Teaching Language Learners about their Brains

November 2021

For the brainy educators out there: have you ever shared what you’ve learned with your students? Perhaps you just haven’t known where to start! Never fear–this month we’re looking at ways that we can teach our students about their own brains in level-appropriate ways. Not only do we have tips and activities to share with our readers, but we also do our best to anchor all of these suggestions with actual science. 

Our cover: “It is necessary to relax your muscles when you can. Relaxing your brain is fatal.” – Stirling Moss

photo by czerwinski on unsplash , others from pixabay

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank explores the merits and methods of teaching students about their brains. The Main video is a short talk on this topic by one of our contributors, and the Deep video is an animated tour of John Medina’s brain basics from his book, Brain Rules.

Next come the articles. After Curtis Kelly makes a special announcement in the Introduction to the issue, Eric Chudler tells us the delightful story of how he got into teaching children about the brain. Stephen M. Ryan follows by describing a malaise triggered by meaningless textbook readings and how he found relief. Then, Lydia Rickard gives us an overview of the science of learning and Josh Brunotte underlines the importance of mindfulness for learners. Mirela Ramacciotti brings us back to teaching the brain to children with four days of lesson plans. Finally, Marc Helgesen closes the issue with tools that help college students to manage their own understanding of the brain and learning.

Our Thoughts on Teaching the Brain

Once Again, One Thing Has Led to Another Curtis Kelly

One thing leads to another. An old adage, and certainly one that is true for us. No one ever sat down and said, out of the blue, “Hey let’s make a monthly magazine for teachers all over the world that connects neuroscience to language teaching!” Nope. It started as a trice-yearly newsletter for the 120 members of the JALT BRAIN SIG and slowly grew. No one ever sat down and said let’s get the authors of an issue to do presentations together, and make a joint conference with TESOL, and sponsor authors in India, Nepal, Russia, and other countries to join our conferences in Japan.


Think Tank Articles

Teaching Neuroscience One Potato Chip at a Time Eric H. Chudler

The twenty preschool children (ages 3-5 years old) sat on the floor, looking up at me and waiting with anticipation for me to speak. As a university professor and research neuroscientist, I had lectured in full classrooms of undergraduate students and made scientific presentations in conference halls filled with hundreds of fellow scientists. But speaking to this group of preschool children was completely new territory for me. How could I possibly explain the intricacies of the brain to children who do not even know how to tie their own shoes?

Learning about Learning: Studying the Brain in English Class Stephen M. Ryan

It was the katydid that convinced me. I really had no interest in this grasshopper-by-another-name, for all its reported mastery of camouflage. Neither did my students. But the writers of our textbook thought we should take an interest in it, thus presenting my students with a double whammy: an insect they didn’t want to know about described in a language they had not yet mastered.

Six Things to Know about your Brain to Improve Learning Lydia Rickard

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?

Be in This Classroom Now: Teaching Mindfulness from a Scientific Perspective Josh Brunotte

I have been curious for some time about how mental health issues affect the classroom, and what teachers like myself can actually do to intervene when students experience anxiety, stress, or depression. My interest in mindfulness began almost immediately after taking up this research topic, as many studies have shown mindfulness training (MT) to be effective in treating issues related to mental health. But I wanted to know more about how effective it might be for use in class, and what lessons about the brain we could relate to students through learning about mindfulness.

Teaching Children about the Brain: It’s All in the (Baby) Steps Mirela Ramacciotti

This article comes with a pledge, that it is possible to teach childrenas young as four years of ageabout the brain. And I hope this article delivers on the promise: Here you will find steps to make teaching about the brain feasible in classrooms, whether virtual or in person. We will examine the importance and appropriateness of teaching young learners about the brain (the rationale), and how it can be done, that is, what (baby) steps we took to make it possible (the process).

Think Tank Plus

Making Classes More Brain-Friendly: A DIY Student Guide Marc Helgesen

You’ve experienced this (or, if not you, your students certainly have). The teacher standing on the platform at the front of the room, barely looking up from their notes, droning on. The students, mostly sitting at the back of the room, are struggling to keep their eyes open. Many have given up the struggle. Will the droning ever stop?

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Neuroscience For Kids

Editor’s note: One of the reasons we contacted Eric Chudler in the first place and asked him to write for us was his wonderful website. Take a look. He’s a true brain nerd like us! Synaptic Tag anyone?

George Lucas’ Edutopia has a wonderful collection of resources on the brain for teachers and students. Start with Louis Cozolino’s Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain.

Want more than just “teaching” about the brain? Here is a video that will help students exercise it. You might have them ask you yes-no questions to work towards the answers.

With much appreciated permission from Dan Piraro, Bizarro.com

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch

    Jason Walters                  Rishma Hansil               Mohammad Khari




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