Brain and Teaching - PART 1
When I’m hungry my brain gets angry. When I drink
too much my brain gets groggy. When I’m not learning anything new, my brain
gets restless. Over the last few months I’ve befriended my brain in a way I
didn’t think it would be possible. Because of my interest in psychotherapy, I
read The Mindful Brain. Because of my urge to look after my own brain, I
read Making a Good Brain Great. And now I go full circle and delve into the
connections between brain studies and education. I’ve just
finished reading Ignite Student Learning by Dr.
Judy Willis. I also
travelled to beautiful Santa Barbara, CA, and joined teachers and school
administrators from different parts of the world for a 4-day seminar on the
links between learning and neurology applied to education.
The event, which was co-sponsored by Learning
and the Brain, was led by
Dr. Judy Willis herself. Judy has the “best of both worlds”, so to speak. She’s
a neurologist who took a new turning point in her career, went back to
university and got a degree in Teaching. She didn’t stop there. With her teaching
license in hands, she got a job as a teacher and became a full-time primary
school teacher! (I imagine she talked to her brain and they agreed it was high
time they tried out some new synapses!)
I’ve learnt so much in these four days that I
decided to share some of what we discussed in Santa Barbara with you. Initially
and in preparation for a full-blown seminar, I’ll be writing a few editorials
on facts about the brain and their classroom implications. Hopefully by doing
so, we’ll be opening ourselves up to an exciting field that has a lot to
contribute to education. If, like me, you’ve been trying to reform education
and help it create new linchpins, this could be it. (Don’t say I didn’t warn
you.) Also, because, as brain specialists know: Neurons
that wire together, fire together. So here's my selfish inner motive: By sharing my views with you via
these editorials, I hope to be able to wire my neurons even more together.
(BTW, count that as lesson # 1.)
Lesson # 2
To understand how the brain works, we need to
consider where it all starts. If you think you can talk directly to your
student’s PFC (short for pre-frontal
cortex as if you were saying: OK, time for a PFC-to-PFC talk.) you’ve
got another thought coming. It all starts with the RAS filter (short for Reticular Activating System). The RAS
is a primitive low brain structure that is programmed to select intake based on
survival value for animals in unpredictable environments. Imagine this as being
the entry door to your home - the threshold for knowledge. (Imagine you look
through the peephole of your door and you don't like what you see. Do you open
the door just the same?)
This primitive structure responds to threat
by shutting down, or more accurately, activating the fight-flight-freeze response in
our body. The interesting point for us, teachers, is it doesn't take too much
for this system to be turned on. A student who's being teased by a classmate
may feel threatened to the point of temporary unresponsiveness.
The facts are simple, but the implications for the classroom are numerous.
You can’t pre-determine what your students’ brain
will allow in. Just know that information is more likely to be selected if
there is no threat and (here goes a new piece of information) when the stimulus
So what you can effectively do is minimize the
chances of your students feeling threatened by lowering the affective filter in
the classroom environment. In other words, according to Judy Willis, Stephen Krashen was definitely right.
One of our main challenges in the beginning of a
lesson is to present information in such a novel way that the RAS will select
this input over other competing stimuli. Yes, as a teacher you will be constantly
competing for attention!
Time for a sy-napse (A term coined by Dr.
Judy Willis: Your brain is beginning to switch off, I can feel it, so let’s
give it a break.) Stop for a minute and share what you’ve just read with a
fellow teacher if you are in the teachers’ room, or your partner or a friend,
if you are outside school, or your neighbor, for that matter. Never mind who
you share it with, just do the sharing.
But before that, here’s a preview of what we’ll be
talking about next week: How do we stimulate a brain? (Part of the answer lies
in deciding why I included this question here.) Ask your brain WHY and sleep on
Don’t blame me if you get bitten by the brain bugs. ;-)
First published - THE TEACHERS' PORTAL @ teacher.culturainglesa.net September 2011.