Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections
Introduction: The Art and Science of Teaching Course Overview
Welcome to Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections. This is a course for committed educators genuinely eager to engage in new ideas about learning and to use these ideas to invent solutions to problems they and their students encounter. It is a course for experienced teachers, rookie teachers, aspiring teachers, student teachers, administrators—anyone who wants to understand more about how students learn.
The goals for this course are:
- To foster an understanding of the unity of emotion and thinking and learning.
- To help educators connect brain research to classroom practice and school designs.
- To illustrate the benefits of collaboration between researchers and teachers so that research informs what happens in the classroom, and what happens in the classroom informs research.
- To recognize and strengthen two roles of the teacher:
- Teacher as designer who creates the context for learning (environment, lessons) and who is able to take the perspective of learners.
- Teacher as researcher who treats student responses as data that reveal the effectiveness of lessons and that provide information for the next step in the learning process.
This course provides insight into some of the current research from cognitive science and neuroscience about how the brain learns. The major themes include the deep connection between emotion, thinking, learning, and memory; the huge range of individual cognitive strengths and weaknesses that determine how we perceive and understand the world and solve the problems it presents us; and the dynamic process of building new skills and knowledge. The course invites you to examine the implications of these insights for schools and all aspects of the learning environments we create for our children—teaching, assessment, homework, student course loads, graduation requirements. It is not a course that offers easy answers or proposes teaching methods that can be universally applied. Rather, it provides new lenses through which to view the teaching and learning challenges you face and invites you to discover your own answers to your own questions. If you want a brief preview of where we hope the course will take you, read the sidebar “Analyzing Classroom Problems through New Lenses.” (Unit 6)
The greatest benefit of this course is that, instead of providing simple answers or “tricks” or teacher-proof lesson plans, it treats you as a professional capable of finding your own answers to the specific teaching challenges you face in your particular circumstances. The course focuses on how learners learn and invites you to consider how teachers teach. As a result, you will become more skilled at inventing teaching strategies to improve the learning of your students.
Along the way, the course offers you an important opportunity to revisit the experience of being a learner. It will remind you of the ways in which your students struggle with new material. In the language we use in this course, you will be “building new neural networks” for understanding and for applying ideas and principles that emerge from the research you study. To get the most from this experience (and from the course), we urge you to become conscious of your own learning—the struggles, the misunderstandings, the moments when ideas gel, the need to revisit a new idea repeatedly, your emotional responses, the conditions under which you do your best learning, the effort required—the whole messy, non-linear process. To this end, you may find it useful to keep a journal of your learning: thoughts, feelings, observations, and insights.
0.1 It Has to Make Sense
Abigail Baird, assistant professor at Vassar College, talks about neuroscience and suggests a simple way for teachers to distinguish between good and bad ideas from researchers.
0.2 Mind, Brain and Education
Paul B. Yellin, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, talks about the need for an equal partnership among neuroscientists, teachers, and clinicians. His goal is to create a language and vocabulary that enable everyone to discuss how different brains work differently.
Jason Ablin, English teacher and head of school at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, CA, discusses the benefits of collaboration between neuroscience and education. Educators need to understand how the brain functions in the world so that they can improve learning in the classroom.
Unit 0 Introduction: The Art and Science of Teaching
The introduction lays out the goals of the course, defines a partnership between teachers and scientists, and suggests a method that teachers can use to apply research to classroom challenges.
unit 1 Different Brains
We all have different brains, different profiles of cognitive strengths and weaknesses that affect how we perceive and solve problems. Two dramatic success stories of boys missing half their brain provide insight into how all of us learn and suggest new ways to think about teaching.
unit 2 The Unity of Emotion, Thinking, and Learning
Emotion, thinking and learning are inseparable. Emotion is the rudder for thought and the key to memory. This unit explores the purposes of emotions by answering the questions, what is emotion, and why do we have it? The unit provides insight into motivation and the role of intuition in problem-solving.
unit 3 Seeing Others from the Self
We understand the goals of others by simulating their actions on our own neural systems. This unit looks at mirror neurons, empathy, and the social nature of learning. It also discusses the need to align teacher and student goals in the classroom and the importance of reflection, or inner-directed attention, in developing meaning and motivation.
unit 4 Different Learners, Different Minds
This unit challenges us to reconsider labels like "normal" and "disabled" by looking at the important connection between individual strengths and weaknesses and the context in which we must solve problems. Weakness in one context can be strength in another.
unit 5 Building New Neural Networks
Building new understandings or skills means building and rebuilding new neural networks. How that process occurs is the focus of this unit, which emphasizes the crucial link between performance and context and suggests that the traditional notion of learning as a linear development of isolated skills is misleading.
unit 6 Implications For Schools
This unit examines what some teachers have done to transform research principles into specific lessons and practices to improve student learning. Rather than suggesting that these illustrations are universally applicable to any school, the unit challenges educators to experiment by creating answers to their own questions.
unit 7 Conclusion: A Community of Educators
This unit discusses the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) movement that brings researchers and educators together so that research informs education and so that teachers' actual experiences in classrooms inform research. It explores the attitudes and conditions that create productive partnerships for meaningful change to occur.