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May 28, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 18

Every Educator Needs to Know How the Brain Learns

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Instructional Strategies
We are the first generation to develop a deep understanding of how the brain learns, works, changes, and thrives. Yet, schools have changed so little as a result of what we have learned. What if we could change that? What if we took the most promising research- and evidence- backed strategies and trained every educator—from those in training to enter schools to those who are already leading classrooms, schools, and districts? Every educator would have a toolbox of strategies informed by the best of what we know works as well as the skill and confidence to adapt them to their particular context. We teach in the classroom every day and benefit from being in a school that has, for the past 12 years, been systematically using research evidence to improve all aspects of teaching, learning, and the whole child's school experience. We can confidently say that we are exponentially better in how we design each of our classes and work with each of our students because of our own training in the science of teaching and learning.

Three Grounding Principles

In order to support the commitment to continuously train all of its faculty and administration in how the brain learns best, our school launched the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in 2011, the first Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research center based in a pre-collegiate school. In addition to serving its own teachers, the CTTL works with educators around the world to help translate brain research into everyday classroom and school practices. These educators often ask us: What should all teachers and leaders know about the learning brain? We start by saying that teachers should be experts in the subject areas and developmental levels of the students they teach. Further, our work with schools around the world suggests that the following three principles from Mind, Brain, and Education science are the foundation that needs to be in place before educators can translate research into everyday actions.

All Brains Are Neuroplastic

Our brains alter over time in reaction to our environment and experiences. Brains are never "set"; neurons are always being formed, connected, and pruned throughout our lives. The discovery of neuroplasticity is possibly the most important research-to-classroom instruction contribution from neuroscience. It means that all teachers must see themselves as "brain changers" and that every student, regardless of race, class, or gender, can learn through deliberate practice, scaffolded support, and positive relationships in school.

Emotion and Cognition Are Intertwined

Students bring their emotions, identities, and whole mental and physical selves to learning. For example, the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, is part of the brain's limbic system, which also includes the hippocampus, one of the key memory centers. The limbic system is also the pathway for information to pass through to the prefrontal cortex, the brain's higher order thinking region. When students experience trauma, toxic stress, or even episodic stress, the fight, flight, or freeze response makes learning difficult to impossible. Teachers can recruit students' emotions in support of learning by first cultivating a sense of belonging in their classrooms and school. Without this emotional connection, students will be less likely to engage in challenging work or see the relevance of their learning.

Neuromyths Are Detrimental to Pedagogy

One of the barriers to creating learning environments that align with current research in Mind, Brain, and Education science is the persistence of neuromyths; for example "learning styles." Taking time to define a student's learning style, let's say as a visual learner, and designing lessons and assessments targeted to the learning style does not lead to higher achievement and can even make things worse. The idea that students fall into learning-style categories contradicts what we know about neuroplasticity and leads teachers, students, and even parents to have a fixed mindset about how students learn. Instead of falling for this neuromyth, teachers should design lessons using multiple modalities, choosing them based on what works best for the content to be taught. Students, in turn, must learn to judiciously apply learning strategies from a toolbox of options.

Bringing Mind, Brain, Education to Scale

Research suggests that increasing a teacher's understanding of the science behind how the brain learns leads to enhanced teacher efficacy and instructional variation, as well as enhanced student efficacy (Hardiman et al., 2013). And yet, in educator prep and school-based professional development, teachers and leaders are largely not required to have a foundational understanding of how the brain best learns. This lack might be the greatest irony in education. It is equivalent to going for a visit to your cardiologist and having them say "I want to make you healthier, but I have never studied the heart." In the case of too many educators, they might say, "I want to help you achieve more, but I have never studied the learning brain." Transforming the design and delivery of educator PD is essential if we are to capitalize on the benefits of neuroscience in the classroom.
Fortunately, organizations like researchED and Deans for Impact are working to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice. Turnaround for Children has "building blocks" to address the traumatic experiences that get in the way of learning for so many kids. Books like Why Students Don't Like School?, Rosenshine's Principles in Practice, and Neuroteach are written in a teacher-friendly way. The Learning Scientists and the Learning Agency are producing resources and podcasts for teacher consumption and "next day" application. MBE microcredentials are now available through Digital Promise. And with the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the CTTL launched Neuroteach Global, a novel microlearning experience that uses the science of teaching and learning to teach the science of teaching and learning.

The Work Ahead

When we survey the teachers and leaders we work with through the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, only about a quarter say they have a foundational knowledge of how the brain best learns. Closing this gap by using the science of teaching and learning to teach the science of teaching and learning is thus one of the great opportunities and challenges that we face. We must be willing to transform how we traditionally deliver professional learning experiences. Research-based strategies around novelty, choice, metacognition, play, memory, cognitive load, executive function, and sleep that are being used to help elevate K–12 student achievement should also be applied to the redesign of professional learning experiences for teachers. Our students deserve better. Our adult learners deserve better. Leveraging how much more we know about the student and adult learning brain provides a pathway to help all children, and their teachers, meet their full potential in classrooms, schools, and districts throughout the world.

Hardiman, M., JohnBull, R. M., & Rinne, L. (2013). Professional development effects on teacher efficacy: Exploring how knowledge of neuro- and cognitive sciences changes beliefs and practice. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, San Francisco.

Ian Kelleher has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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