#cftrecommendations Neuroscience Psychology Teaching

The complementarity of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Teaching.

In their May 2020 article in Educational Leadership, The Sciences of Teaching, Carol Ann Tomlinson and David Sousa explore the ways in which neuroscience and psychology can inform and support a teacher’s practice. Each of them brings to the exploration of the topic a wealth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom.

As I was reading their ideas, I couldn’t help but think about the physics concept, complementarity. Complementarity suggests that two different ways of knowing or understanding, in this case, neuroscience and psychology, might be able to explain or inform a set of phenomena, although each separately only accounts for some pieces of the puzzle. We know that teaching and learning are complex processes influenced by multiple factors. In this case, two of the factors are neuroscience and psychology, however, there are others, such as the concepts, skills, and qualities of mind being taught by the teacher or learned by the student.

In the article, they focus on four concepts to illustrate how the research in neuroscience and psychology shines a light on types of strategies teachers can use to support student learning outcomes. The four concepts are:

  1. Developing a growth mindset boosts individual motivation
  2. Helping students tap into prior knowledge prepares them for new learning
  3. Understanding the role that social-emotional factors play in readiness to learn can be impactful in designing effective lessons
  4. Designing a learning environment with the knowledge that all learners are different supports an equitable classroom

Developing growth mindset boosts individual motivation

They write about the significance of the neuroscientific concept of plasticity. This concept suggests that our brains grow, adapt, and change as a result of neuronal connections forming, pruning, and reorganizing over time. All of us have the ability to build capacity, which supports us persisting in our learning and not being dissuaded by setbacks. What could teachers do to integrate neuroscience with psychology?

Teachers could learn the foundational ideas behind growth mindset and use them in their lesson design. There are ample resources available for planning a growth mindset classroom.

Teachers could integrate collaborative strategies, like project-based learning, as a way for students to work together, supporting and learning from each other. Tomlinson and Sousa write: “But when peers pull together for mutual growth and success, its’ far more likely that individuals will believe in their ability to succeed.”

Teachers could reflect on their students, trying to uncover which ones they are drawn to work with and why versus those students they reluctantly work with and why. Do we have to love every student? As a teacher, there were students that I didn’t look forward to working with. Mostly, it was my issue, not their’s. Regardless of whose issue it was, it was my responsibility to help every child learn and know what barriers were in my way.

Finally, teachers could do the inner work to discover whether they have a fixed or growth mindset. In order to support students’ growth, teachers have to be willing to do their own work. Otherwise, they will be ineffective helping students grow. Developing a growth mindset requires inner work that can be hard.

Helping students tap into prior knowledge prepares them for new learning

In order to help students tap into and use their prior knowledge, teachers need a toolbox with strategies that help them get to know their students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile. On Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez shares a 4-Part Strategy For Getting to Know your Students. All teachers should adopt a strategy for building a student database and use the new-found knowledge in their lesson design. Student biographies, pre-assessments, and interest surveys can be tools for building the database.

A Teacher’s recognition that one’s past knowledge influences one’s ability to learn new things is central to effective teaching. Once a teacher embraces this reality, then start integrating strategies such as short diagnostic assessments, adopt multiple assessment strategies throughout a lesson, target student misconceptions directly, and use assessment results to inform current and future teaching. Strategies like providing lesson roadmaps using a tool like Collabrify, reflective writing, concept mapping, or using case studies can be ways to help students connect prior knowledge to new learning. Our goal should be to build students’ self-awareness and agency.

Deeper learning happens when students are asked to transfer their knowledge to new situations and connect the dots between what they remember and what is being learned. Grant Wiggins, a prominent educator and writer, promoted the importance of transfer to deeper learning (click here). These EdWeek articles, Learning Transfer is our Collective Goal and Ways to Promote Transfer of Learning, outline why focusing on transfer is important and summarize teachers’ recommendations for how to design for transfer.

During and after a lesson, teachers should embed activities, like reflective writing, think-pair-share, and rehearsal and practice, that give students time to move from acquiring knowledge to consolidating and transferring it. The consolidation and transfer are stages of the learning cycle that result in deeper learning and changes in a student’s mental models or maps. See John Hattie’s article, Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model, a meta-analysis of 228 studies.

Understanding the role that social-emotional factors play in readiness to learn

Design lessons where students interact with each other and you as much as is reasonable. You have probably heard the phrase, “Those who are doing the teaching are doing the learning.” From my experience, this simple statement seems perfectly true. The more interpersonal connections students make in learning, and the more they are expected to communicate what they know and how they know it, the more likely the learning sticks.

As an extension of that point, teachers should consider creating lessons where students must communicate what they have learned in multiple modalities. Reading, writing, speaking, or visual, auditory, or physical representation of knowing can help a student consolidate what they have learned.

Neuroscience informs us that a student’s attention is enhanced by creating an emotional hook and once his or her attention is enhanced higher levels of learning are possible. In their article, Tomlinson and Sousa explain that emotional hooks help new learning to stick.  “Emotions are the gateway to cognition and learning.”

We have all experienced the power of a great story. Storytelling helps create an emotional connection because as the listener we are drawn into the story. It captures our imagination and asks us to have empathy with a character, a setting, or a situation. To read more on storytelling and the science of emotion click here.

Neuroscience & psychology informs us that all learners are different

One outcome from this concept is that teachers should strive to differentiate instruction for a student’s readiness to learn and personal interests and create positive and safe classrooms that support learning. (see David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiation and neuroscience)

When teachers offer consistent support for students, practice empathy for a student, and help a student become capable of using feedback to grow, then the student develops agency for his or her own learning.

Effective differentiation provides various entry points into a lesson. Taking into account a student’s readiness to learn a concept, necessitates that a lesson is designed so students can enter at a level where initial success builds confidence and a desire to continue the journey. This again brings up the connection between developing a growth mindset, plasticity, and enhanced motivation. The work shouldn’t be too easy or too hard and not every student is the same.

In this article, 3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do, John McCarthy outlines a set of strategies a teacher can lean on to design an effective differentiated classroom. From experience, designing a differentiated learning environment for students requires that teachers see themselves as architects, drawing up a blueprint for how all students can learn.

In their article, Tomlinson and Sousa aptly write that all teachers must recognize that a student’s readiness to learn is not an indication of his or her innate ability.

Neuroscience informs us about how our brains process information when we’re engaged in simple or complex tasks. It tells us about the pathways and neurochemicals used to process signals coming in and responses going out. Whether we are teaching or learning, we are processing a great deal of information constantly, making adjustments regularly, and trying to forge a path forward. Psychology helps us understand more about how our body and mind work in tandem. With the knowledge, we learn to make decisions, manage our stress, and interact with others. It can help us manage time, set and achieve goals, and live well. When it comes to teaching, both neuroscience and psychology are two factors that give us insight into the complexity of the work, as well as help us understand the subject of our teaching, our students.

We owe it to ourselves and our students to learn about the impact these two intersecting fields have on how we perform our craft. I would strongly encourage every teacher to read Tomlinson and Sousa’s article, The Sciences of Teaching, in Educational Leadership.

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