“Um, can you tell me one way this can be applied in the classroom?” The question was sincere, and the questioner, earnest and frustrated. Several dozen slides and ninety minutes of lecture lacked a single practical application for teaching.
“No, that’s really not my area of expertise,” replied the scientist honestly. “I intentionally limit my comments to the findings of the research and the study’s design.”
“So, you can’t give me one way I can use this in my classroom next week?” The teacher’s voice indicated growing frustration, and murmurs from the audience suggested the feeling was spreading.
“No, I’m sorry,” responded the scientist. “Any other questions?” Half of the people standing in line slipped back into their seats, their questions never voiced. Or answered.
Neuroscience can be overwhelming, especially for a teacher who simply wants to know and use the most effective teaching methods. The researchers who explore the interior of the human head are often reluctant to claim or explain any ways their findings can or should influence teaching.
However, their research explores a major element of our humanity, and one that plays an obvious role in learning. How can we educators convert breakthroughs in understanding the brain into tools and tactics for teaching?
- Choose carefully. Not every finding neuroscientists uncover has value for teachers. I often sit in researchers’ presentations and think, “Okay, so that particular region of the brain ‘lights up’ when you have someone in the fMRI and flash a photo of such-and-such before their eyes. If it’s relevant for learning, how do I generate that neural activity in the classroom?”
Sometimes the interpretation of what is relevant gets misapplied by well-intentioned teachers. A few years ago, many educators thought the brain’s need for hydration meant that students should have never-empty water bottles at their desks. While this may help with hydration, it definitely increases use of restroom passes. The “solution” may create more problems than it solves. Additionally, this is a surface-level response to a below the surface challenge. Does the brain need water? Absolutely. Is constant sipping the best approach? Probably not. Learning is influenced less by water bottles than it is by effective teaching.
Having to discern what is and is not relevant for the classroom is both freeing and frustrating. It suggests that I do not need to be aware of every study and its findings because most will lack classroom relevance. However, to find the useful among the merely interesting, I have to
1) search for findings that may have relevance, 2) be sure I do not ignore research just because an application is not immediately obvious, and 3) identify sources that help me sort through the research avalanche.
I find focusing more on neurocognitive research and less on purely neuroscientific research is helpful. Neuroscience is often, but not always, focused on brain “geography,” finding the neural islands that come alive when specific stimuli are streamed through the senses. Neurocognitive research focuses more on the interaction of cognitive processes, such as decision-making, and neurobiology. It takes its cues from neuroscience and psychology. As a result, neurocognitive research is more likely to examine learning and its supporting cognitive capacities, and findings from its studies are more likely to have classroom relevance.
- Begin small but be consistent. Rather than creating the ideal, “brain-friendly” classroom all at once, find a significant fact or principle and apply it in everything you teach.
For example, several years ago David Sousa alerted us to the brain’s need for “downtime,” a period of reflection following intense input of new material. I began planning “processing pauses” in everything I taught. These immediately influenced my students’ learning. They were recalling more, understanding more, and able to apply more of the material than they had before. Applying this principle to my teaching became natural and consistent. Now planning “downtime” is simply part of “how I teach,” even when I do not have it included in my lesson plan.
Consistently applying one principle at a time provides experience without overwhelming you, and such successes form a foundation for applying additional findings from research.
- Find a framework. Whether it’s an instructional design model based on neurocognitive research (e.g., Architecture of Learning), or another research-based teaching framework, having a referential organizational scheme guides educational applications of neuroscientific findings. For example, I have attended the Learning and the Brain Conferences as often as possible for several years. When I adopted the Architecture of Learning as a reliable model for designing teaching, I suddenly had a “place” for using the often-detailed findings presented by the conference’s presenters.
At one of these conferences, a presenter explained the brain’s inclination for metaphor and how the mind uses this cognitive tool to both construct and communicate understanding. With an instructional framework in mind, I was able to identify immediately where such thinking would be optimally effective in learning (and thus, in teaching). As a result of having a “place” for the research finding, I’ve been able to apply it much more consistently than I would have if I had just made a note about metaphor being a good activity to include in my teaching.
Any time tools or ideas from one discipline have the potential to influence another, creative thinking and patience are required. When it comes to applying neuroscience to education, passionate educators pursue the research, put forth the thinking, and plot practical uses for relevant discoveries. We are, after all, the ones seeking to do something with the research findings. By constructing more than a pop culture understanding of the brain, developing consistency in our use of new tools and ideas, and finding an instructional framework that is flexible enough to grow with new discoveries, we can bridge the laboratory and our learners, the clinics and our classrooms, the ivory towers and our schools’ linoleum.
“Um, can you tell me one way this can be applied in the classroom?”
Maybe not immediately, but let’s give it some thought. We may stumble our way through the maze and discover a better way to equip ourselves, engage our learners, and encourage our colleagues.
Photo: theilr/flickr cc