Brain-Centric Talk Links Behaviors to Benefits

  • Posted on: 23 September 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Grown ups often reference the human body when providing rationales for why children should engage (or stop engaging) in particular behaviors. "Carrots are good for your eyes".  "Milk makes bones strong".  "Exercise helps your muscles become big". These statements are not only based in fact but they also help children understand the benefits of healthy choices for their bodies, such as eschewing French fries in favor of vegetables.  Furthermore, by anchoring behaviors to biology, seemingly unrelated concepts become interconnected in a way that has personal meaning for the child, especially those who want to have good eyes, strong bones, or big muscles.

But what about the child who longs not (only) for bigger muscles but a larger vocabulary or a better understanding of mathematical concepts?  I assert that it is also beneficial to link cognitive processes with biology.  Put differently, teachers and parents alike should accurately link what the child needs to do to facilitate processing by his or her brain with the changes expected to take place in the brain or the conditions necessary to make such changes happen.

 So what would this look like?  First, the statements need to be rooted in empirical evidence.  For example, in studies I conducted while at Northwestern University (with Aryeh Routtenberg, Matt Holahan, and others), it was shown that learning-induced growth of brain cells only took place with multiple training periods.  Our studies and those of researchers like Eleanor Maguire reinforce the notion that practice physically changes the brain. What is also known is that, barring some highly emotional event, this practice is critical if long-lasting memories that persist for days, months, and years are to be created.  Thus, teachers could replace their existing rationale for homework, recitation, or other practice with: "Because it will lead to more and stronger pathways in the brain".

 Furthermore, cognitive psychological studies dating back to the 1800s have reinforced the importance of distributed (i.e. over days) rather than massed (i.e. all in one day; "cramming") practice for learning; which was also a requirement for the learning-induced brain growth that we and others saw.  Thus, the need to revisit previously-covered material could have its own brain-centric rationale in: "We need to go back over this so that our brains have the time to make the necessary connections".

 Indeed, such "brain-centric" talk may already be going on in some classrooms.  Studies, such as the 2008 survey done by Varma, McCandliss, and Schwarz have shown that in general educators like to plan their teaching around an understanding of the brain, so it logically follows that the same teachers may share their reasoning for different instructional strategies with their students.  What is needed; however, is for this to become a widespread practice.

Research on health messaging - - - which let's be clear, this is - - - has shown how linking abstract concepts (such as learning) with tangible anchors (such as the body) can lead to positive behavioral changes.  However, care must be taken, to spread only those brain facts that are valid and based in research.  For example, there are some educational products (e.g. Brain Gym) that have come under considerable scrutiny and criticism both abroad and in the States due to dubious claims about connections between the exercises and brain plasticity and development.  Furthermore, we know that in general people are more likely to believe an explanation if it is presented with information about the brain, thus making sure facts are credible is important.  Luckily there are many credible sources of information about the brain and pedagogy available to educators today (writes the author of just such a source). 

 The use of brain-centric statements may not only help individual students understand more about their own learning but could also displace neuromyths with valid facts about the brain and behavior.  "Neuromyth" is a term first coined in a 2002 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) to describe widespread but erroneous beliefs that are often used as attempts to link neuroscience with education, (e.g. the need to increase the use of the human brain from a fictional “10%” baseline, which was unfortunately the basis for a recent major motion picture).  Because neuromyths misrepresent the true relationship between the brain and learning, they can lead to unrealistic educator and parent expectations (e.g. such as the neuromyth that there are visual, spatial, and kinesthetic learners) as well as frustrate academics who view them as “dubious”.

There are individual and societal benefits to using brain-centric statements regarding learning.  And, if crafted correctly, these sayings should last.  For example, how many times, as a teacher or a parent, have you uttered one of the tried and true statements listed at the start of this blog about carrots or muscles or milk?  These statements stick with people.  Parents and teachers alike use them to such a degree that they span generations - - - we repeat the same statements that our parents told us and their parents told them.  The key now is to have today's students exposed to brain-centric facts about what is best for their learning so that they can pass them on when helping future children.  Then, perhaps, factual information about the brain and how humans learn will become the norm as neuromyths fade into obscurity.

 Jerome L. Rekart is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. His current research focuses on applications of neurocognitive research findings in K-16 classrooms.  His book, The Cognitive Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield Education), provides evidence-based and evidence-validated instructional strategies for improving student learning, attention, memory, problem solving, and decision making. He was originally trained in the neurosciences, with a MSc and PhD in Psychology (Brain, Behavior, and Cognition) from Northwestern University and he did his post-doctoral training in Neurobiology at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T..