Teachers are always thinking: What can I do to support my students in their educational journey? How can they be nurtured to become skilled readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists? If teachers all have one thing in common, it is having high ambitions for their students. What would happen then if the curriculum incorporated pedagogy that encouraged students to become masters of their own brains? What impact would that have on their educational outcomes?
All ages of children can be empowered by the knowledge that they have the potential to control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning (Willis, 2009). In a learning environment, students can be supported to focus on:
- Building their knowledge of brain anatomy
- Developing an attitude of growth mindset and
- Understanding the importance of neuroplasticity
1. Emotional reactions impact learning
Knowing about their brain offers students many advantages. With a focus on brain anatomy, students can begin by learning the roles of important parts of the brain necessary for learning, attention, and memory. Understanding that different regions of the brain have different responsibilities and responses will allow students to recognise how their emotional reactions impact on their learning.
With students, teachers can explore important parts of the brain that can allow students to begin to understand the relationship between how the brain functions
and their ability to learn. Students can understand that when information enters the brain it is routed to one of two areas through the reticular activating system. Information will be routed to either the prefrontal cortex, which can be termed the “thinking brain,” or it can be routed to the lower automatic brain, which can be described as the “reactive brain.”
2. Reactive brain impairs learning
Our thinking brains are able to consciously process and reflect on information whereas the area where the reactive brain is located responds to information instinctively rather than through thinking (Willis, 2014). Students should understand that their physical health, their emotions, and how well they focus their attention affect whether new information reaches their thinking brain or gets filtered out because of negative emotions (Willis, 2009). A student who is anxious about a math test in her next class may not be able to focus her attention on learning new content in her current class as her reactive brain inhibits new learning.
3. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions
The amygdala is another region which students need to take note of. It’s a part of the brain housed in the medial temporal lobe that is thought to be responsible for the emotional evaluation of stimuli (Moren & Balkenius, 2001). It is important for students to realise how different emotional states can contribute to different learning outcomes. The amygdala plays a central role in emotional responses including feelings such as pleasure, fear, anxiety, or anger (Queensland Brain Institute, 2019). When the brain is filtering information to the “reactive brain” due to boredom, frustration, or anxiety, for example, then the ability to learn is negatively affected. In some cases, the fight – flight – freeze response may take place, with profound effects on attention, working memory, and long term memory (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016).
When the amygdala is activated through feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, or boredom the response to the information that it is processing is likely to be either to ignore it, fight against it as a negative experience, or avoid it. It is unlikely that learning will take place (Willis, 2014). If our learners become more aware of how a particular negative state might impede their learning, then they might be able to reverse some of its negative effects. A student will feel more empowered to take control of their learning if they have the knowledge and understanding that negative states impair their learning.
4. Intelligence is not fixed
Students who realise that learning can only take place during positive emotional states can understand that intelligence is neither fixed nor limited to the genes that they have inherited. This understanding allows them to see that they have the potential to master schoolwork given to them. This realisation is especially important for children who hold the belief that they are “not smart” and who maintain they have an inability to change that about themselves (Willis, 2009).
It is not only students but some teachers and parents, too, who may have a fixed belief that intelligence is determined by birth and that even vigorous intervention will not change a child’s academic abilities (Willis, 2009). In fact, it may well be these beliefs of their teachers and parents that lead students to have this state of mind. Consider that, in some families, one child may be labeled the “smart” child and another child labeled the “sporty” child. A child can change their brain by improving how they approach learning (Willis, 2009).
5. Neuroplasticity and learning are intertwined
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change or learn throughout life (Whitman, 2018). Students should know that the human brain is an experience-dependent organ (Burns, 2019). There is a vast amount of research that supports insights into the many ways that the brain and behaviour change in response to experience (Mundkur, 2005).
Neuroplasticity involves three processes. Burns (2019) explains that it begins with proliferation, where the brain is building itself and is highly dependent on childhood experiences like play, social interactions, and listening to stories. This involves the creation of new synaptic connections. Children can be encouraged to try new things and take on new learning experiences so new connections can be built and strengthened over time.
Pruning is the second process involved in neuroplasticity. For maximum efficiency the brain eliminates synaptic connections that are not relevant or useful (Burns, 2019). Knowing this allows children to see that their brains are primed for them to learn and to discard irrelevant information. As a result, they can be taught that repetition is important for learning, in order to allow for new pathways to be built and strengthened over time.
Thirdly, Burns (2019) explains that consolidation takes place as part of neuroplasticity. This allows learning and experiences to be retrieved automatically. The brain can develop anticipatory response patterns which reduce effort and increase speed and efficiency. Children should know that not only are their brains infinitely capable of learning new material but with repetition the synaptic pathways will get stronger and they will find they are able to retrieve information much faster.
5. Growth mindset affects student achievement
Once students have the understanding that their brains are ever-changing and plastic, with the potential to master difficult tasks, they can be encouraged to assume a growth mindset. Research conducted by Haimovitz and Dweck (2017) shows that different paths of learning occur in children with a fixed mindset, who believe they have a certain amount of ability that they can’t change, versus children who have a growth mindset, who believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work, good strategies, and instruction from others.
Student achievement is affected by the mindset a student holds. Haimovitz & Dweck (2017) concluded that students with a growth mindset have better academic performance, particularly when they face challenges. One study that surveyed all 10th graders in Chile determined that the more a student held a growth mindset, the better they performed on a national standardized test, regardless of socioeconomic status (reported in Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017).
If students hear from teachers that the brain is like a muscle that grows stronger and smarter when it undergoes rigorous learning experiences, this belief can motivate them to take on more rigorous learning experiences and to persist when encountering difficulties (Yeager et al, 2019).
Becoming more aware of your brain by participating in simple activities that promote emotional and cognitive health can lead to an improvement in academic achievement. Willis (2009) states that students became more engaged and confident when engaging in learning about the brain. They also started changing their study practices in ways that positively affected their grades. Gaining an understanding of neuroplasticity and a recognition of their own mindset can allow students to take more control of their own learning. It allows students to see learning as a process rather than perceiving themselves as lacking ability when they encounter challenges with learning experiences.
Burns, M. (2019, February 19). I’m a neuroscientist. Here’s how teachers change kids’ brains. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-02-19-i-m-a-neuroscientist-here-s-how-teachers-change-kids-brains
Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2017). The origins of children’s growth and fixed mindsets: New research and a new proposal. Child Development, 88(6), 1849-1859.
Moren, C., & Balkienius, J. (2001). Emotional learning: A computational model of the amygdala. Cybernetics and Systems, 32(6), 611-636.
Mundkur, N. (2005). Neuroplasticity in children. Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 72(10), 855-857.
Queensland Brain Institute. (2019, January 24). The limbic system. https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/limbic-system
Vogel, S., & Schwabe, L. (2016). Learning and memory under stress: Implications for the classroom. Npj Science of Learning, 1(16011).
Whitman, A. (2018, June 4). #WSF18: Harnessing the power of neuroplasticity. Dana Foundation. https://dana.org/article/wsf18-harnessing-the-power-of-neuroplasticity/
Willis, J. (2009). How to teach students about the brain. Educational Leadership, 67(4).
Willis, J. (2014, May 1). Neuroscience reveals that boredom hurts. https://kappanonline.org/neuroscience-reveals-that-boredom-hurts-willis/
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G., Murray, J., Crosnoe, R., & Muller, C. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364-369.
Lydia Rickard is completing her Master of Educational Neuroscience at Central Queensland University. She completed her Bachelor of Education in 2005 and since then has spent many years teaching internationally in such places as Japan, Turkey, and the UK. She currently teaches at the International School of Stuttgart in Germany.