Whose Brain Is it Anyway? What Students Should Know About their Brain and Learning
By Carol Koran Nishimachi International School
My father was a firm advocate of the concept, “the right tool for the right job!” He would cringe if he discovered one of his children using the head of a screwdriver, or the blunt end of a knife to hammer in a nail to hang a picture on the wall.
His premise was valid; objectives can be accomplished most effectively and efficiently, if a person utilizes the correct instrument. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the correct tools allow for creativity and mastery.
Teachers know this. We spend extensive time perfecting our craft; investigating, implementing, practicing and reflecting on our tools for instruction. But teaching is not an activity accomplished in isolation; it assumes the presence of one or more students, who are participants in the process.
Ideally, all those involved have access to the correct tools to achieve the best result. What is one of the most powerful tools we can share with students as our partners in the learning process? As one of my high school students said, “It really helps when you explain to us how our brain works.”
Sharing the Knowledge
If we are all striving for the same goal of better learning, then shouldn’t all members of the team be well versed in the most important tool for the job – the brain? When I first started linking brain research with a strategy or activity we were using in the classroom, I would preface it with, “I’m about to share with you something from the ‘Secret Teacher Files’.”
I’d then go on to explain the brain research connections that clarified why Think-Pair-Share is good for learning, or why we were going for a walk outside before their quiz, or why it was important that they use the coloured markers in their mind-maps. The first step in making more powerful and effective use of our learning tool – the brain – is to share the knowledge with those who “own” the instrument.
The challenge for teachers is to determine not only which current neuroscience research is valid for their context, but how to translate this knowledge into strategies and approaches that will have the greatest impact on student learning.
The following are only three of many brain facts that ought to be shared with students. This basic knowledge can serve as a starting point for more extensive and deeper conversations with students about the neuroscience behind their learning.
Student “Need-to-Knows” about the Brain and Learning
1. The brain needs a reason to pay attention to new information.
Every moment our brains are flooded with sensory input. The brain cannot possibly pay attention to all this information, so it has to be selective. The choice about what to pay attention to comes down to survival. Is it new and, therefore, potentially dangerous? Will it eat me? Can I eat it? Once the brain has decided that no threat exists from the new information, unless it has a reason to stay focused, it will simply discard the new information.
As a teacher, I might think that the characteristics of Elizabethan theatre, or the components of systems of government is pretty riveting stuff. Why aren’t my students equally excited about it? Probably because, as the teacher, I have a bigger plan in mind.
I know that the content I’m providing to them today is necessary for them to complete a particular assignment that will challenge their thinking, or to develop collaborative skills, or build on previous learning. In preparing the lesson, I likely had a clear objective or goal for the learning, and if my lesson goes well, I’ll even feel the dopamine effect that accompanies accomplishing a goal.
The Dopamine Effect:
Neuroscience tells us that the presence of clear, well-defined goals is crucial to motivation. Once the goal is reached, the brain releases the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine. This self-reward not only reinforces the learning, but increases the likelihood that the brain will seek further opportunities to repeat the action.
But, if I haven’t shared objectives with students, or had them set their own goal for the learning, then I may be the only one who actually remembers the information a few days later. Of course, if your students arrive at class everyday already intrinsically motivated and salivating at the chance to learn new information, then they already have set their own internal goals.
However, most students are going to require some guidance in setting goals linked to the classroom instruction, and that becomes one of the tools that teachers can use to both motivate students and to help them understand how they learn.
2. The brain that does the work is the brain that grows the dendrites.
We learn by doing, and we learn by doing things in multiple ways. No one expects to learn how to swim, or play basketball by watching videos over and over again. At some point, the person has to pick up the ball or dive into the pool. Learning happens when a person actually does something with new information.
Learning is the process of growing dendrites and strengthening connections. Students need to understand the basic structures of neurons, and recognize that it is up to them to “grow more dendrites” by actually participating in the activities teachers design and implement for student learning. Why do we want students to actively participate in discussions?
Because verbalizing helps to grow dendrites. Why should students take sketchnotes, or create mind-maps or build a model? Because using different learning modalities creates multiple pathways for recall. Students need to know that learning is an active process because of the pathways and branches the brain creates when we move, speak, draw or sing.
Once students realize the neuroscience behind creating connections, and storing memories through multiple pathways, they are much more motivated to take actions to improve their own learning.
Why should students take sketchnotes, or create mind-maps or build a model? Because using different learning modalities creates multiple pathways for recall. Students need to know that learning is an active process because of the pathways and branches the brain creates when we move, speak, draw or sing.
3. Brains can’t function if they are starved or thirsty.
The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the human body. It needs to be fed, hydrated and rested in order to work at peak efficiency. Just as we teach students the basics of nutrition and fitness for their body, we need to make feeding and watering of the brain one of their top priorities as well.
Students yawning in class? One of the first signs of dehydration in the brain is fatigue. Without adequate hydration, neurons cannot fire; hence, learning suffers. Students feeling anxious before a quiz? Drinking water lowers stress hormones.
Students are more likely to take ownership of their learning, demonstrate independence and be self-motivated if they have a clearer understanding of the most important implement in their “tool-box” of learning strategies, their own brain. Eric Jensen, brain-based learning author states that, “Nothing is more relevant to educators that the brains of their students.”
It’s their brain; students need to know how to use it more efficiently, too.
Carol Koran has been involved in education pretty much from birth, since she comes from a family of teachers. After spending over 30 years in Canada as a teacher, university lecturer, professional development speaker, and principal, she has moved to Tokyo to take on the role of Director of Learning at Nishimachi International School. Carol’s areas of interest include brain-based teaching and learning, visual literacy, working with beginning teachers and practicing gratitude whenever she is out hiking.