So, what works?

Issue 22: 17/3/2023 Deputy Head of School (I. Clayton)

In my last few articles I have focused on several neuromyths when it comes to learning. This week I want to focus on some things that work in a brain compatible way.

The first idea is to create a safe climate for learning. I am sure that we can all remember teachers or classrooms that were stressful. When students are feeling anxious or fearful they aren't in the mood to learn. The brain is a survival machine amongst other things and so if there is perceived threat or high levels of stress then this scrambles the learning circuits. There are lots of stressors outside of the classroom that teachers cannot influence but we canĀ  create the right ambience where students can feel challenged but it is acceptable to make mistakes.

Secondly, within that classroom we learn best when we are motivated. Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic and I wrote about some of the latest research recently. There are two things that really improve motivation. So, in the first place, the brain craves novelty. John Medina, neuro scientist, says that the brain should be stimulated with new and interesting things, 'We don't pay attention to boring things' he says. If every lesson for a student is a PowerPoint, then it is no surprise that they will soon lose attention. Also PowerPoints should have little text. The brain prefers visual stimuli and it is important to remember that, as a rough rule of thumb, a 10 year old can concentrate around 20-30 minutes and a 16 year old around 30-40 minutes depending on certain conditions.

The second thing that boosts motivation is relevance and authenticity. The brain needs to see a good reason to use its finite resources. It is never enough to explain to a student that the reason they need to pay attention is because 'this will be on the test.' If we can't find a reason for something to be relevant then we need to think harder. Marc Prensky (who coined the term 'digital native') has explained several projects across a number of schools in the USA where students were given real life problems to solve. The results were astonishing. They helped to solve, amongst other things, traffic flow problems, fresh water access, law and order dilemmas, public building use, the use of leisure space and affordable accommodation. students were solving real life problems. Motivation levels were sky high!

Thirdly, knowing what stimulates the brain can lead to making massive gains for minimal input. For example the brain loves visual imagery and metaphor. This helps it to fully understand and make connections. Making connections to prior learning is really crucial too. The brain loves storytelling and anything that can be made into a story with visuals will massively improve retention of information. Finally, make it fun/funny, the brain loves humour, even the worst joke can help. What type of fish can perform brain surgery? A neuro sturgeon!

Ian Clayton
Deputy Head of School