Getting Inside Students’ Heads

Student looking at digital tablet

Neuroscience research about how we learn is advancing at increasing speed. Neuroimaging is opening windows allowing us to watch the brain process, recognise, remember, and transfer information at the level of synapses and neural circuits.

But the most valuable assets for improving education won’t be developed in a neuroimaging lab. Neuroscientists will not become classroom teachers and they are unable to translate lab analysis into classroom strategies. It will be educators with the foundational knowledge of the science of learning, who will evaluate the validity and potential educational correlations from neuroscience research and bring its benefits to their students.

An understanding of how information is routed in the brain and how new neural connections are made and strengthened are important to understanding how we learn. Some key examples of neuroscience research with direct implication for teaching strategies include an understanding of the attention filter (the Reticular Activation System), the emotional filter (the Amygdala deep in the limbic system), and the limitless potential of neuroplasticity (the processes involved in creating new connections, connecting new information to old) – or as we like to call it: learning.

We know for instance, that when information enters the brain it is routed to one of two areas: (1) the pre-frontal cortex, what we might call the thinking brain, which can consciously process and reflect on information and (2) the lower, automatic brain, which we might call the reactive brain, which reacts to information instinctively rather than through thinking. When a student is anxious, sad, frustrated or bored, their brain filters conduct sensory information from the world into his reactive brain where the response is to either ignore it, fight against it as a negative experience, or avoid it (e.g. switch off and daydream). It is unlikely that information will be processed thoughtfully or remembered.

When one’s stress levels are down and interest is high, the most valuable information tends to pass into the thinking brain. When students are focussed and in positive or controlled emotional states, their executive functions can more successfully organise newly coded memories into long term knowledge. Every time they review or use that knowledge, activity along the connections between nerve cells increases. Repeated stimulations makes the network stronger – practice makes permanent.

Future neuroscience outcomes with the most extensive and useful classroom applications will likely arise from input that educators provide to scientists. When experience reveals particular strategies as repeatedly successful, classroom to research lab channels will be open for teachers to suggest investigations to see what is happening in the brain in response to those conditions. Through this collaboration, the observations of neuroscience-savvy classroom teachers, about what works for their students, will become neuroscience research investigations. As the data is analyzed, replicated, applied, adapted, and strategies become even more effective, what started as a teacher’s observations will be disseminated to benefit students worldwide. After all, isn’t sharing what we teachers do so well?


Dr. Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California. She was speaking at Pearson’s Mind Brain Conference in Melbourne, Australia. 

The full article is available on our Australian blog.