Teachers: What You Should Know about the Brain

Research
By: 
Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

A recently published research study on teachers’ understanding of the brain and neuroscience research has been getting a lot of attention. The findings, based on surveys of teachers in the U.K., Greece, Turkey, Holland, and China, showed that teachers had many misconceptions about the brain. The findings echoed a survey of teachers in the U.S. finding that teachers in American schools have the same misconceptions.

The translation of neuroscience research to classroom practice is something that is getting increased attention, but, unfortunately, most teacher training programs do not include much discussion of the brain or how neuroscience research findings can be used to help students perform better. This gap was documented in a research report by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

Reading the stories about how teachers’ misconceptions are potentially harmful to student and our discussions with teachers and educators around the country, a few misconceptions rose to the top.

Our Top 3 Neuromyths — What Teachers Believe that Can Hurt Students

  1.  We only use 10% of our brains. Wrong! We use 100% of our brains.
  2.  People are either right-brained or left-brained. Wrong! We use both hemispheres and they are always working together.
  3.  Basic intelligence can’t be changed very much. Wrong! Cognitive skills can be increased dramatically with the right kind of training.
  4. Teachers should adapt instruction to students’ learning styles. Wrong! Learning styles have been debunked. Cognitive skills are another matter.
  5. Neuroscience should be left to the scientists; teachers should stay away.  Wrong! The brain is the organ that learns. Teaching without an understanding of how learning happens is like building a car with no idea how an engine works.

What teachers really do need to know about the brain:

  1. The brain is “plastic” and is constantly changing. Everything that happens in the classroom physically changes children’s brains. Teachers need to know more to take advantage of this amazing plasticity.
  2. Learning is the making and strengthening of connections among neurons in networks or maps. It is a biological process.
  3. There are different types of memory and different types of instruction are needed for them.
  4. Physical exercise and sleep haves a tremendous impact on brain development and cognition. Scheduling time into the day for active physical activity is vitally important for cognitive development.
  5. Understanding a child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses and helping them build their cognitive capacity (not identifying and trying to fill the gaps in their knowledge base) are essential to accelerate learning and help students catch up.

 

Once teachers understand these key points, the next question is how to help students build cognitive skills. The good news is that “there’s an app for that.”

Whether you call it brain training or cognitive training, the number and range of games, Apps and programs available on the market today seems endless. They have found their way into our lives in many ways, but do tools used to “train your brain” belong in school, and if so, how? Here are some of the reasons schools use brain-training apps and the benefits they see:

Students better prepared to learn are easier to teach. When students work in an effective brain-training program, they develop the underlying cognitive processes they need to be able to learn more efficiently. The body of evidence on the cognitive impact of poverty, for example, has grown substantially. Many students who are economically disadvantaged have less well-developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged peers. But it’s not just about a student’s economic background. Every student has cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  Weaker areas lead to learning struggles. When their cognitive skills become stronger, with the benefit of brain-training, academic achievement can start to catch up, as well.

Student motivation. So often school is just not fun and students are unmotivated by what they are asked to work on. Brain games can be fun ways to drill facts and concepts that need to be practiced to become automatic, and in a way that avoids putting the student to sleep. Games like those found at Coolmathgames.com for math or Freerice.com for vocabulary-building and other subjects are good examples.

Stress relievers. Many students come to school stressed, and the school day often provides little relief from those feelings. Mindfulness apps like Settle Your Glitter and Stop, Breathe and Think Kids help students identify their emotions and practice mindfulness techniques that will help center them. Other apps, like hidden object games, or Bejeweled or Cubis are great to get students’ mind off the stressors in their lives and have the added benefit of developing skills like visual discrimination, pattern recognition, decision speed and attention. Incorporating these types of apps right before or right after a high-stakes test is one way schools use them.

Remediation of cognitive skills for students with learning disabilities. Teachers and schools are required to provide support for students with diagnosed learning disabilities. This support typically takes the form of accommodations (e.g., more time to take the test), adjustments to the curriculum (e.g., reading about the same topic in a below-grade-level book), and learning strategies (e.g., mnemonics). In the last few years, schools have started to use brain-training software to help remediate attention, working memory, processing speed and other cognitive processes, enabling students to develop these skills to virtually the level of normally developing students.  With stronger cognitive skills, student learning accelerates and achievement gaps narrow.

Challenging high-performing students. School is generally pretty easy for some students, and it can be difficult for teachers to find ways to sufficiently challenge them. One of the reasons that some schools really like  programs like BrainWare SAFARI cognitive training software is that everyone eventually reaches a level where it is very challenging for them. It is critical for high-performing students to actually have to struggle with something – in this case, a cognitive task – to experience what it is like when something doesn’t come as easily, and to help them develop the kind of resilience they will need in more advanced academic situations.

Improved behavior. Teachers often tell us that students who have used quality cognitive training software exhibit better behavior in class. There may be several reasons for this. First, students look forward to their time on these programs and are often more cooperative or work harder on less inherently appealing tasks because they want to get back on the software. Second, these programs develop core executive functions including working memory, inhibitory control and flexible thinking, as well as higher-order executive functions, such as planning, strategic thinking and mental agility. This gives students a stronger capacity for self-regulation. And third, stronger cognitive skills mean that academic tasks that were very challenging become easier. When students can understand the material and the concepts and when they start to master basic reading and math skills, they are more engaged and less likely to act out.

Developing Students’ Growth Mindset. The concept of Growth Mindset, as articulated by Carol Dweck, involves understanding that intelligence and talents are developed, not purely innate. It also implies an attitude that takes mistakes as opportunities for growth. When students see that their school is providing them with a very specific brain-training program, designed to develop their cognitive skills, they see a strong signal of the importance of this type of mindset. When athletes work to improve their performance, they study and practice the specific skills of their sport, but they also train non-sport-specific capacities, like strength, endurance, speed, flexibility, and the like. If we want all-star students, then we shouldn’t send them onto the playing field of learning without the strongest, fastest, most flexible brains we can help them develop. So, while brain-training apps have many benefits in schools, the one with the greatest value is arguably that they will do better at school and, ultimately at life, if their brains are well developed.

 

About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

 

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari

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