Talking with students about their brains

Talking with students about their brains

By: Julia Daley

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I am something of a brain nerd. I love talking about the brain with anyone and everyone, including my students. Alas, as an English teacher, I must spend the bulk of my limited classroom time covering the curriculum. But I have still been able to weave brain science into my lessons consistently and to engage my high school students at a developmentally-appropriate level about their own minds. Sometimes I can plan in advance for these brain talks—for instance, by having my writing students look at an article that is coincidentally about how successful college students sleep—but most of the time they happen in spontaneous bursts when I stumble on a teachable moment: asking a napping student how long they slept the night before or talking about healthy study habits after I announce the date of an upcoming test.

The “when” of these talks will vary in every classroom, and the content of these talks can easily be their own section of a teaching manual. In my classrooms, I primarily focus on the aspects of the brain that have the most direct impact on students’ own learning.

Talking about sleep

As Blakemore touches on in her presentation, adolescence is a critical time in brain development, and sleep is essential for a healthy brain. While it is commonly known that the average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, many students are unaware that teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). When I do a quick poll of my students and ask them “What time do you usually go to bed?” and “What time do you usually wake up?” I very rarely find a student who is getting a healthy amount of sleep.

For many of my students, time spent sleeping is time that could better be spent studying. They do not realize that lack of sleep can significantly impair their learning ability and that having a full night’s sleep will be of far more use to them before a major test than cramming would. I usually use this library analogy when I describe the importance of the sleep process to my students:

Your mind is like a busy library. During the day all sorts of people are coming in and adding books to the shelves and, by the end of the day, the place is a mess. Every night, the library needs to close so that the librarians can clean the place up and organize the books so that they are easy for everyone to find the next day. If the librarians are not able to work all night, the library will still be a mess in the morning, and no one will be able to easily find the information they need.

"Without a proper energy source, [the brain] can run out of steam right when a student needs it most!"
Julia Daley
TT Author

Talking about diet

Diet is important not just for our students’ bodies, but for their learning The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body, and without a proper energy source, it can run out of steam right when a student needs it most. In K-12 schools in the U.S., there has been a growing recognition of how students’ diets affect their test scores, so it is very common now for teachers there to talk about what kinds of foods are best to eat before an exam.

I use similar talking points with my own students. On the day before a big exam, I ask students “What will you eat for breakfast tomorrow?” and then use their responses as a starting point to talk about their brain’s energy needs. Since they are already getting lots of information about diet in their P.E. classes, I keep the talk focused purely on the brain-and-learning aspects of healthy eating. The conversation always centers on the types of foods that are best to eat for a slow-and-consistent energy release. It is important to expand this topic beyond the immediate needs of doing well on a test, of course. After all, adolescent students are learning and growing every day, and their brains are always ravenous.

Talking about exercise

The importance of exercise for the brain was very thoroughly covered in the July issue, so I will not reiterate those points here. Needless to say, exercise and frequent movement breaks are very important for teenage students, too! As was recommended in that issue, I too try to include opportunities for movement between activities in my classrooms. Even something as simple as having students stand up and change group members provides a much-needed break for them.

Again, though, I make a point of engaging my students in a conversation as to why frequent movement breaks are so important for their learning. I want them to develop a good exercise habit outside of my classroom. This discussion pairs well with the concept of time management, particularly as it relates to completing a project, writing an essay, or studying for a test. For my writing students, I usually ask them about their writing process—How did you write this essay? Did you take breaks? Did you write it in one sitting?—and then once again use their answers to suggest ways that will be healthier for their brains. A popular technique for my students is the 45-15 strategy (an adapted version of the Pomodoro Technique), where they work/study/write for 45* minutes and then take a break for 15 minutes. What they do on their break is up to them, but I always recommend that they stand up and move around during that interval.

*This strategy can be adjusted to any time frame, such as 25-5, as appropriate for the task and the students.

Talking about cognitive load

As a teacher, I try to design my lessons so that students’ working memory does not get overloaded. [See the March issue for more on this concept.] I also want students to understand their own cognitive capacities and the role that working memory plays in their learning, so I use a short activity to demonstrate these concepts to them:

This activity requires at least seven small objects, like rubber balls, in different colors and patterns. Divide students into small groups. Have each group of students stand in a circle, with one person in the middle who is from a different team. This middle student is given a colored ball to hold. The ball represents a vocabulary item the students are currently studying. The student must remember the meaning of each ball they are holding, and cannot drop any of them. Other students in the circle give more balls (and vocabulary items) to the middle student until there are no more balls left or the student cannot hold any more (either physically or mentally). At that point, the student is tasked with reciting the vocabulary the balls represent—still without dropping them. For each correct word, the student gets a point for their team. If the student forgets a word or drops the balls, the team gets zero points.

This activity is great because it gets students moving, reviews key vocabulary, and demonstrates cognitive load to them. At the beginning, it is easy for students to hold onto a few balls and to remember a handful of words. The challenge quickly escalates as the numbers build, and eventually they reach their limit. As students become familiar with the game, they start figuring out how many balls they can comfortably hold and still remember all the attached words. When the students start getting too good at the game, I add extra distractions, like having the circle of students dance or playing some background music. This can get loud and hectic, but it is a good way for them to let off some steam.

After playing the game, I use it as a conversation starter for the concept of cognitive load. The balls represent ideas or tasks that the students are trying to juggle in their working memory and dropping the balls symbolizes cognitive overload. With the students, we talk about how maybe multitasking is not the best idea for effective studying. Together, we strategize ways to minimize the distractions that students might encounter while doing their homework: putting their phones away, finding a quiet space, writing a to-do list, etc.

Just changing the design of my lesson plans may help students learn more effectively in my own classes, but I want them to be successful beyond my classroom. In having these conversations and doing these activities, I can help my students understand their growing brains. And the best part of all: I get to share my passion about the brain with them and still accomplish the course objectives!

Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she’s been learning how to develop a website.

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