An Introduction to Understanding Our Students’ Brains: Part One

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Ugh, this blog has been in my back pocket for a while. My apologies for dragging my feet! This past fall, I was completing my Principal Practicum hours and getting our Innovation Lab going. First, I, in no way claim to be an expert in neuroscience. I am just sharing some very cool information I learned! So here it goes! In October, some colleagues and I from the Bristol Township Middle Schools attended a professional development session at the Franklin Institute, entitled Understanding the Brain. It’s the first of a series of brain researched professional learning opportunities developed for educators. The objective of the session was to help dispel and debunk some common neuromyths in order to identify the implications for classroom instruction.  

Before we can to take a look at the neuromyths, we need to consider the amygdala. The amygdala is part of Limbic System, located at the end of the hippocampus. There is a set of almond-shape neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. The amygdala is responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear. I personally consider it a rock star! If you don’t take the amygdala into consideration when teaching, you may not be as effective as you wish. Have you heard of the term “flight or fight”. Well, that response happens because of the amygdala. How it responds to emotion greatly determines whether learning will happen or not!

Priscilla Vail, an expert on learning, has described emotion as the “on-off switch to learning”. According to Mrs. Vail, when the switch is off, the system is dormant and only the potential for learning is available. When the switch is on, the pathway to learning is open. When the limbic system interprets sensory information and dispatches it to the cortex for processing, it sets the emotional tone of the information before it reaches the cortex. If the limbic system interprets the information as positive, it dispatches a message of purpose and excitement and directs our behavior toward a goal. When this happens, we become motivated to act; thinking and learning are enhanced. When the interpretation is negative, the switch is turned off and thinking and learning are stifled.” (Vail, 1994).

Hold up, shut the front door!!!!!!

I don’t know about you, but as an educator this is huge news! We can increase our students’ learning by connecting to them in positive ways, nurturing a safe environment, and providing fun experiences. This is huge! This is great! I can do this and so can the educators I work with! Cake! On the other hand, if they are feeling unsafe, and had negative experiences, or trauma, they will have great difficulty learning. You see if you are in a constant state of anxiety, fear, or stress, you are not able to learn. In the future we will need to explore and investigate trauma informed teaching.

Common Neuromyths

Neuromyth # 1

“We only use 10% of our brains?”

Our teachers learned about current research related to brain development, brain function, and debunked some myths (also known as neuromyths) about the brain. For example, did you know that we use all of our brain everyday, not the 10% everyone believes? Every portion of the brain is utilized in the minor and major things we do (unless there is some injury or other disformity). So let’s begin with a brief tour of the brain. Each part plays an integral role in our everyday functions. We will travel from the rear of the brain and move forward. At the rear of the brain is the occipital lobe. It is responsible for processing visual information. Next, is the cerebellum, which takes care of the actions we don’t seem to think about like, breathing, balance, and temperature regulation. Then, we move to the temporal lobe, which processes language and auditory information. Just above the temporal lobe is the parietal lobe, it is responsible for our processing of sensory information. In the very front of the brain is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, judgement, and executive functioning.


Neuromyth #2

“You are either right brained or left brained?”

Another brain myth is that we are either left brained or right brained, also known as hemispheric dominance. Some people believe that they are either left brained, which is characterized by being analytical, logical, practical, and organized.  People who believe they are right brained, describe themselves as being creative, intuitive, and emotional. Actually, each hemisphere of our brain is equally active. Both sides of the brain work together collaboratively.  There is no evidence of hemispheric dominance. You can read more about it here, in an article from Psychology Today.


Neuromyth #3

“There are multiple intelligences?”

Many educators have adopted the neuromyth that students were predominantly one intelligence style over another.  Multiple Intelligences, as described by Howard Gardner’s work in 1991 identified 7 different intelligences.

  • Visual Spatial
  • Bodily Kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-Mathematical


Howard Gardner’s research didn’t define students learning styles, but described the teaching conditions that educators needed to provide for all students to make optimal connections while learning. However, educators have been duped into focusing on creating activities that are style centered, instead of brain centered. The human brain grows connections from novel experiences, emotional connections, and exposure to the various “multiple intelligences.” Howard Gardner differentiated between styles and intelligences. Howard Gardner’s goal was to challenge the belief that intelligence was predictive. He wanted to expose the nuances to intelligence and its ability to change based upon experiences. You can read more about what Howard Gardner says about his research and related myths here.

Neuromyth #4

“Our IQ never changes?”

As educators, and anyone who wants to develop their brain, we need to understand that the more connections we make (provide, encourage), the greater the learning. Our brains are capable of making lots and lots of connections! This is because of the wonderful neuron! A neuron is the specialized cell in the brain that transmits information. The information can either be electrical or chemical. The human brain has 86 billion neurons on average (some say 100 billion-research may dispute this number). Each of those neurons has the ability to be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, which can result in as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. I don’t know about you, but my mind is officially blown! So, this means we are all capable of learning, growing, and changing in a billion ways! Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Meaning the brain is not fixed, it can rewire itself or make new connections to expand or deepen learning.

Applications for the Classroom

Applying brain research to teaching practices-what makes sense?

Make Learning a Positive Experience!

Remember, when students are feeling positive emotions, the learning switch goes on. When students are feeling unsafe, threatened, or negative, the learning switch turns off. The inquiry approach creates more learning connections and encourages more positive emotions, therefore resulting  in more learning and memorable experiences. Maybe consider this checklist from Global Citizen to help you out:

The Safe Learning Environments Checklist

  1. Keep a clean and orderly classroom
  2. Allow students to be openly expressive and encouraging to others
  3. Celebrate student work in different ways
  4. Create a list of guidelines that are “law” (ex: no name-calling, bullying, etc.)
  5. Stay calm and in control always
  6. Practice useful failure and turn mistakes into learning opportunities
  7. Model kindness every chance you get
  8. Move around and interact with students, and create connection
  9. Be patient and smile
  10. Feel free to laugh with your students and be vulnerable
  11. Give kids choices on how they can do assignments


Connecting to Prior Knowledge:  

This allows the brain to sort and relate new knowledge to prior knowledge. That connection strengthens the learning. If the concepts can “fire” together, they are “wired” together. Connecting to prior knowledge encourages the information to move from short-term memory to long-term memory. Allow students to connect new learning to older concepts. Edutopia has some great suggestions to help tap into your students’ prior knowledge!

Make Learning Active:

Provide “hands-on” and “minds-on” learning opportunities. Allow for movement, problem-solving, and active participation. Inquiry Based, Problem Based Learning, and Challenged Based Learning are highly effective. Students have an opportunity to research topics of interest and personalize their learning outcomes.

Revisiting Concepts over Time and Contexts

Connect new learning to other concepts. Revisit the concepts to trigger the brain’s understanding that the concepts are important.  You know what they say, “use it, or lose it!”

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Understanding Our Students’ Brains: Part One

  1. Thank you for sharing this information. As a teacher, I have always had the philosophy of rapport with students first and educating them second. With the information of the amygdala, I am confident that my approach is on the right path.


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