Neuroscience, Teaching, and Student Feedback

We recently completed a series of student feedback surveys to get their perspective on the teaching and learning process at ISK and find out how our students feel things are going with their teachers in terms of the “7 C’s” that the survey’s measure. These 7 C’s are considered to be the most important elements present in good learning in schools to impact student learning.

Care, Confer, Captivate, Consolidate, Challenge, Clarify, and Classroom Management are each measured through questions that relate to each area; things like “ My Teacher really tries to understand how students feel about things” for Caring or “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time” for Classroom Management. I am very happy to say that the results throughout the school were excellent. I presented the details to the Board of Trustees and the PTA, and it it a lot of information, but, basically, we perform on average almost 10% above the mark considered to be high quality. So our “average” is actually pretty great.

What is interesting for me is how these criteria tie into Neuroscientific Research. Martha Burns talks about it in her article “I’m a Neuroscientist. Here’s How Teachers Change Kids’ Brains.” As she explains, teachers can impact students’ brains because of their neuroplasticity. Neuroplastic basic means changeable, and kids brains have 3 ways they can be changed, helped along by certain chemical neuromodulators. The first way is “proliferation” where the brain makes new synapses and pathways, especially in the early years. The second way is “pruning” which, just as it sounds, is the elimination of unused processes and pathways. Finally, there is “consolidation”, which is our brain deciding what is used most often to keep it handy and myelinating (coating) the connections to make these parts work even better.

So, when we are learning, “What” we teach impacts what skills are developed, which information is remembered and which are lost. And the learning skills (attention, memory, processing) are incredibly important, so we need to both develop and promote them. And we need to continue to challenge students as they develop their skills and knowledge to match their level and needs if we want learning to continue. Students’ brains proliferate and consolidate what they use, and prune what they don’t, so we need to put their brains to good use.

As for the “When”, we know that with our brains, “practice makes permanent.” So ideas need to be repeated and reinforced with enough frequency and intensity, without becoming repetitive and boring. We need to revisit prior knowledge while building in new knowledge. And we need to help students organize and contextualize it all, consolidating and clarifying ideas as we go. Again this comes back to the proliferating and consolidating of our neural pathways ensuring that the right pathways develop permanence.

Finally there is the “How” we teach, and this is where all the chemical Neuromodulators come in. Burns uses the acronym “ReNEW” representing Reinforcement, Novelty, Enhanced Attention, and Well-Being. Reinforcement and Novelty are dopamine based. Dopamine helps things get into the brain permanently and is produced during moments of positive feedback and during new experiences. Luckily, new and interesting experiences also help enhance attention so captivating learning experiences not only increase dopamine, they generate acetylcholine and norepinephrine as well, increasing attention and retention, so we are providing multiple wins for our students’ brains at once.

But possibly most important, is how students feel. When we feel good our bodies produce serotonin, and we produce it even more when we have trust and confidence. And serotonin is linked to both how fast we learn and to our memory and recall. That is why caring is so important for our students and why we need to confer with them to ensure they feel confidence in what we are doing. And it is why classroom management plays a central role in ensuring our environment is one that guarantees students’ Well-Being. When we feel good, we learn better.

Hmmm. That is a lot of Neuroscientific,biochemical jargon that boils down to one simple statement:

What we have identified as good teaching and learning is apparently also good for kids’ brains; and from what our students tell us, we are helping their brains a lot.

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