As educators, we strive daily to mold the students we teach into happy, intelligent, caring, and ultimately successful human beings. We know that developing empathy in our students is as important as teaching them how to read, that teaching them critical thinking skills is as important as teaching them math skills, that developing a growth mindset in them is as important as teaching them the scientific method. Good educators work every day to develop the whole student.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s clear that we have the most important job in the world (despite the negative attitudes about teachers that are espoused by so many out there in the public today). The people we send out into the world at graduation are the people who will be pulling the strings of our society twenty or thirty years from now. We literally shape the future!
But it’s easy to get off track. When the latest wave of standards (Common Core today, but 5-10 years from now, it will be something else) and the standardized tests that inevitably go with them come along, and with all the pressure that comes with those tests, it’s sometimes easy to forget that our students are people–not just vessels to be filled up and rolled off the conveyor belt.
But how do we keep our heads on straight in the face of this constant pressure to do things that we know aren’t conducive to producing the kinds of young men and women the world needs? We need some kind of touchstone, some kind of “home base,” some bedrock principles upon which we can stand that allow us to do the right thing when so many people and institutionalized practices are pushing us toward what we know is not right.
And I maintain that the bedrock principles we can stand on to make the right decisions can be found in those fields of research that study the human mind and brain–primarily cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience–and common sense extrapolations from that reseach to classroom application.
Why Focus on the Mind and Brain?
We don’t teach content and curriculum; we teach people–actual biological units. Sure, if you want to get technical, we teach content and curriculum to people, but what I’m saying is that the most important component is the person. If we put our primary focus on the content–standards, objectives, etc., we can easily lose track of what makes the learners in front of us tick. In addition, when students struggle, it’s our understanding of the learners in front of us that can help us figure out what we can do differently to help. Just knowing our content isn’t enough.
So, let’s assume that you agree with me that students should be our number one focus. Where can we go to find out how best to help them be successful? To the research on the mind and brain, that’s where! After all, the human brain is not just where cognition happens; it’s also the seat of emotions, motivation, attitudes and beliefs, and habits. The brain is what makes us what we are. So clearly, anyone who works with people needs to have a solid understanding of the human brain.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of teacher preparation institutions still offer little, if any, training for prospective teachers in brain-compatible teaching approaches. (If they did, I wouldn’t need to write this newsletter!)
But there is good news. Slowly but surely, more and more information about the human brain and effective teaching practices based on that information is getting into the hands of teachers. When I first started exploring the research in cognitive science, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience some twenty years ago, very few teachers were aware of any of it. Today, we have the burgeoning mind, brain, and education field, as well as conferences such as the Learning and the Brain conferences out there that are bringing educators and researchers together to explore how the science can impact the classroom.
Two Examples: One “Do” and One “Don’t” from Cognitive Neuroscience
Obviously, there’s not room in a short article to give a full-blown argument in favor of more brain awareness on the part of teachers. That would take a whole book. But I would like to share just a couple of examples of how the research in cognitive science is already beginning to positively impact education.
My first example has to do with the complex interplay between cognition and emotion. We have learned from cognitive science and neuroscience that the brain constantly scans the environment for threats to our physical and psychology safety, and that, when it detects such a threat, it’s first reaction is to go into the fight or flight response. This response prioritizes survival, and everything else goes on the back burner, including learning.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep in both temporal lobes, is primarily responsible for this response, which has been termed an “emotional hijacking” by some researchers. When we feel that we are in a threatening situation, the amygdala starts a cascade of chemical reactions, including the release of the stress hormone cortisol and the neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In addition, blood flow is shunted from other parts of the brain (including the executive centers in the pre-frontal cortex) so that the amygdala has the necessary fuel (glucose and oxygen) to do its job.
The result of all of these changes is that students are literally incapable of doing any academic task beyond rote memorization (and even that will likely be impaired) until the perceived threat is eliminated.
As more and more teachers have learned about the impact of stress and threat on learning, many of those teachers have wisely begun to make classroom climate a bigger focus. Creating a caring classroom community can go a long way toward keeping such emotional “downshifting” from happening in the first place.
And what about those situations where a student goes into fight or flight and becomes anxious or angry despite our best efforts (after all, there’s no such thing as a completely stress-free classroom)? Well, we have also learned from cognitive science some very specific strategies that can help to calm the student down so he can be reintegrated into the learning environment as quickly and with as little drama as possible. Here are five strategies that are supported by the research:
1. Keep Your Own Cool: When a student begins to “lose it,” the worst thing a teacher can do is to escalate her own emotions in response. When students start to get stressed out, they become even more attuned to possible stressors in the environment. So, if the student sees that you’re starting to get angry with him, your own response becomes a new trigger on top of whatever set him off in the first place. So stay calm, lower your voice (instead of raising it), and try to assess the situation as objectively as possible.
2. Separate the Student from the Stressor: Many teachers have created a “cool down corner” in their rooms by using book shelves or partitions to wall off a small section of the room. When a student becomes stressed or angry, the teacher calmly directs him to this corner in order to separate him from the situation that’s causing the stress. You can stock this corner with a place to sit (a bean bag chair that “hugs” the student would be one good option) and with other stress reducers such as stress balls to squeeze, liquid “timers” (also called “water drippers”) to watch, and/or headphones that can be plugged into a stereo with a pre-recorded mix of calming music to listen to.
3. Teach Focused Attention Practices: We know from the research that meditation practices that teach students how to focus and maintain attention can have a positive effect on students’ ability to redirect stress and anger when it happens. When we teach all students how to do this, a student can then be prompted to practice his mindfulness and breathing when a stressful event happens. When we focus our attention on something other than the stressor, we send blood flow that’s currently going to the amygdala back to the frontal cortex, where the focused attention centers reside. This allows the amygdala to “calm down” and reduce or stop the flow of stress hormones into the system.
4. Allow Movement: Physical movement also helps to calm the stress response. It does so by helping to flush stress chemicals from the brain by increasing circulation and by shifting mental focus to the movement and away from the stressor. If possible, you can create a sort of maze that students can walk in the back of the room or in an area adjacent to your room (that you can keep an eye on). If this isn’t practical, you can simply give the stressed student permission to walk back and forth in the back of the room to de-stress or to do other physical movements such as jumping jacks, squats, or push-ups.
5. Teach Your Students about the Stress Response: One of the best things you can do is to share with your students your knowledge of how their brains work when stressed and how they can de-stress when they become angry or frustrated. You can share with them the strategies you plan to use (like those above) when a student starts to lose control and explain why these strategies are effective. This way, students know that you have their best interests at heart and that your strategies are designed to help them regain composure more quickly so they can continue to learn.
Debunking Learning Styles
My second example has to do with the neuromyth that teaching students in their own preferred learning styles leads to better learning. A number of studies over the past decade or so have shown conclusively that this is just not so. Recently, thirty eminent academics from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and education–including Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard; Dorothy Bishop, professor of neuropsychology at Oxford; and Uta Frith, neuroscientist at University College London–signed a public letter voicing their concern that many teachers still base their teaching approach on this notion (Weale, 2017).
Of course, none of these researchers is saying that people don’t have preferred learning styles. Of course they do. We all have our individual preferences for just about everything–clothes, food, cars–and learning is no exception. But just because I may prefer to learn by listening to a podcast as opposed to reading does not mean that I should be allowed to try to learn everything via podcasts. Imagine trying to learn math by listening to a podcast! No, even someone who’s learning preference is not visual needs to see the numbers and work the problems on paper in order to best learn.
So, what’s truly important is not that we get to learn in our preferred learning styles, but that the teaching approach used is the best match for the content we’re teaching.
The good news is that, at least in my unscientific observations of teachers, more and more teachers are beginning to understand this crucial distinction and to jettison the old learning styles approach from their teaching practice.
Over time, if we continue to pay attention to research into how the human brain works and make practical, common sense extrapolations from that research to the classroom, I believe we will become much more effective practitioners.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. In what ways do you see cognitive science impacting the classroom for the better? Just shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Desautels, L. (2016, January 7). Brains in pain cannot learn! Retrieved from www.edutopia.org.
Weale, S. (2017, March 12). Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com.