#102 – Neuroscience and Learning

Unpacking Education July 27, 2022 40 min

Through new technology and a growing body of research, our collective understanding and knowledge base around neuroscience and the brain has exploded in the past 25 years. Researchers continue to have a better grasp on how educators can create conditions and experiences that improve student learning. Understanding and applying this knowledge is key to strengthening teaching and learning practices in our schools.

In this episode, we are joined by Conn McQuinn, a career educator and expert in the area of neuroscience. Together, we explore research and insights around learning and the brain, and we look at how that knowledge can inform education academically, socially, and emotionally.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Neuroscience can help teachers understand how the brain learns new information. Even having a basic knowledge of neuroscience can inform the way teachers teach.

Matthew Lynch, educational consultant and former teacher

Applying Neuroscience to Teaching and Learning

Teachers make thousands of decisions each day that impact the learning in their classrooms. When these decisions are founded in the science of learning, there is a greater likelihood that those decisions will lead directly to student success. Because of this, it’s important to have a basic understanding of neuroscience, the brain, and how students process new learning.

In this episode, we unpack this topic with Conn McQuinn. Not only does our guest share some of the foundational concepts that we should understand relating to neuroscience, but he also helps us begin to connect that research to instructional practices. What does the science tell us? How can that inform our daily decisions? While there is always more to learn, this episode can provide a foundation for better understanding the brain and the science of learning, through the topics covered below:

  • Increased Understanding: During his presentations, Dr. Eric Chudler often shares that we’ve learned more about neuroscience in the past 25 years than in the previous 2,500. This explosion has been expedited by innovative technologies and the rapid building of novel ideas upon new discoveries. As Conn points out, “Learning builds on learning. Every new thing we learn has to be built on something that we learned before.” This concept has relevance to both the study of neuroscience as well as the daily learning that takes place in our classrooms.
  • Safety First: “The brain’s primary job isn’t learning; the brain’s primary job is survival,” explains Conn. Because of this, it’s essential that our students feel safe. If they do not, their cognitive energy will be dedicated to trying to feel safe and belong rather than to learning.
  • The Importance of Community: Students must feel accepted and included in their classrooms. As Conn explains, “If they don’t, they’re not going to be able to cognitively invest in the work that’s necessary to learn or to be in a frame of mind to learn.” In fact, he goes on to share, “That sense of belonging is the single greatest predictor of success for the kids.”
  • Scientifically Supported Practices: It’s important that we separate anxiety or fear from learning. Conn shares that we need to “decouple consequences from the feedback” to help students grow intrinsic motivation. Repeated, no-consequence quizzes or flash cards without grading are better practices than repeated high-stakes testing. Other effective strategies include repetition and forced recall, brain breaks, unstructured play, fostering curiosity, and providing students with choice and control over their learning.
  • Losing Focus: As a society, we are losing our ability to focus on any one thing for an extended period of time. We need to provide learning opportunities and schedules that allow students to stay connected for extended periods of time.
  • Relationships: Conn talks about how “learning is an emotional event” and that “all learning is social-emotional learning.” Learning takes place in the same part of the brain that also controls social connections and reactions. Therefore, the more we can connect with students, the more they’ll be receptive to learning. Positive relationships and interactions stimulate the release of oxytocin in our brains, which helps to build the trust that’s necessary for a productive classroom.
  • Empowering Students: If students are not allowed to make choices during the learning process, they will never develop effective executive function skills. They need repeated opportunities to practice making choices.
  • Different Sparks: Technologies are tools that can help us to spark students’ interests. Conn explains the importance of having multiple technology options available and says, “For different kids, there are going to be different sparks, and the more technologies we have available, the more opportunities we have for kids to find those sparks.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What did you know about neuroscience before listening to this episode?
  • What neuroscientific concepts reinforce what you’ve personally seen in regard to student learning?
  • What neuroscientific concepts are new to you or surprised you, and how might this inform your practices moving forward?
  • What strategies can be used to facilitate relationship building and a safe learning environment?
  • How can educators give students choice in the learning process?
  • How can educators reduce or remove stress and fear from the feedback process, so students can focus their mental energy on learning rather than on safety?
  • How can educators provide students with multiple opportunities to find their personal spark?
  • How will this information about neuroscience inform your practices moving forward?