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The Value in Teaching Students about Their Brains

Erin Morgan
Academic Coordinator, Math and Science

“The students at Oakwood are well ahead of their peers in public schools and other specialized schools when it comes to understanding the brain.”

                -Dr. Guinevere Eden, Director of the Center for the Study of Learning, Georgetown University

At Oakwood, it is hard to separate conversations about learning from conversations about the brain. We know that learning is a neurological process, and recent research has not only explained but also confirmed many of the principles and techniques that have been held dear at Oakwood since its founding. 

Dr. Judy Wills, a neurologist turned classroom teacher, has lent an acronym to describe how we as teachers can engage students and maximize learning most successfully by understanding the underpinnings of their neurological processes… R.A.D. Teaching (Willis, 2008).

R - The R in R.A.D. stands for the reticular activating system, which helps us to understand how best to engage students, activate and maintain their attention, and make learning memorable through novelty and emotional engagement. (Willis, 2008) Many of the teaching strategies employed by Oakwood teachers are aimed at helping the brain focus on what is important and then building and maintaining the connections we want students to make.  This happens through multisensory teaching and experiences and also through explicit instruction that makes learning cognitive and clear. It happens through well-planned lessons and carefully chosen homework assignments that define learning outcomes, build learning sequentially and allow for practice opportunities that require retrieval over time.

A - The A in R.A.D stands for the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and the emotional center of our brains. We have long known that students need to feel supported, cared for, and believed in to achieve their greatest academic potential.  When students feel threatened, the amygdala jumps into action, flight or fight instincts activate, and other systems shut down to allow for survival behaviors to kick in.  When the amygdala takes over, information does not flow to the prefrontal cortex well, and the prefrontal cortex is essential for learning (Willis, 2009). It is responsible for planning, comprehension, decision making, and critical thinking to name a few.  The great news, however, is that we can become more in control of our amygdalas. As teachers, we can create learning environments in which student needs are being met and students are being nourished holistically.  By setting students up to face achievable challenges, we can grow resilience, trust, and belief in their abilities.  Experiencing true success that comes from working hard and seeing progress is essential. 

Our students are also taught other ways to manage their emotions and to regulate their bodies and minds.  Through the ALERT! Program and learning about the Zones of Regulation, students learn how to monitor their level of alertness, their emotions, and sensory needs as well as strategies for cultivating the ideal state for learning.  These tools, as well as teaching students mindfulness practices, are rooted in helping students manage their amygdalas and learn how to be aware and present for learning. 

D - The D in R.A.D. stands for dopamine, which is one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain.  Neurotransmitters carry information across the synapses, or gaps, between neurons, and higher levels of dopamine contribute to feelings of happiness and satisfaction.  Increased levels of dopamine can also help the brain activate other neurotransmitters, which increase focus, attention, and the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, while lowering cortisol, our stress hormone, soothing the amygdala. Connecting with others, laughing, exercising, feeling good about achievements, and even having someone read to you can increase dopamine levels (Willis, 2010). Dopamine-building activities are built-in throughout the school day at Oakwood.  We prioritize movement, brain breaks for rejuvenation, building a kind and caring community, and making time to play and have fun.

Harnessing the Power of the Brain

While knowledge of how learning occurs in the brain and how we, as teachers, can maximize the potential of our students is powerful, what we have found to be incredibly meaningful is teaching our students about their brains. As Dr. Willis said in a 2009 article entitled How to Teach Students About the Brain, “Teachers should guide students in how best to use their most powerful tool.” This was not a new idea to Oakwood in 2009, but this part of our program has continued to grow with the body of research on the brain and learning.  One of the most powerful lessons students can learn about their brain is about its ability to grow and change. The studies on the neuroplasticity of the brain are plentiful and conclusive.  Neural pathways can be grown and strengthened through use and hard work (Boaler, 2016). This has many applications to learning. Dr. Guinevere Eden, Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, uses fMRI imaging to specifically study the brain-bases for dyslexia and math disabilities and the changes that are seen in the brain as a result of intervention. The Oakwood community has benefitted from a professional working relationship with Dr. Eden. Faculty have learned directly from her in training sessions, she has addressed the community in our speaker series, and she even invited our students into her lab to see her work in practice. Students were able to see her work in action and hear from an expert in the field about the possibilities that lie within all brains.  

Making Mistakes Promotes Brain Growth

The hope and motivation that neuroplasticity brings are strongly connected to Carol Dweck’s concept of the growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).  Even our youngest students can be heard talking about how learning new things grows their brains and how working through challenges grows stronger pathways in their brains.  Students are motivated by the idea that mistakes are essential to learning. Synapses fire twice when a mistake is made. The point of struggle offers an additional opportunity for brain growth and connection (Boaler, 2016). We tell students that if they are not making mistakes, we as teachers are not doing our job. We are not teaching them at the right level if there are no mistakes.  

As students learn about how different information is processed in the brain and what it takes to strengthen learning and memory, multisensory teaching and learning simply make sense. Neurons that fire together wire together, after all.  Students learn about the power of visualization for comprehension and to conceptualize concepts. Interactive reading and study strategies have more meaning when there is an understanding of the neurological basis for the success of these strategies.  As students understand their amygdala and the role it plays in learning, they are more able to learn, accept, and utilize regulation techniques.  

Most importantly, the more students understand their brain, the more they begin to understand themselves as learners.  And that is our end goal.  When students understand how they learn, know they can learn, and understand how to maximize the unique brain of their own, the possibilities are endless. 

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical Mindsets. Jossey Bass.

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wills, J. (2008). How Your Child Learns Best: Brain-Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child’s Learning and Increase Social Success. Sourcebooks.

Wills, J. (2009). How to Teach Students About the Brain. Educationship Leadership, 67(4).

Willis, J. (2010). Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies That Change Student Attitudes and Get Results. (28522nd ed.). (ASCD)

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