What Role Does Brain Science Play in Education?

The main purpose of education is to develop skills, abilities, and concepts within a person to help them succeed independently later in life. It’s safe to say that an educator’s task is to shape and develop the human brain both emotionally and academically, and thus, understanding the science behind the brain is critical to our success as educators!

Understanding typical brain development and whole-brain interconnectedness can unlock the key for many educators trying to reach their most challenging learners, both academically and socially. Remembering that those two pieces of learning (academic and social) continue to play a part in the development of one another, because of the science behind how the brain functions, is critical to helping our learners grow.

Ways to Bring Brain Science into the Classroom

Social Development: The Amygdala and Hippocampus

Our classrooms are celebratory arenas for learners to take risks, make mistakes, cheer one another on, and work together towards common goals. However, children are coming to us with challenges beneath the surface we may not know exist, but can significantly impact their access to these important developmental goals.

As early as infancy, the human brain is developing its response to stress and risk, known as “fight or flight”. When a brain learns early that in times of stress (hunger, tired, cold) the bodily needs will quickly be met, the amygdala develops a healthy response to stress that allows it to endure that stress, anticipating a positive response. When a brain is not developed to anticipate a positive response (for example, in response to hunger the caregiver yells or worse without providing food), the amygdala develops a defense mechanism that lacks trust in a risky situation.

As an educator, you are hopefully quickly mirroring this in your classroom, recognizing that if the second developmental path occurs, student brains may not be able to persevere through the rigorous tasks you pose to your students that require academic risk taking and discomfort.

Similarly, shortly after the development of the amygdala, the hippocampus develops emotional attachments and skills related to memory. If at an early age the brain is not able to develop this emotional security due to lack of a caregiver’s support, the brain continues to retreat into the fight or flight response.

As you can imagine, when a child endures trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at an early stage of life, it limits the development of these parts of the brain. How does this impact your classroom? Students who have underdeveloped amygdalae and hippocampuses require a significant amount of connection and support to feel safe in their learning environment before being willing to move forward with academic demands.

Academic Development: Prefrontal Cortex

As you probably guessed, when the two parts of the brain above go underdeveloped, the powerhouse of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes limited in development. Instead of working this part of the brain routinely, brains that don’t have strong coping mechanisms frequently “lean” on fight or flight strategies in the amygdala or retreat from social interaction (thus continuing to strengthen that emergency response rather than skill-building thinking nerves in the brain).

When security exists because of a fully developed amygdala and hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex can be fully accessed for children to academically grow and thrive. But it doesn’t stop there! Modern research has revealed exciting new instructional strategies that further access and develop the various parts of the brain and can help combat underdeveloped brains.

Whole Brain Teaching

Whole Brain Teaching is a new methodology that puts a name to something teachers have done for a long time: utilize multiple modalities to ensure learners with strengths in different areas of the brain are engaged and stimulated. For example, instead of lecturing a child about the algorithm for multiplication, having students chorally repeat key phrases and use hand gestures while doing so are proven to stimulate memory in the brain and develop skills faster. It’s been proven that “the more we (adults) talk, the more students we lose,” (PBS 2015) and incorporating movement, repetition through “mirroring” the teacher, gestures, and connection boost learning. The more modalities you have students using in concert while learning, the more likely it is to be appended to memory.

Another pillar to whole brain teaching is understanding that all learning is associated with feelings. If you can create the associated feeling of fun or excitement for a learner, they are far more likely to remember the content or skill. This is accomplished through song, humor, social interaction during learning, and interest-based learning, like making a math word problem related to a topic of interest.

“Students as teachers” is another critical piece to stimulating the brain and securing learning to memory. When students are asked to turn and teach what has been learned to a peer, the process of developing output related to new content is a high-level skill that ensures what has been taken “in” to the brain is now committed in an authentic, personalized way.

Trauma-Informed Practices

It’s also important to stay constantly mindful of the potential traumas beneath the surface of your learners. Divorce, residence changes, grief and loss, abuse, and even living with someone who battles mental illness or substance abuse are all considered ACEs and can potentially impact the growing brain of that child, prompting the need for trauma-informed practices.

To combat this, ensuring ample time is dedicated to teaching routines and establishing trusting relationships is vital to creating a safe space for students to learn and approach challenges. Using programs like a responsive classroom are simple but meaningful strategies that build connection and independence for learners, filling the voids that can exist in the trauma-impacted brain.

Growth Mindset

One last strategy is infusing a “growth mindset” into your instruction. Teaching children that they have not learned something yet and that people learn at different paces for different topics is crucial to building academic risk-taking and stamina in the brain. Easy strategies include having students reflect on their level of learning (novice, apprentice, master, teacher or 1, 2, 3, 4) and setting goals for the subjects that feel like weaknesses.

Is Technology the Answer?

The jury is still out as to whether programs like Luminosity and other tech apps targeted to developing parts of the brain truly work. If a child is motivated and engaged in technology and demonstrates independence with skills after learning through technology, that is certainly an answer for that learner!

That said, most evidence currently suggests that at younger developmental stages (ages 0-9) human interaction is an overwhelming requirement for developing both schema within the brain (consider schema your “filing cabinet” of information acquired) as well as utilization of content and skills acquired. Screen time, despite the recent increased need for learning via technology amidst a pandemic, continues to require moderation for developing brains.