Research | Feature

Teaching the Brain to Learn

Here’s how educators can use the latest neurological research to help improve math and science instruction.

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Many educators have heard the old maxim, “If all learning is 0 to 10, then 0 to 1 is the most important.” Brain research backs up this nugget of wisdom, and neuroscientists such as Bruce E. Wexler, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, believes nurture may play a larger role than nature when the test scores are tallied.

Wexler makes it his business to keep up on the latest brain research, and his analysis suggests that the right kind of early interventions and techniques can change a child’s educational future. Properly influencing the brain’s “distributed neuro functional systems” matters, because these systems form the foundations of cognitive ability.

According to Wexler, “These systems are not wired at birth, and they’re not determined by our genetics. They’re profoundly influenced by the type of stimulation and activity that children receive while growing up. This neuroscience brain research point of view is consistent with the need to emphasize early developmental experiences in preschool, kindergarten, first grade and second grade.”

Wexler’s analysis supports the notion that kids who come to school without healthy cognitive stimulation may not be operating at their potential. “And that means that there is an opportunity to intervene and improve these neuro systems and functioning abilities,” he said. “We can influence their abilities to learn, as well as provide material to help them learn better.”

Steve Miller agreed that early intervention is important to prepare the brain for learning, but the chief science advisor for California-based Nervanix (a company that uses brain wave monitoring technology to measure a learner’s attention level) added that neuroscience research bolsters the contention that educational intervention can benefit students across all grades. “Intervention for struggling high school students can provide significant benefits,” he said. “The adolescent brain undergoes enormous changes, and we’re only beginning to understand how to harness these changes to benefit the education of high school students.”

Miller added that the area of neuroscience called “brain plasticity” continues to “fundamentally change the way we think about learning, intervention, and the impact of the choices we make in our diet and physical and cognitive exercise that impacts the onset and severity of age-related neurological diseases. Physical and cognitive exercises are good for the health of our brains.” 

Emotion and Learning

The idea that the brain must be prepared to learn also applies to emotional states, because emotions influence cognitive abilities. Lori Desautels, an associate professor at Marian University’s School of Education, said, “Current brain research tells us that emotions are intimately tied to learning. When we look at math, science and all academic subjects, we cannot neglect that emotions and cognition are intimately connected….When we connect highly emotional relevant and meaningful daily life experiences when teaching math and science, we have created a state of mind that is more at ease.”

Desautels referred to the work of neurologist and educator Judy Willis, who pointed out that, “Research has shown us the positive and negative effects that students’ emotional states can have on the affective filter in their amygdala (a part of the limbic system connected to the temporal lobe). Additional evidence now demonstrates the multiple benefits of the dopamine release that accompanies students’ expectation of intrinsic reward.” 

Creating anticipation, curiosity and even some short-term acute confusion releases dopamine in the brain and “brings about more pleasurable feelings toward learning, and the effort needed to produce math and science results in a safe learning environment,” said Desautels.

Operating under the understanding that the brain is neurobiologically wired to survive, Desautels concluded that if students feel or experience a threat in the process of learning, their attention to the task is disrupted because they pay attention to the threat “and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our problem-solving and higher level thought processes, shuts down.”

Walking the Axis

Neuroscientists have long told educators that true learning actually builds neurological connections, and that building process usually occurs during active lessons. To this end, Betsy Hill, president and COO of the Chicago-based BrainWare, said, “We must find ways to engage students and create opportunities to interact with the material. If the teacher is the only one talking, the teacher is the only one learning. After students learn something, they can practice teaching it to other students.”

New experiences can structurally and functionally change the brain by building connections only when educators use teaching strategies that are most aligned with how the brain learns. Deanna M. Nibarger, a fifth-grade teacher at Crooked Creek Elementary in the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, has literally had her students walk the x and y axis of a graph to cement a mathematical concept.

Nibarger’s effort to introduce linear equations on the coordinate plane began with a story about a garden, along with a 20-foot by 20-foot x and y axis made of tape stuck to the classroom floor. Students observed Nibarger as she talked about preparing the garden. “At that moment, I moved to the origin,” explained Nibarger, now in her seventh year of teaching. “I continued my story, explaining that we had to make a schedule of who was going to water those plants, and I walked down the x axis  — where the plants would grow taller. And then I moved up in the coordinate plane in the first quadrant to represent the y-axis movement. Then I retold my story two more times and I asked them to give me feedback.”

With the conversation started, the students divided into small groups and invented their own stories. “This was all before we ever introduced the vocabulary, such as the coordinate plane, ordered pairs, origin, x axis, y axis,” mused Nibarger. “They understood the concept of where we move on the coordinate plane before we began the lesson. I used that as a pre-assessment of what they knew, and then throughout the week we would go back. What we saw at the end of that lesson was that students mastered it through just a ‘story chunking’ example of how to introduce math.”

Tape on the ground may be a relatively low-tech solution, but it has worked in Nibarger’s classroom and elsewhere. Betsy Hill and other experts believe the axis-walking techniques are effective because they engage students in visual and conceptual understanding — as all good teaching aids should. “What we do [at BrainWare] has a lot to do with developing cognitive capacity and strength in areas we know are necessary for reading and math,” said Hill, whose company develops software designed to exercise cognitive skills essential for learning. “There is a lot of overlap, because that’s just the way our brains work.”

Nikki Woodson, the superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, commented, “Improving writing skills will improve most other content areas as well. We embed math and science into other content areas. It’s not a stand-alone curriculum.”

Brain Research Meets Classroom Research

Whether it’s called “experiential” or “project-based learning,” Michael Baum, principal of Wisconsin-based Sophia Consulting, cautioned that such techniques are not a cure-all. “There is a fair amount of research indicating that discovery learning, or learning by doing, can be very powerful if it is rigorously structured,” he said. “There is research comparing discovery learning models to more directed structured models, and the conclusion is that unless you have a really rigorous discovery learning model, you are better off doing direct instruction.” 

Good learning, Baum contended, comes from a combination of factors. Some things are better learned by rote; others are better learned experientially. “There is a huge amount of research showing that the left brain and right brain dichotomy is not true,” he said. “No brain research or empirical research exists behind the idea that people learn a particular way and that’s the way everything must be presented. I think the similarities between how we learn math and science, and how we learn other subjects, probably outweigh the differences.” 

Baum said that brain research has shown that concrete learning styles (using manipulatives) are important in the realm of math and science. “And that argues for more of a combination of math and science, because you learn math by applying it to concrete situations, which tend to be scientific,” he said. “Although you could also learn math by applying it to concrete social studies situations. That’s one thing we know, not just from brain research, but from classroom research.”

And though the idea of memorizing math facts is largely out of favor, even pure memorization has a role in preparing a child’s brain to learn. Baum pointed out that “even in the federal research on math it was determined that one of the essential building blocks of getting kids ready for higher math is that they need to memorize math facts, because you are easing the pressure on that part of the brain that processes mathematical reasoning by offloading that on the part that just recalls memorized facts.”

BrainWare’s Hill added that beyond the brain function that leads to memorization, “There are other kinds of skills that are often now referred to as ‘executive functions.’ This includes things like working memory — the ability to hold information in your mind and manipulate it.” A strong working memory leads students to “not jumping to an answer, but thinking through various options.” 

Myron W. Pincomb, founder of education consulting company The Pincomb Group, calls executive function the “big thing” because it allows people to ultimately operate effectively in society. Instilling those skills calls for a multifaceted approach, despite everything we know about the brain. “There’s usually more than one way to get to the end result,” said Pincomb. “You need to figure out the best way for each person.”

Ultimately, choosing math and science teaching techniques based on the latest brain research is no easy task, primarily because all the subjects are so intertwined in today’s educational environment. “We’re trying to get the brain to be able to perform better before we teach students math and science,” mused Bruce Wexler. “And yes, it will also help other subject matters as well, which also can help math and science. Taken as a whole, it might enrich creativity with students starting novels and writing poetry, because where do great scientists get their creativity? It’s not only from studying math and science.”