Neuroscience and knowledge about the brain have impacted nearly every field. From business to healthcare, sports to education, neuroscience gives us a lens to understand why we are the way we are. But what’s perhaps more important is that neuroscience prompts us to ask more questions, to be curious about ourselves.
The brain is naturally fascinating, which is why it’s such a good teaching (and learning) tool. Even basic neuroscience instruction on the brain’s potential to grow, learn, and adapt has been shown to have a positive impact on students’ motivation and achievement. When students understand that learning physically changes their brain, it can be particularly empowering. It’s not our brain that determines our learning, but our learning that determines our brain.
Students at every age can benefit from neuroscience instruction. Start by explaining to students that the very act of learning changes the structure and function of their brains. This knowledge can be transformational, providing a scientific basis to the idea that it is work, not innate intelligence, that leads to a growth mindset and achievement.
How to Use Neuroscience in Primary Classrooms
Even at a young age, elementary school students are able to understand the basic components of a brain. They can grasp that their bodies are made up of tiny cells and that includes their brain too. Just as all your students are interconnected, the cells in their brains are interconnected too.
Most neurons make thousands of connections with other neurons. So with 100 billion neurons in your brain, adults have more than 100 trillion connections between neurons in your brain. In fact, younger children have more synapses than adults.
So what does this mean? Your students have an incredible potential to learn, an even greater potential than you, the teacher! To get students excited, start by showing this video that explains how challenges grow your brain. Now you can start to model how your brains are growing in class as you’re learning.
Using pipe cleaners and post-it notes, you can create a living representation of everything that you’re learning in class. To make a neuron, twist 2-4 pipe cleaners together in the middle to represent the axon. Leave the ends separate to represent the dendrites (we’re simplifying and pretending the dendrites and axon terminals are the same). Label what topic each neuron represents with a post-it note and then connect the neurons to other related topics, giving students the opportunity to discuss how new neurons should connect to existing ones.
At first, you can allow students to add neurons to the brain. Soon you’ll see that the brain model becomes incredibly complex (but far less complex than your students’ real brains). Eventually, you may need to take over adding neurons to the brain yourself.
You can hang this model from the ceiling somewhere out of the way so that students can admire how much work they’ve put in over the course of the school year. When they can really visualize how much their brains are growing, they can truly embrace a neuroscience-powered growth mindset.
How to Use Neuroscience in Secondary Classrooms
Just as elementary school students are excited by the neuroscience of learning, so too are older students. What’s different, though, is that some older students may have experienced obstacles that led to the development of a fixed mindset. The neuroscience of brain plasticity shows students of any age that their effort has the power to change their brains and that they can literally make themselves smarter by working hard.
There are so many great activities you can use to model the neuroscience of learning in your classroom at the secondary level. In my classroom, I always tried my best to choose projects that activated high levels of engagement on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning.
Since the highest level is creating, I liked to do creative projects to introduce neuroscience to my students, such as a neuron story in which they tell about a time that they reacted to a surprising stimulus and demonstrate their understanding of the different components of neurons using neuroscience vocabulary words.
Even with just a basic understanding of how the brain works, secondary students are able to better engage in metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Once they understand that thinking about their learning actually makes them better at learning, the possibilities for growth are endless.
By teaching basic neuroscience and neuroplasticity with this cool animation, early in the school year, you can cement a growth mindset in your students, regardless of the subject you’re teaching.