Judy Willis


Santa Barbara, CA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

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A Primer: Neuroscience and Teaching Strategies

Judy Willis, M.D. M.Ed.

                                 A Primer for Use in Teacher Education about the Neuroscience of Learning

Why Teacher Education Should Include Neuroscience

      The neuroscience of how the brain learns and what influences the most successful brain acquisition and application of learning should be included in all teacher education programs.  Teachers need to be prepared with foundational knowledge to understand, evaluate, and apply the neuroscience of learning. With this knowledge they will be able to recognize future implications from this rapidly expanding field of research to increase the effectiveness of their teaching and build and sustain students’ joy of learning.
      Teacher education needs to prepare tomorrow’s teachers with the knowledge and tools to prepare their future students for the game-changing realities globalization. The new common core standards align well with the preparation for students need to be prepared with the thinking skills already sought by employers. These skillsets are those described in the neurology literature for almost 100 years, and they remain the brain networks that can be strengthened so all students can participate in the opportunities and challenges in higher education, vocations, a global society.
       Neuroscience is on the vanguard of producing research of increased quality and applicability to education. Functional neuroimaging gives us insight into what circumstances and sensory input most successfully promote the brain’s acquisition of new knowledge. Among those insights is evidence of increased metabolic activity in identifiable networks neural networks when information is encoded into memory, when memories are retrieved, and when executive functions use is associated with increased neural circuit activity in the prefrontal cortex.
       Correlations to neuroscience research have yielded strategies most consistent with brain’s information processing now “visible” with functional neuroimaging. For example, when information is presented in ways that emphasize relationships to existing stored memory, the brain’s own patterning system increases successful memory acquisition.
Teachers need to understand the why and not just the how of the most effective teaching strategies to have the motivation and positive expectations to best utilize these strategies. These topics include how the brain “pays attention”, encodes new input into working memory, uses neuroplasticity to construct long-term memory, is influenced by stress, and develops its neural networks of executive functions.
       Especially critical is teacher awareness of the vast potentials of neuroplasticity that increases their opportunities to influence the development of their students’ brain networks of executive functions – their highest cognitive skillsets. Teachers with foundational understanding about the neuroscience and cognitive science of how the brain turns input into long-term memory and memory into transferable knowledge, will be the most prepared to guide all students to achieve their highest potentials.

                   A Primer about the Neuroscience of Learning

     Teachers are the caretakers of the development of students’ highest brain during the years of its most extensive changes. As such, they have the privilege and opportunity to influence the quality and quantity of neuronal and connective pathways so all children leave school with their brains optimized for future success.
This introduction to the basics of the neuroscience of learning includes information that should be included in all teacher education programs. It is intentionally brief such that it can be taught in a single day of instruction. Ideally there would be additional opportunities for future teachers to pursue further inquiry into the science of how the brain learns, retrieves, and applies information.

Teaching Grows Brain Cells
    IQ is not fixed at birth and brain development and intelligence are “plastic” in that internal and environmental stimuli constantly change the structure and function of neurons and their connections. Teachers have the opportunity to help all children build their brains beyond what was previously believed to be fixed limits based on learning disabilities or the predictions of test scores or achievements.
     It was once believed that brain cell growth stops after age twenty. We now know that through neuroplasticity, interneuron connections (dendrites, synapses, and myelin coating) continue to be pruned or constructed in response to learning and experiences throughout our lives.
     These physical changes of brain self-reconstruction in response to experiences including sensory input, emotions, conscious and unconscious thoughts are so responsive that human potential for increased knowledge, physical skills, and “talent” in the arts is essentially limitless. There are conditions associated with the most successful strengthening of neural networks, such as guided instruction and practice with frequent corrective feedback. As neuroscience research continues more information will be available to guide teachers providing the brain with the experiences best suited to maximize its learning and proficiency.

High Stress Restricts Brain Processing to the Survival State
     The prefrontal cortex, where the higher thinking processes of executive functions (judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing) is also the CEO that can manage and control our emotions. Like the rest of the PFC it is still undergoing maturation throughout the school years. Students do not have the adult brain’s developed circuits of reflection, judgment, and gratification delay to overcome the lower brain’s strong influence.
     Neuroimaging research reveals that a structure in the emotion sensitive limbic system is a switching-station that determines which part of the brain will receive input and determine response output. Brain-based research has demonstrated that new information cannot pass through the amygdala (part of the limbic system) to enter the frontal lobe if the amygdala is in the state of high metabolism or overactivity provoked by anxiety. It is important for teachers to know that when stress cuts off flow to and from the PFC, behavior is involuntary. It is not students’ choice in the reactive state when they “act out” and “zone out”.
     Through interventions to go beyond differentiation to individualization (see article about video game model) it is possible to decrease the stressors of frustration from work perceived as too difficult or boredom from repeated instruction after mastery is achieved. Further information from neuroscience research reveals other causes of the high stress state in school and suggests interventions to reduce the stress blocking response in the amygdala.

Memory is Constructed and Stored by Patterning

     The brain turns data from the senses into learned information in the hippocampus. This encoding process requires activation or prior knowledge with a similar “pattern” to physically link with the new input if a short-term memory is to be constructed. The neuroimaging research supported by cognitive testing reveals that the most successful construction of working (short-term) memory takes place when there has been activation of the brain’s related prior knowledge before new information is taught.
      When teachers work to clearly demonstrate the patterns, connections, and relationships that exist between new and old learning (e.g. cross-curricular studies, graphic organizers, spiraled curriculum) the probability of encoding increases.
Teachers can help students increase working memory efficiency through a variety of interventions correlated with neuroimaging responses. For example, with opportunities to make predictions, receive timely feedback, and reflect on those experiences. These experiences appear to be increase executive function facilitation of working memory, such as guiding the selection of the most important information hold in working memory.

Memory is Sustained by Use
     Once and encoded short-term memory is constructed it still needs to be activated multiple times and ideally in response to a variety of prompts for neuroplasticity to increase its durability. Each time students participate in any endeavor, a certain number of neurons are activated.  When they repeat the action, the same neurons respond again.  The more times they repeat an action, the more dendrites grow and interconnect, resulting in greater memory storage and recall efficiency.
     Retention is further promoted when new memories are connected to other stored memories based on commonalities, such as similarities/differences, especially when students use graphic organizers and derive their own connections. Multisensory instruction, practice, and review promote memory storage in multiple regions of the cortex, based on the type of sensory input by which they were learned and practiced. These are distant storage centers are linked to each other such that triggering one sensory memory activates the others.  This duplication results of storage increases the efficiency of subsequent retrieval as a variety of cues prompt activation of different access points to the extended memory map.
     The construction of concept memory networks requires opportunities for students to transfer learning beyond the contexts in which it is learned and practiced. When information learned and stored in its own isolated circuit it is only accessible by the same stimuli through which it was obtained. These transfer activities activate memories to new stimuli and with other knowledge to solve novel problems. These simultaneous activations promote extended connections among memories that are the larger concept memory networks most applicable to future use.
     Pattern recognition facilitation and opportunities for knowledge transfer extends the brain’s processing efficiency for greater access to and application of its accumulated learning. These teaching interventions will prepare graduates for future incorporation and extension of new information as it is becomes available. Students who have the guided learning experiences needed to construct concept memory networks will be have the best preparation for their futures. As the information pool expands, these students will continue to comprehend new information, consolidate it into their neural networks, and recognize, develop, and globally disseminate its new applications.

The Future
     As the research continues to build, it will be the obligation of those who prepare our future teachers to insure they understand and can apply the best current and future teaching strategies. This includes insuring that the teachers who graduate from their programs have the foundational neuroscience knowledge to use the fruits of the expanding pool of research to the betterment of all their own future students. That is a fascinating and exciting challenge to meet at a pivotal time in the evolution of education.


The references used for this article are listed here. The published version of this article required that format. I can provide the specific annotations if needed. In addition, since it was written in 2005, newer research is now available on all topics described and incorporated in the articles I’ve written on these topics in recent rears. Teachers with neuroscience foundational knowledge will be able to seek, evaluate, and apply that subsequent and future research.

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Pawlak, R., Magarinos, A. M., Melchor, J., McEwen, B., & Strickland, S. (Feb. 2003). Tissue plasminogen activator in the amygdala is critical for stress-induced anxiety-like behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 168 – 174.

Shadmehr, R., and Holcomb,H (1997). Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation," Science 277:821

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Wunderlich, K. et. al., (2005). Improving Learning Through Understanding of Brain Science Research. Learning Abstracts, Volume 8, Number 1. 41-43.

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