confidence and resilience.


  • Relevance and Engagement

What we are trying to learn has to seem relevant in order to engage our attention and motivate us to do the work required to learn it.  


  • Healthy Brain Habits

To learn optimally, we have to be hydrated, well-nourished, and well-rested.  The brain is a greedy organ, consuming about 260 calories a day and requiring adequate rest, water and healthy foods for optimal functioning. This article provides more detailed information on the brain's nutritional needs, but it has always been my practice to allow water bottles in my classroom and to have healthy snacks on hand for those times when students (and their brains) need a boost.


  • Minimal Stress

We have to minimize stress as research shows that stress has extremely negative effects on our ability to learn. This article (and many others) makes the negative impact of stress on learning clear.


The more we learn about learning, the more we learn how difficult and complicated the whole process is.  There are so many factors to consider.  

Many Ways to Process

It's important to remember that all the brains sitting with us in our classrooms are different.  They have had different experiences (even true for identical twins raised in the same household), and they all have different strengths.  So, how we ask students to process information is important.  It is particularly important to pay close attention to the techniques that work for the particular students in your class.  In my time, teachers asked us to process by having us take notes, complete practice problems or answer questions.  Many of these techniques are still quite helpful today, but we also have a wider array of other techniques from which to choose as well. Don't be afraid to develop your own ideas to help students remember. Make note of those that work for your students this year - and please feel invited to share them with all of us.


  • Notetaking

Taking notes is difficult for many students (and the younger they are, the harder it is) because doing so asks them to do two distinct tasks at the same time - listening and writing.  Research tells us that we can't really multi-task.  So, if we want students to make notes, we need to pause and allow them time to note down salient points. Ideally, we have also helped by noting the information we want students to archive on our boards or by providing them with an outline. I always send the students the notes from my class which leaves them free to note down what they feel they want to note but without the anxiety that they have to capture every word.


  • Practice

Completing practice problems or otherwise working with the material is an excellent processing strategy.  However, we need to find ways to make sure that all students are working with the material and doing so correctly - so the long-term memory does not store the wrong information. We also need to correct any misunderstandings clearly and carefully and with sensitivity to students' feelings. (Information and video examples on ways of checking for understanding and ways of providing helpful feedback can be found in the following sections.) Because I am a math teacher, students spend much time in my class working problems.  Some days, I have them work in groups and then share out on the boards.  Other days, I ask them to work alone at the boards around the room.  Both work for me because we can all see their thinking, their process, and correct any mistakes we spot together.  


  • Questioning

Questioning can also be a helpful way to have students process. However, the time we allot for students to process and develop an answer to our questions is very important. Research reveals that most of us wait ONLY a second before asking another student, answering the question ourselves or asking a different question. Research further reveals that waiting longer before calling on a student allows students to develop longer answers, ensures that more students process the question and begin to develop an answer, increases the number of students who develop an appropriate response, decreases the number of students who don't respond, and increases the number of student-generated questions.  


The kind of questions we ask matters too, but there will be more discussion of questioning techniques as well on later pages.


  • Movement

Recent research reveal that exercise and moving enhance learning for many reasons we are just beginning to understand. Used in class, movement also ties the learning at hand to another stimulus - the movement itself. A friend of mine teaches Creative Writing.  One day when I was observing her poetry class, she taught a unit on meter - something I struggled with mightily during high school.  Instead of presenting the typical meter schemes like iamb, trochee, dactyl, etc. and then having students scan lines of poetry - which I feared was the next part of the lesson and contemplated heading for the door - she asked them to stand and clap the beats while they read lines of poetry together off the screen. At first, I heard a cacophony of sound as students - much as I did - struggled to "hear" the beats.  However, the exercise invited them to help one another out. It also made their understanding (or lack thereof) visible to both the teacher and their fellow students. By the end of ten minutes or so, they could all scan a new line of poetry correctly.


  • Technology

Two friends use technology well to help learners process.  My friend Scott, at the end of a session on how the brain learns, asked us to Tweet him three takeaways from his presentation.  This ensured that we all processed and that he knew whether or not we had captured his message correctly; it also created a way for people to process at their own speed.


My friend Ellen uses her TI-Nspire and her TI-Navigator to facilitate processing and to check for understanding.  With one program, she can have students work a problem on their paper and simply submit an answer.  With another, she can have students actually submit all their work - and receive instant feedback on the correctness of each step.


Humanities teachers often use blogs or Google Docs to help their students process what they have read or watched.


  • Drawing

Like movement, any kind of creative activity also facilitates processing.  Another friend teaches a class on Shakespeare.  When I observed her class, she was teaching Sonnet 130 - "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun ..." After asking a student to read the poem to his classmates, she broke students into pairs and asked them to draw the woman on the board using the descriptions Shakespeare provided in his sonnet.  After about 10 minutes of intense drawing (and these were NOT art students), she asked the students to explain the choices they had made.  


  • Making Videos

Most students arrive in our classes with an array of technology in their pockets or bags.  While none of us want our students texting during class, sometimes their phones can be a fun way for them to process what they have learned. Another friend, who teaches foreign language, often asks students to create a short video to practice a grammatical concept or particular vocabulary which they share with her when they finish. The one class I observed recently focused on giving commands, and the students had twenty minutes to film ten negative and positive commands.  

The Basics of How We Learn
  • Learning and Attention

Learning begins when our brain receives a stimulus from one of our senses.  Scientists estimate that our brains receive 11,000,000 stimuli every moment.  (Visible Learning, p. 136) Given the vast array of information coming at us, we cannot attend to all of it.  So, our brains are equipped with a sorting mechanism to determine what they should attend to.  Because our brain exists to help us survive, it pays close attention to anything that will impact our survival - danger, emotion, novelty, familiarity, and sources of pleasure.  It also pays more attention to the gist of a situation than its details.  Finally, our ability to attend is finite - about 10 minutes.  Our brains then need a rest and another attention grabbing stimulus. (Brain Rules, p. 113)


  • Short-Term Memory and Processing

Whatever our brain finds worthy of our attention moves to our short-term memory. Two important "features" of our short-term memory are its limited capacity and the short period of time it retains any information (20 - 30 seconds).  In order for us to remember anything, we need to move the information to our long-term memory.  This happens when we process the information by doing something with it (writing, talking, drawing, etc.).  See below left for specific suggestions.


  • Prior Knowledge

Another important facet of memory is that what is stored in our long-term memory is only useful to us if we can retrieve it.  So, we have to store information in a way that facilitates retrieval.  Our brains do this best when we can link what we are learning or trying to remember to something we already know.  And ... when we can help students create multiple connections to the material, we help them to learn it more deeply and be able to retrieve it more easily. See below for more specific suggestions.

Prior Knowledge

What we know determines, more than we can imagine, what we are able to learn and how we think. (Visible Learning, p. 126)  This statement has huge implications for our work in the classroom. Before we begin to instruct students in anything, we have to ascertain what they already know about the topic.  We also have to ensure that the information they have is correct - otherwise, we will not be building on a solid foundation.


I always tell a funny story about my own learning to drive experience when my father was trying to teach me to drive a standard.  In our first lesson, as I was sitting in the driver's seat having started the car and shifted into gear correctly, my father told me to "throw out the clutch."  This was an expression I had never heard, so I looked at him blankly. Huh?  I looked around the car for something to discard.  


My father repeated the direction in a louder voice - "THROW OUT THE CLUTCH." Even at a louder volume, the expression meant nothing, so I asked, "What?"  It wasn't until my father got into the driver's seat and demonstrated that his words had any meaning. Once I had the essential prior knowledge, I was able to drive - after a fair amount of practice.


Incorrect or incomplete prior knowledge is just as problematic for learners.  In the book How People Learn, the authors reference the children's book Fish Is Fish by Leo Lionni. The book centers on two friends - a young fish and a tadpole who grow up together in a small pond.  When the tadpole grows into a frog, he leaves the pond for stretches of time and then returns to tell his friend fish all that he has seen.  The fish, who has never left the pond, has a hard time understanding everything his friend is telling him and he incorrectly attaches his friend's descriptions to the only reality he knows (see image below).


When we are beginning to teach anything, it is important first to think carefully about the knowledge we feel our students need to learn this next piece.  What assumptions about their skills and knowledge are we making? Since most of us teach a fairly broad diversity of students, this question is particularly important to ask ourselves as we are planning our lessons.  When we reference unfamiliar animals or locations, those students who do not share our backgrounds are often lost.  When our expertise with our discipline is large, it is also very hard to remember what it was like to be a novice and what we needed to know or be able to do before learning the topic at hand.  


Sometimes I ensure that all students have the requisite prior knowledge by beginning a unit with an activity that we do together rather than trying to build upon something I hope they remember from last year.  We then discuss it together making careful notes of the important, foundational understandings students have to have in place before moving on.  I have seen other teachers used flipped videos or readings to make sure students arrive in class with the skills and knowledge they need for the lesson.  Still others have created a small group review activity or even an individual ungraded assessment before moving on - with follow-up review activites at hand if needed.  Sometimes too I ask questions - "Who remembers linear functions?" When all hands go up, I ask other questions like "Give me an example?",  "How do you know a function is linear?", and "What distinguishes linear functions?" By the number and quality of responses, I learn who remembers, and how correctly, and who does not.  Their answers (which I take time eliciting) also help those whose recall is not as clear to bring the needed information to mind.  The first question, "Who remembers linear functions?", is not sufficient as few precalculus students want to admit not knowing something so basic when everyone else seems to know it and students, no matter how talented they are, will have varying degrees of memory on the topic and not necessarily the specifc knowledge I need them to have.

Resources on Learning and the Brain
  • Conferences

I have really enjoyed the conferences offered by Learning and the Brain.  They offered a variety of one-day workshops, conferences and summer institutes.  The instructors I have experienced have always been first rate.


I have also always enjoyed listening to Dr. JoAnn Deak.


  • Books

I have found the following books extremely helpful.  Again, I have arranged them alphabetically by title and included links to their Amazon page so you can read the description.


Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School by John Medina

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School by the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning

How the Brain Learns by David Sousa

Learning, Teaching, and the Brain: A Practical Guide for Educators by Jeb Schenck

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown

Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison

Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher by Judy Willis

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey

The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools by Mariale Hardiman

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates

Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel Willingham


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