Eight Ways to Grab Students by Their Brains (And get great academic results!)

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  1. Brains love Novelty
  2. Brains love Relevance
  3. Brains love Movement
  4. Brains love Social Interaction
  5. Brains love Visuals
  6. Brains love Music
  7. Brains love Pattern
  8. Brains love Feedback

1. Novelty – This is why the “anticipatory set’ part of a lesson is so important. You are utilizing the brain’s love of novelty to grab their attention and focus on what’s next. Novelty arouses curiosity. Questions, riddles, clues, pictures, unusual and wacky (but related to your lesson) are all great tools for anticipatory set. No one listens when it’s boring – make it humorous, sparkly, odd – whatever, but don’t let your intro to your lesson or let your content be boring.

2. Relevance – The brain pays attention to what’s important. What’s important is determined by the brain’s amygdala. Is it dangerous? Is it satisfying a need? If there is no obvious need to focus on something (i.e. it’s not going to eat you, it’s not something you can eat.) then it’s not relevant and the brain moves on. Make sure you include why your lesson is relevant and requires your students’ attention. And don’t say “Because it will be on the test.” Relevance looks for what’s meaningful. Tests are only meaningful for those giving them.

3. Movement – Your brain needs oxygen. Oxygen gets distributed to cells by the blood cells along with other nutrients. For cells in the brain to function properly, blood must circulate through the body and up to the brain. The best way to get blood circulating is to move. Sitting is basically killing the brain. Movement generates new brain cells. The fancy word for this is neurogenesis. Brain cells – or specifically neurons – are born – yes, BABY neurons – as a direct result of sustained movement like walking for 20 minutes. Not only that, but moving helps send neurotransmitters like endorphins to those baby cells to help them grow and connect. This results in better long-term memories. Endorphins and other neurotransmitters help balance emotions and focus. Moving also helps cells build resistance to damage and stress. Happy cells are learning cells. Kids gotta move if you want them to learn.

4. Social Interaction – Humans are animals that have survived and thrived as a species because of their social connectedness. There is evidence of the importance of human connectedness in infants who fixate on face recognition and the ability to do so is innate. There is also the power of touch, especially being held or cuddled. This kind of touch releases oxytocin, as does a hug or holding hands. Even if you aren’t planning to have kids hold hands, social interaction as part of a learning activity guided by the teacher can have a strong positive effect on learning. The operative word is “guided by the teacher” so that expected behavior and interactions is clearly understood.

5. Visuals – Our brains are hard-wired (a euphemism) for visual memory. The expression “a picture’s worth a thousand words” is pretty accurate when it comes to memory. Hear a piece of information and three days later you remember less than 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%. Rule of thumb – oral delivery = 10% recall, visual delivery = 35% recall, oral and visual = 65% recall.  Teachers tend to deliver information verbally, but if you want students to remember something, get a picture to go with it and plant that memory in their brains.

6. Music – Science has now proven what music lovers already know, that listening to upbeat music can improve your mood. Listening and playing music reduces chronic stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol, something found by medical science to be heightened in at-risk and poverty-level students. Music can make you feel more hopeful, powerful, and in control of your life. So if you want to manage students mental states, or help students transition from the end of one activity to a new activity, and reduce stress, use music to smooth out the rough edges in a school day. There’s also a benefit from ambient (background) levels of music while students are performing tasks that involve concentration.  It’s important to note that the music most conducive is classical instrumental music by composers before Beethoven. Why is that you ask? Because Beethoven and the composers that followed him wrote music that had emotional, dramatic highs and lows hence that musical period is referred to as the Romantic period. Music composed from the 1600’s to about 1750, tended not to have surprising shifts in volume, timbre, percussion. Also keep in mind, piano music or instrumental music like string orchestra from the pre-Beethoven period fits this “no surprises” rule better than vocal music from the same time.

7. Patterns – In nature, patterns are used as warnings like the colorful orange and black monarch butterfly who is poisonous to any bird that attempts to eat it. It bears repeating (pun intended) that snakes also have patterns that serve to warn their predators, that includes us. If birds and other animals learn from patterns, it stands to reason that human brains also learn from patterns.  For less dangerous ways (LOL) to teach children, stick to rhyming and repetitive chants, or nonsense sentences used as an anagram to remember key facts. In math, use color patterns to subliminally teach kindergarteners to count by 5’s or 2’s or 10’s. Being able to recognize patterns is what gave humans their evolutionary edge over animals. After all how many animals can explain the Fibonacci numbers in a pineapple? Our brains seek meaningful order out of chaos.  Use pattern to cement learning into memory.

8. Feedback – This is where, armed with some knowledge of the brain, teachers can counteract it’s natural learning system to get better results in student learning. Huh? Well, when it comes to feedback, our brains operate in a negative feedback loop. Huh, again! This means that our brain pays closer attention to what’s going wrong, than to what’s going well. In other words, humans notice what irritates us more readily than things that go smoothly.  Our limbic system in our brain is designed to recognize a threat.  It’s how our brains learn to avoid danger in the future, thus helping us to live another day. But what does heightened awareness do to learners? Students don’t always benefit from this natural limbic system response. For some, they become Type A perfectionists who are easily stressed out by even minor mistakes, crippling their ability to try new things and fear of failure. For other students, it confirms their belief that they were doled out a “bad” brain – one that will never “get” it and they too are doomed to failure. Seems kinda dramatic? Well it is. Drama and emotions easily ride piggyback on this natural brain function – to avoid making mistakes. You’ve heard of the Darwin Awards – a bizarre list of people who lacked this particular internal warning process of the brain and did incredibly dangerous things that resulted in their deaths. Yeah, deaths! So the key here for teachers is to recognize that learners need their limbic system, but not too excess or it cramps their ability to learn.  Students need to learn how to balance out the automatic negative thoughts (Dr. Amen and I like to call these ANTS) but not program the brain to ignore danger signals. The strategy for teachers is called giving students POSITIVE feedback. If you are good at it, you give your students with the ANTS in their brains, at least FIVE positive reinforcers about things they are doing well to every ONE corrective comment. Why 5 to 1 you ask? Because the 3 to 1 ratio doesn’t really work when a brain is already stressed. Feedback by the way, is the powerful, addictive method video game developers use to keep us hooked into playing for hours. Positive feedback like that in video games raises levels of dopamine and “hooks” players to play more.  Every little success, spurs us on to continue. If we have too few successes, we quit playing. Not enough “challenge” and we find it too easy and monotony sets in. Teachers need to think like a gamer when it comes to feedback. Oh – and make sure it’s specific because nobody hears “good job”. Feedback like “you nailed those ten math problems. Way to go using the flashcards to help you memorize the multiplication table.” Feedback should be a star – specific, timely, authentic and relevant.

At least ten years ago, I read a book “Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems”. The fact that I can remember the title of that book out of the 938 books in my professional library speaks volumes. (Yes, that pun was intended too.) And by the way, I have all my books listed in a database so I DO know I have 938 books. I hope my list of eight ways to “grab students by their brains” is helpful to you, but if I’ve really ramped up the “curiosity” part of your brain, here are several books I recommend to you for more details and the research that backs the eight brain-based instructional strategies.

Barbara Given

Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems

Eric Jensen

Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Marilee Sprenger

Becoming a “Wiz” at Brain-Based Teaching

Jean Blaydes Madigan

Thinking On Your Feet

Marcia L. Tate

Shouting Won’t Grow Dendrites

John Medina, MD

Brain Rules

Daniel Amen, MD

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life