What do Teachers Need to Know about Neuroscience and Brain-Based Learning

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Neuroscience has disclosed important information about the brain and how we learn. We now know more about how the human brain processes, interprets and stores information than ever.

Is this information relevant to how we teach and learn?

I think teachers should be aware of the research done in the field of neuroscience. The theories of learning (Behaviorist, Cognitive, Constuctivism), are important in how we relate to information and how it is delivered in the face-to-face and online learning environments. Course developers and teachers need to apply the theories of learning when it comes to instruction and learning. 

The brain-based learning theory requires that we shift our focus to the learning process. This information can be used to facilitate learning. Technology can be used to support a brain-based finding that emotions are critical to learning.

How learners feel is very important to the learning process.

If a learner is enthusiastic and doesn’t feel any stress, learning will take place. If the conditions are negative and the learner doesn’t feel safe, learning will not take place. Neuroscientists discovered this information about the learning process as they were researching the way the brain learns.

Is the learning process the same as it was in the past?

We are all aware of the fact that yesterday’s methods worked well for yesterday’s students. But the student brain of today is wired differently from the one of 10 years ago. It is therefore necessary to study how students’ brains work today so that it is possible to enhance their learning.

Technology can cater to these neuroscience brain-based findings in the computer lab as well as for online learning courses. Various Microsoft tools such as PowerPoint presentations, Excel, Word processor and other software with multimedia functions can be used by the teacher and students instead of using conventional outdated class tools. Since today’s brain needs a TV like environment, both sound and animations can be used to suit today’s learner.

Lessons can be prepared by utilizing the information that is readily available on the internet. Learning can be meaningful. However to avoid frustrations and stress that can interfere with learning, lessons must be planned very carefully to help structure and focus students’ explorations  on the Internet. This will direct them to the goals at hand. Today’s students experience different patterns from those of the past. Brain-based learning findings reveal that “the search for meaning is innate…, occurs through patterning that emotions are critical to these patterns”.

Emotions and Learning

How students feel in the classroom determines the amount of attention they devote to the lesson. It is very important for learners to feel relaxed and safe in the learning environment. Feeling threatened will shut down the learning process, and as Daniel Goleman claims “hijack the rest of the brain”. 

brain based learning

Teachers can help students understand the impact negative and positive emotions have on learning. Positive emotions such as love, excitement, enthusiasm, and joy, enhance the ability to process information and create permanent mental programs. Learning cannot take place unless the learner feels safe. Stress and constant fear, at any age, can circumvent the brain’s normal circuits. And yet, emotions are critical to learning.

Larry Cahill, James McGaugh, and their colleagues have found that people were better at recalling stories or slides that had “aroused strong feelings in them than those that were devoid of emotional context”. Emotions can improve memory. Another finding was that emotions can either add or detract from learning. Since learning is based on individual patterning and experiences, in this case electronic media, it is only natural that these environments be duplicated in school.

Learning is Out There

Learning can no longer be limited to a single confined environment, such as the classroom. Teachers need to establish an environment that is free from intimidation and rejection, high in acceptable challenge and where the learner experiences active participation and relaxed alertness. This can be done by giving constant positive and encouraging feedback to the students while they are working in the computer room, fully online, or via technology (text messages via mobile phones, emails, Facebook messaging, discussion forums). Monitoring these rooms are much easier than monitoring a conventional classroom. Each student has work assigned to him or her. Individualized lessons are possible so that each learner can find meaning in his or her particular assignment.

Computer based learning such as project work or working on WebQuests in teams of three or four is a great way to keep emotions alive. It is very challenging to work with others on a mutual goal. Since social skills are developed at this age, it is only natural for students to want to work in teams. This leads to many discussions and calls for decision making. Students develop character and responsibility on the team. At the same time it is very important for the teacher to interact with the students to make sure that team spirit is high. If there are social problems some learners may feel threatened and uncomfortable. This will detract their learning. Regular reflections and team discussions will help keep the teams busy with their work. Daily journal reports are an excellent way to encourage both team and individual reflections on how students feel. These should be handed in regularly.

brain based learning

Technology and computer work is very important. It’s a challenge to do projects and learn collaboratively. However, feelings must be taken into account. Teachers must monitor the room at all times. Careful attention should be given to teams that are having difficulties. This gives the teacher a chance to sit with each team in order to discuss the team’s progress and encourage the members to speak about how they feel. Feelings are part of the learning process. Students should learn about emotions and their importance to the learning process.

Teaching students how to feel enthusiastic about their assignments and projects will enhance their learning. Students can be empowered to find freedom in the Web instead of getting caught in it . It is up to the educators to find ways of integrating brain-based learning with technology!

Do you have any ideas or suggestions related to neuroscience and brain-based learning? Feel free to share them with other teachers in the comments below.

The Breakdown

Dr. Nellie Deutsch has a doctorate in educational leadership with a specialization in curriculum, technology, and instruction. She conducts research and writes on fully online and blended learning programs, presents online and face-to-face at conferences, and organizes professional development workshops to educators worldwide. Nellie is passionate about learning and helping others reach their goals. She has a relationship-based learner-centred approach to life and learning. She consults, writes, and presents (face-to-face & fully online) on e-learning. She uses Moodle for her course management system and WizIQ education online to connect to colleagues and students in real time. Nellie is a faculty member of Atlantic University and the University of Phoenix, the program coordinator at the World Association for Online Education (WAOE), on the program committee and reviewer at EdMedia, on the steering committee for computer assisted language learning interest section (CALL-IS) at TESOL International Association, and on IATEFL YLT SIG. She's manager, designer & lead facilitator of Moodle for Teachers (M4T) workshops at Integrating Technology for Active Lifelong Learning (IT4ALL). Nellie has been an ambassador to WizIQ since 2007. She organizes annual and tri-annual MOOCs such as Moodle MOOC in June, October, and February, Second Life MOOC in April, and Well-Being MOOC in September, online conferences such as CO09-CO14 on February, and Moodlemoot 2011-2014 in August that are sponsored by WizIQ.

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