You may have heard of programs bringing neuroscience into classrooms. MindUP/The Goldie Hawn Foundation, for instance, is a non-profit introducing neuroscience and social-emotional learning to schools. The goal of MindUP is “to help children develop the knowledge and tools they need to manage stress, regulate emotions and face the challenges of the 21st century with optimism, resilience and compassion.” But how can neuroscience help students reach these goals? And what is neuroscience in the first place? Here’s what you need to know about neuroscience in schools.
What Is Neuroscience?
Basically, neuroscience is the study of the brain as well as the nervous system. In particular, Cognitive Neuroscience focuses on what happens in the brain and the nervous system in cognitive functioning. In 2011, the Royal Society UK defined neuroscience as “understanding the mental processes involved in learning.” Neuroscience, then, is the study of what happens in classrooms every day. Cognition involves learning information as well as retrieving and applying it in different situations. It also involves important skills like reasoning and decision-making.
Neuroplasticity and Educational Neuroscience
According to neuroscience, the brain is “plastic.” This means that it can be easily molded and changed. Indeed, our brains change almost constantly. Everything we do, decide, and learn physically alters the brain. In other words, the brain is what it does. That means students can actually change their brains. In this way, neuroscience empowers and encourages student learning. It also empowers teachers, who can use pedagogical practices proven to take advantage of neuroplasticity and help students learn more effectively, efficiently, and deeply.
Neuroplasticity and Deep Learning
Through studying neuroplasticity, neuroscientists learn about how we learn – and how we can learn more effectively and efficiently. According to neuroscience, when a person’s senses are activated, this activates neurons in the brain as well. These neurons “translate” what they receive from the senses into information. This process forms new pathways in the brain. This is the basis of neuroplasticity: constant, frequent changes in the brain.
However, when forming these new pathways, the brain uses information, knowledge, and pathways it has formed before. According to neurologist Judy Willis, “the most successful construction of working (short-term) memory takes place when there has been activation of the brain’s prior knowledge before the new information is taught.” In other words, if a teacher builds on what students already know, students will develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Science shows us that the brain looks for connections between new information and what it already knows. If the way we teach follows the way the brain works, students will learn more deeply.
What’s the Best Way to Incorporate Neuroscience in Schools?
The good news is that many teachers already use techniques and tools that promote deep learning. Graphic organizers, for instance, offer a visual method for connecting new and prior knowledge. Decision trees can similarly give students a visual way to think through problems – with the added bonus of providing a strong foundation for understanding computer programming. Several websites offer to neuroscience-related projects and show teachers how to apply neuroscience research in their classrooms.
Incorporating technology into classroom activities also promotes deep learning. From iPads to smartphones to video games, students use technology on a daily basis – and it’s changed the way their brains are wired. By incorporating technology and gamification, teachers build on students’ prior knowledge. It is, however, important that schools keep students safe when learning online. Content filters may keep students from accessing some harmful sites and materials, but schools must also consider other dangers, such as cyberbullying and predatory grooming. Screen monitoring software like LearnSafe works hand-in-hand with content filters to keep students safe and focused on learning.