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Science says: Here’s how to reach every student brain

Expert gives educators tips on how to get every student brain to learn

brain-learning By now, most educators know that classroom practices such as differentiating instruction, critical thinking, and making the environment less stressful for students are critical to a 21st-century education. But…why does it work? One education and brain expert says it all comes down to chemicals and neurons.

Dr. Sarah Armstrong, the senior director for statewide K-12 professional development at the University of Virginia and a former elementary school principal and assistant superintendent of curriculum, said she became a “brain junkie” in the 1980s and never looked back.

Armstrong, author of Teaching Smarter With the Brain in Focus: Practical Ways to Apply the Latest Brain Research to Deepen Comprehension, Improve Memory, and Motivate Students to Achieve, discussed with educators how students learn at the chemical level, and why certain classroom practices succeed when others fail.

“In lots of classrooms around the country, practice doesn’t always work, no matter how much a teacher might have planned. There are also many struggling learners out there who may seem like they just don’t fit into the ‘school’ category,” she said. “But if we look at neuroscience research, and understand how the brain learns and how, in general, it likes to learn, we can fix some of those learning gap problems.”

(Next page: Good and bad stress)

Armstrong began her BrainWare Safari webinar, “Practical Advice for Brain-Compatible Teaching,” by explaining that students often seem to have two types of mindsets: fixed or growth. “Fixed” means students often don’t seem to realize the value of effort, and “growth” means the students who are determined to progress.


“Teachers shouldn’t give up when they encounter fixed mindsets, because often they can create a classroom environment that can change that mindset,” said Armstrong.

To understand the basics of student mindsets and learning, Armstrong explained that most of a student’s initial ability to learn in class begins with stress levels and the kinds of stress placed on the brain.

What inhibits learning, according to Armstrong, is usually stress, fear of failure, and anxiety—all symptoms of “perceived threat.”

Under a perceived threat, the brain loses its ability to recognize subtle clues from the environment, reverts to the familiar “tried-and-true” behaviors, is less able to perform higher order thinking skills, and tends to over-react to stimuli in an almost “phobic” way.

“The amygdala plays a major role in instinctive emotional reactions and takes precedence over thoughtful reflection,” she explained. “It matures before the frontal lobes and results in adolescents responding with gut reaction rather than reason, which may account for impulsive and risky behavior.”

With a mature amygdala, emotions often run high for students, which can cause an adverse reaction thanks to cortisol, or glucocorticoids—a class of steroid hormones secreted from the adrenal glands during stress.

According to research from Robert Sapolsky, professor of Biological Sciences, and Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University, sustained stress can damage the hippocampus—the part of the brain that is central to learning and memory—due to too much cortisol. By damaging the hippocampus, the brain can be prevented from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories.

“During perceived threats, the adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin,” said Armstrong. “If the threat is severe or still persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals release cortisol. Once in the brain, the cortisol remains much longer than adrenalin, where it continues to affect brain cells.”

However, there is also “good” stress that can promote not only learning, but general health.

Ohio State University researchers found that stress from engaging in a memory task activated the immune systems, whereas stress from passively watching a violent video weakened immunity.

“Results suggest that deadlines and challenges, even if annoying in the short term, could be a good thing that helps strengthen the body’s defenses,” Armstrong noted. “Appropriate stress releases norepinephrine, one of the principal excitatory neurotransmitters, which is needed to create new memories; it improves mood and problems feel like challenges, which encourages creative thinking that stimulates the brain to grow new connections within itself.”

Armstrong described how it’s this type of good stress that acts as a stimulus to the brain, and it’s through stimulus that the brain creates new neural pathways—pathways critical to learning.

(Next page: Stimulus and minimizing bad stress)

For example, rats placed in a cage with other rats only had the brain development shown on the left [see below]; however, rats that had not only other rats, but also physical stimulation and a variety of differentiated toys, had the brain development shown on the right.


“Which synapses remain and which are pruned depends on whether or not they carry any traffic,” said Armstrong. “When you stimulate the brain you make sure as many synapses as possible stay active, because if synapses are not used, then just like bus routes that attract no customers, they go out of business.”

That’s why, said Armstrong, many leading education experts recommend implementing high-order thinking skills into the classroom, which include critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

“Try to incorporate lots of different types of learning into the classroom—visual, auditory, etc., and use them in together as often as possible to reach and stimulate most of your learners,” noted Armstrong.

Another piece of advice to create good classroom stimulus is to try and make connections to new learning.

For instance, asking students to memorize CIA JFK TV SRO ASAP would be easier than to ask them to memorize CI AJF KT VSR OAS AP, because activating prior knowledge helps the brain make connections.

“The brain wants to make sense out of its world,” said Armstrong, “so help it out. Every encounter with something new requires the brain to fit the new information into an existing memory category or network of neurons. If it can’t, the information will have no meaning.”

Armstrong also developed these five questions educators should ask when considering differentiated instruction:


Of course, there are also some classroom practices that can help de-stress students and minimize the production of cortisol, noted Armstrong.

For example, the amount of time students spend learning should be through a “pulse” learning patterns, which Armstrong described as focused learning interrupted by breaks of two-to-five minutes for diffusion, or processing of information.

“For focused activity, young learners should have no more than 5-10 minutes before diffusion; adolescents 15-20; and adults 20-25,” she said.


Finally, perhaps one of the most effective ways to reduce students stress, but perhaps one of the most overlooked, is to take an interest in the students.

“I had a student who was struggling, kind of not participating and was very quiet, but really started to change and take an interest,” described Armstrong. “When I left for a new school, the students wrote me this letter, thanking me for asking him how he was feeling when he was sick. Such a simple thing; I didn’t even remember asking him, but it’s important to understand that human connection, and the care that can come from a teacher, can make all the difference.”


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