Let the Brain Lead the Way!

Let the Brain Lead the Way!

By: Mohammad Khari

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near one.”
J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit

If you asked teachers what they would prioritize when they are planning their lessons, you would most probably get some answers like: objectives, context, motivation, emotions, and timetable fit. All these elements of a proper lesson plan have something in common: they are all connected to neuroscience or, at least, neuroscience can explain their importance. That is why knowing what happens when the brain is presented with new information can strengthen the stages one designs to guarantee efficient instruction.

Instructional Design

Instructional design (ID), also known as instructional systems design (ISD), is the practice of systematically designing, developing, and delivering instructional products and experiences in a consistent and reliable fashion toward an efficient, effective, appealing, engaging, and inspiring acquisition of knowledge (Merrill et al., 1996; Wagner, 2011). The process consists broadly of determining the state and needs of the learner, defining the end goal of instruction, and creating some “intervention” to assist in the transition from one to the other. The outcome of this intervention may be directly observable and scientifically measured or completely hidden and assumed. There are various instructional design models but quite a few are based on the ADDIE model with the five phases: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.

The Brain behind the Design

The two pillars of any successful learning process one should keep in mind while designing their lessons are “effective information processing” and “long-term memory storage. Both are highly influenced by the students’ comfort level, as is confirmed by neuroimaging studies and the measurement of brain chemical transmitters (Thanos et al., 1999). Neuroscience can explain why and how presenting new information through a systematic design is more likely to lead to a more efficient learning. Knowing how new information is processed in the brain enables us to choose better strategies, when designing the lessons, strategies that stimulate rather than impede communication among the various parts of the brain. Mapping studies of electrical activity (electroencephalography—EEG or brain waves) and neuroimaging show the synchronization of brain activity as information passes from the somatosensory cortex areas (regions of the brain which are responsible for receiving and processing sensory information from across the body, such as touch, temperature, and pain) to the hippocampus and amygdala. (Andreasen et al., 1999). This amazing journey any new piece of information goes through from how it is perceived, and how emotions and previously acquired knowledge are attached, to how it is stored in the long-term memory, has been fascinating neuroscientists for a long time.

RAD Lessons for the Instructional Design

The acronym RAD can remind educators of three important neuroscience concepts to consider (Willis, 2007) when designing and planning their lessons:

    • Novelty fosters information transmission through the Reticular activating system (a filter in the lower brain that focuses attention on novel changes perceived in the environment). So, try to keep the lessons stimulating and challenging.
    • Stress-free classrooms propel data through the Amygdala’s affective filter. Classrooms that are free from intimidation have a better chance to achieve effective learning. The amygdala is the region of the brain that responds to stress, fear, and worry.[1] When it detects an imminent threat, the amygdala jumps into action and puts up an information blockade. The brain is no longer concerned with absorbing knowledge. It simply wants to deal with the threat and preserve itself. When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience “aha” moments (Kohn, 2004). In other words, stress-free lessons have a higher chance to lead to effective learning. Cognitive psychology studies provide clinical evidence that stress, boredom, confusion, low motivation, and anxiety (the live dragons!) can individually, and more profoundly in combination, interfere with learning (Christianson, 1992). So, try to keep your lessons stress-free.
    • Pleasurable associations linked with learning are more likely to release more Dopamine (a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholine, which increases focused attention). Make sure to include pleasurable activities in your lessons. This is why many professionals gamify their courses.Gamification combines traditional learning materials with game mechanics, such as leaderboards and point systems. (Pappas, 2021) So, try to keep your lessons pleasant and amusing.

[1] It was not long ago that the amygdala was considered the place in her brain that produces fear and anger. This view is changing. We now know for example, that fear is caused by the prefrontal cortex, working with the amygdala, but the amygdala is more complex than previously thought. The amygdala is also involved in reward and memory.

Knowing how the brain works and being familiar with neuroscientific research enable teachers to plan lessons in which enough challenge and novelty for suitable brain stimulation are provided and anxiety is low.

    • Make it relevant – Try to avoid overly abstract lessons that seem irrelevant, by making the lesson more personally interesting and motivating. Ideally, students should be able to answer the question, “Why are we learning about this?” at any point in a lesson, although it is not always possible to explain the immediate relevance of every lesson. Relevance can lead to pleasure coming from the intrinsic reward for their efforts. You can also benefit from spaced repetition to make the information better learned by making it more relevant. Items that appear repeatedly fall under this category. Our brain recognizes these ideas and concepts and knows that they are relevant. As a result, it locks it away in our memory for later use. Develop bite-sized lessons, modules, and activities that are spaced out over time (Pappas, 2021).
    • Give them a break – Enjoying hobbies, time with friends, exercise, or music can all reduce stress. Considering the tight schedules and the objectives that need to be covered in the curriculum, teachers might think about giving students a three-minute vacation to reduce stress. By reading glucose or oxygen use and blood flow, positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicate activity in identifiable regions of the brain. These scans demonstrate that under stressful conditions information is blocked from entering the brain’s areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. In other words, when stress activates the brain’s affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process slowly stops (Willis, 2007). Any pleasurable activity used as a brief break can give the amygdala a chance to cool down and the neurotransmitters time to rebuild.
    • Create positive associations – Even if previous classroom experiences have led to associations that link certain activities to a stress response from the amygdala, students can benefit from revisiting the activity without something negative happening. By avoiding stressful practices like calling on students who have not raised their hands, teachers can dampen the stress association. Students can also build on their neurochemical memories of positive feelings if they have opportunities to recognize and savor their successes. A posted “Personal Goal Achievement” list, for example, acknowledges all students’ successes. A powerful process occurs when positive reinforcement is relevant to our needs. The positive reinforcement could be, for example, targeted feedback, deliveredin a timely manner, that pertains to our goals or strengths. Highlight a learner’s accomplishments and praise them for their efforts.
    • Prioritize important information – Guide the students in learning how to decide what facts are worth writing down and reviewed when studying. This leads to reducing the amount of information they need to deal with, which in turn reduces the stress.
    • Allow independent discovery learning – Students are more likely to remember and understand what they learn if they find it compelling or have a part in figuring it out for themselves, thanks to dopamine release and the consolidation of relational memories. In addition, when students have some choice about the way they will study or report on something, their motivation will increase and stress will diminish. They will be more accepting of their own errors, motivated to try again, and less self-conscious about asking questions.
    • Acknowledge neuroplasticity – Brain science shows that each brain is one-of-a-kind. Even identical twins have differently active brain patterns and neural networks. We do not actually have areas of thinking isolated in the right or left hemispheres of our brain, and people do not have set learning styles based on their brain configurations (Pashler et al., 2008). To align our teaching practices with the wide variability of our students, teachers can shift the way they provide resources and scaffolds. Instead of giving the whole class a “one-size-fits-all” lesson or giving only a specific group of students particular modifications, we can provide a “learning buffet” of options students can use to achieve an intended learning goal (Posey, 2021).

These are just a few points of things we have learned in neuroscience that might help lesson design, but there are many more. The main point is that neuroscience helps us shift our focus from language to the learner.


Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy, sharing his ideas through a series of professional development sessions.

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