​Brain Science and Education: How Much Should Teachers Know?

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Jasselle Cirino’s classroom might surprise those accustomed to traditional lectures. Instead of being told to sit quietly and listen, her first graders absorb material through physical movement, vocal exercises and group activities meant to indulge in students’ tendencies to socialize, move and speak.

“We’re teaching to use multiple parts of the brain to better engage students and retain more information,” says Cirino, a former classroom teacher now training for Reading Recovery, a nonprofit tutoring program for first-grade students.

The approach is something Cirino and other educators refer to as “Whole Brain Teaching.” It involves techniques—like assigning arm gestures to instructional content to engage students’ motor cortex, or call and response phrases that grab attention and tap into students’ prefrontal cortex—specifically designed to tickle different parts of the brain while learning. And it's becoming more popular among scientists and educators alike, who believe teachers—and therefore students—can benefit from a better understanding of how the brain works.

Yet many typical teacher training programs today don’t offer much training or exposure to neuroscience, which begs the question: What should teachers know about the brain?

It’s not all about neurons

First, a sigh of relief: There’s no need for teachers to understand all the intricate processes behind how human brains work, according to education and neuroscience experts. “Knowing how the brain works is important, but understanding what neurotransmitters are doing at the synapse is not,” says Melina Uncapher, a neuroscience professor at UCSF who has studied how learners learn for the last 16 years. “There is some fundamental utility, but I don’t think it will save us.”

Ask Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at University of Southern California, and you’ll get something similar. “Neuroscience is not the answer.”

So then, what do teachers need to know about the brain?

Immordino-Yang, who also serves as president for the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, says what’s more important than neuroscience is for teachers to know how humans and their brains develop. “Teachers should be society’s experts on human development,” she believes. “Teachers are major orchestrators of social, cognitive and cultural experiences for children. They need to understand the way students are engaging with those experiences.”

Why? Because the way humans develop is influenced by cognitive, social and biological experiences. And these experiences, whether ongoing or in the past, shape the way we interpret and process information.

Think of it this way. Our brains are constantly active. While you’re reading this, different parts of your brain are working to tune out background noises, pay less attention to other people in the room, and overall keep you focused on these words. What gets remembered is the “loudest signal,” Uncapher says, and those signals can be amplified by things like attention, salience and personal or social relevance.

But learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Each student also has different social and cultural signals also firing, and thus different ways of interpreting the signals a teacher sends out. In other words, “social and emotional factors influence students’ cognitive abilities and academic achievement,” as Immordino-Yang writes in a 2016 study.

Uncapher describes the how this effect can influence one’s classroom learning with an example. In some neighborhoods, a student may have to walk through dangerous part of town to get to school. “His brain is highly tuned to external threat,” she says. “You can try to teach as much as you want, but if he is monitoring [his environment for threats], he might not be encoding what you're saying.”

Bringing brain science into the classroom

To bridge this gap, Uncapher and Immordino-Yang both emphasize the need to target social parts of the brain. In a classroom, this might look like peer work, tutoring, or even incorporating tools like cell phones and other devices typically thought of as a distraction.

“We know that the social brain is the most powerful learning mechanism. What if we use that to tailor our curriculum, to bring social information into the learning process rather than keeping it out?” says Uncapher.

Knowing that human and brain development affects learners is only one part of the puzzle. Arming teachers with the skills to be able to notice those differences and appropriately tune their teaching to meet student needs is another.

Schools such as Bank Street College or Teachers College at Columbia—which offers a Neuroscience and Education degree program—have already began trailblazing the field. There’s also nonprofits like Deans for Impact, whose goal is to incorporate the science of learning to transform teacher training programs. Expect to see other programs follow suit.

What can’t be as easily packaged into a curriculum, however, is the timeless need for teachers who can observe, notice what is and is not working, and react.

“We think of teachers conveying info and students receiving it, but that's not how humans learn,” says Immordino-Yang. “We need instead teachers who are trained to be thoughtful observers of the people around them and supporters of the adaptive behaviors that they see.”

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