Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed
AISA 2-day workshop
Applying the Developments of Neuroscience
to Neuro-logical Teaching Strategies
Goals for This Workshop
Learn how the brain learns in the classroom and beyond
Learn neuroscience research compatible strategies to sustain attention,
control focus, and direct input to the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) with
a focus on literacy
Practice using classroom ready tools which will help to build curiosity and
utilize prediction to help motivate and empower students to achieve their
maximum potentials with increased participation, engagement, and
Discover how you can use the newest research about neuroplasticity to
Learn classroom strategies to lower student resistance to active
participation, including making mistakes
** Participant Activity **
Challenge Unit Description
WRITE: What is a unit of instruction that is challenging for your teachers to teach or a
challenging topic of professional development/type of meeting you supervise or present?
Briefly write a note about the challenging unit or presentation topic.
Challenging unit or presentation topic and/or scenario:
Throughout this handout, the challenging lesson, supervisory activity, meeting,
presentation topic and/or scenario that you described above will be referred to as your
The Brain’s Structures -- Viewed from the Left
R.A.D. LEARNING and TEACHING
The first step in understanding how the brain learns, is to explore the three main
concepts of R.A.D. learning and teaching. Each letter in the acronym R.A.D. stands
for both a physical feature of the brain and a corresponding word that represents
how that brain feature is connected to learning and teaching.
R.A.D. LEARNING and TEACHING =
Reach + Attitude + Develop
Reticular Activating System + Amygdala + Dopamine
R = REACH students attention (RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM)
A = Cultivate a positive ATTITUDE and reduce stress (AMYGDALA)
D = DEVELOP memory (DOPAMINE)
The Brain’s Attention System and How to “Work It”
Reach students by making sure that the information they need to learn passes
through the brain’s sensory filter – the Reticular Activating System (R.A.S)
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) which is in the lower part of the posterior
brain filters all incoming stimuli and makes the “decision” as to what people attend
to or ignore. Information constantly comes into the brain from the body’s sensory
receptors. At any given moment we are experiencing sights, sounds, smells, tastes
and tactile input. It is impossible for us to be consciously aware of all of this sensory
information. Therefore the brain has a filter (the RAS) that selects the sensory
information to which we consciously attend.
From all of the input, the This input
Sensory Information: ------ sound of a baby crying is now has
selected for attention by the
------ R the RAS. potential
------ S eventually
end up in
How does the RAS select which information passes through the filter to gain
access to the conscious brain? What are the criteria?
The RAS first prioritizes novel stimuli. If there is a change in the environment, the
related sensory input will likely pass through the RAS. For example if a fox looks out
of his den in the morning and sees an unfamiliar fox walk by, that information will
be attended to above other sensory input (e.g. the taste of food he just ate, the sound
of birds singing, the feel of the breeze on his fur).
The novelty that receives the highest priority is threat. If the RAS senses that the
change in the environment is a source of threat, the related sensory input will pass
through the RAS at the expense of other stimuli. For example, if the fox hears the
howl of a wolf, a dangerous enemy, the related sensory input (the sound of the
wolf’s howling) will likely take precedence over all other stimuli, including the sight
of the unfamiliar fox.
Therefore, information (sensory stimuli) will most likely be selected by the RAS if
there is no threat in the environment and the stimuli is novel.
** Participant Activity **
Understanding the RAS Filter
PAIR SHARE: Work as a group to complete one of the activities below. Then, select
one product that you would like to share with the entire group.
1. Draw a diagram, graphic organizer, flow chart or other sketch representing
your image of the RAS
2. Or Create an analogy about the RAS:
The RAS is to a the Brain as a Password is to a Website
How can educators influence what the RAS selects?
Step 1) First the educator should reduce any elements of perceived threat in the
environment. For a student, threat can come in many forms, both subtle and overt.
Threat can take the form of the grumpy face of a teacher, the fear of making a
mistake in front of one’s peers, the anxiety of anticipating that a lesson will be too
challenging. Specific suggestions for reducing anxiety and promoting positive
feelings will be discussed in the “Attitude” (amygdala) portion of this presentation
Step 2) Next, the educator should capitalize on the RAS’s preference for novel
stimuli, because becoming aware of novel stimuli provokes curiosity. If a student is
authentically curious about what a teacher has to share, attention and focus will
follow. Specific suggestions for incorporating novelty into teaching are described in
the following section.
A word about inattention in students: Often students are criticized for not paying
attention. However, the student’s RAS is constantly attending to information (e.g.
the sound of their neighbor whispering, the texture of their too-tight pants, the ache
of their growling stomach, etc.) but it may not be the information that the teacher
thinks is important. The challenge for educators is to present their information is
such a novel or curiosity provoking way that the RAS selects the educators input
over all other competing stimuli.
Strategies that Provoke Curiosity and Promote Attention and Focus
Music can be played as students enter the class
Costumes related to the lesson can be worn by the teacher
Speaking in a different voice (cadence, volume) can catch students by
Moving in a different way can be unexpected. For example, a teacher can
walk backwards before a lecture. This could relate to topics such as:
foreshadowing of negative events in literature, “backward” analysis or
hindsight about events leading up to discoveries, historical events or
Varying the color of the paper, font, and spacing in a given text can spark
Suspenseful Pause: a significant pause before saying something important
builds anticipation as the students wonder what you will say or do next
Alterations in the classroom such as a new display on a bulletin board
Discrepant events capture attention as students want to know how to make
sense of something unusual that they are seeing. For example: “Why is the
principal sitting in the library reading a Dr. Seuss book?”
Animoto Videos: An “Animoto” is a short video that you can make for free
online. Once you select images, text, and music, the website edits your
selections into an eye-catching advertisement. If you sign up as an
“educator”, you can use additional special features of the website, and have
your students make “Animotos” too.
Sustain Attention with Prediction
How can key points be emphasized throughout a lesson?
The above suggestions are often used at the outset of a lesson to alert students’
attention the fact that something new and important is being introduced.
Throughout a lesson however the teacher is usually presenting information that
represents varying degrees of importance. For example, in describing human
anatomy a teacher might want students to understand the parts of the digestive
system. Some anatomical structures are more important for understanding how the
digestive system works than others. How can the teacher alert students to the most
Color: The teacher uses a set of colored markers when writing notes on the
board. Green could represent that a piece of information is important, yellow
could represent even more importance, and red could represent the most
important “take home message”. The students will also use colored pens or
pencils to write their notes. This system also helps students when reviewing
Hat: During an oral presentation, when notes are not being used, a teacher
could wear a hat and turn the bill of the hat in different directions to indicate
levels of importance.
Things to consider when planning a lesson geared toward reaching and
sustaining student attention and engagement:
Will your information get through the students’ RAS filters (low stress - high
In planning your instruction consider: Does the RAS input signal danger?
What is the “So what?” Why should the RAS let the input into the brain?
Would the RAS consider the sensory input valuable (survival, curiosity, or
** Participant Activity **
Challenge Unit – Reaching Attention
WRITE: Think back to the “Challenge Unit” that you wrote about previously. What
RAS stimulating strategies could you use to better capture and sustain the
attention of your audience?
RAS stimulating strategies that would improve your “Challenge Unit”:
SHARE-OUT: When you have written a brief description, share your ideas with the a
partner or your small group
The Stress Reactions that Deflect Information Processing
and How to Reduce Them
“A” for AMYGDALA
Promote a positive attitude and reduce stress so that information can pass
through the amygdala and on to the “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex)
Common teacher concern: “My students ‘act out’ or ‘zone out’ in class making it almost
impossible to teach! What can I do?” Until the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is more mature,
adolescents are more reactive than they are reflective, especially when they perceive
stress. Stress comes in many forms for students. Stress can come from the boredom of
already having mastery of the information being taught. Stress can also come from the
frustration of not being sufficiently interested in a topic or aware of how the topic relates
to a student’s own interests or prior knowledge. Finally, stress can come from being lost or
confused and thus unable to follow the information as it is offered. This section answers the
above question with information about attitude, the amygdala, and achievable challenge.
Amygdala: The amygdala is a part of limbic system that is found in the temporal lobe of the
brain. The amygdala can be thought of as a “fork in the road” or a “switching station” on the
way to the “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex). After information passes through the RAS, it
enters the amygdala. The amygdala then directs the information to one of two places. The
information can be sent to either the lower REACTIVE brain or to the REFLECTIVE
“thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex). In the reactive lower brain, information is responded
to with an automatic fight, flight or freeze response. In the reflective “thinking brain”
(prefrontal cortex) conscious thought, logic and judgment can be used to respond to new
Information enters the amygdala
REFLECTIVE “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex)
*conscious thought, decision making, judgment*
REACTIVE lower brain
*automatic fight, flight or freeze response*
What determines if the amygdala directs information to the reflective “thinking
brain” (prefrontal cortex) or to the reactive lower brain?
When a person is in a state of stress, fear, frustration, helplessness, anxiety or boredom
new information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through
the amygdala’s filter to gain access to the reflective prefrontal cortex. Instead, the
information is conducted to the lower, reactive brain. As mentioned above, the lower,
reactive brain has a limited set of instructions it can use to direct behavior, such as fight,
flight, or freeze. Observing students during these states of stress-directed behavior, it is not
surprising they some students are misidentified as suffering from ADHD, petit mal epilepsy
(staring spells), and oppositional-defiant syndrome. Alternatively, if stress is reduced, and a
person is in a relaxed and alert state, information can pass through the amygdala and on
to the reflective “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex).
Causes of stress in school:
Fear of being wrong
Feeling too embarrassed to speak in class, answer questions or present their work to
Physical and language differences
Boredom from lack of stimulation due to from prior mastery of the material or
feeling that the information lacks personal relevance
Frustration with material that exceeds a student’s foundational knowledge
Feeling overwhelmed by the increased demands of each subsequent school year, and
their inability to organize their time to respond to these demands
What teachers need to know about stress in school:
Stress can cause behavior problems and obstruct learning.
Participating in new learning requires students to take risks that are often beyond
their comfort zones. Steps should be taken to reduce stress during these times.
Before students can attend to higher-order thinking they must meet lower-level
needs like survival and safety. Examples of survival needs experienced in school:
thirst, hunger, clothes that don’t fit comfortably and lack of sleep. Examples of safety
needs experienced in school: illness, being physically injured, being insulted or
emotionally hurt and having ones property stolen or destroyed.
How to promote a positive attitude so that information gets to the prefrontal cortex
Use curiosity promoting questions/demonstrations
Help students link new input with prior knowledge
Have students work in their “achievable challenge” (video game model)
Teach students how to recognize their incremental progress towards a goal (effort to
Offer students ACHIEVABLE CHALLENGES – ones that that prevent stress by avoiding
boredom and frustration:
An achievable challenge is one in which a student has the capacity (or skills to develop the
capacity) to meet an ambitious goal. An achievable challenge is therefore a challenge that
exists within Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”. As Goldilocks would say, the
challenge is “not too hard, not too easy, but just right!” If a challenge is too easy a student
will become bored, which leads to stress, and ultimately disengagement from learning. If a
challenge is too difficult a student will experience frustration and hopelessness, which also
lead to excessive stress. However, when facing an achievable challenge that is just within
one’s reach, the student avoids detrimental states of stress, and the amygdala is able to pass
information on to the prefrontal cortex.
An achievable challenge includes:
Positive intrinsic reinforcement
Scaffolding, tools and support provided when the level of challenge begins to exceed
the participants capacity
What can video and computer games teach us about achievable challenge?
Video and computer games are compelling because they offer individualized achievable
challenges to their participants. At the outset, a player is presented with a goal. The player
begins at level one, and through trial and error (feedback) builds enough skills to
ultimately pass level one. The next level challenges the players newly developed skills, but
ultimately, through sustained effort, practice, and persistence the player succeeds and
continues to progress through the levels. The player feels the pride of knowing that their
effort caused their success (intrinsic reinforcement). If a player is feeling stuck, usually
they can find hints on the Internet or learn tips from their peers. In this way, even the world
of video and computer games offers scaffolding.
Achievable challenge and Differentiation
If teachers were able to implement a “video game” model of teaching, all students would be
learning in their personal zone of achievable challenge at all times. Students would be
frequently assessed to determine their appropriate “zone”, they would set and reset goals
throughout learning, and they would receive the individual support needed to overcome
setbacks and obstacles. In the future, it may be possible that individuated instruction will
actually take place through computer programs. So, while students learn basic math facts
from the computer within their personal zone of achievable challenge, their teacher can take
on the role of facilitating projects requiring higher order thinking and collaboration.
However, for many reasons, within the constraints of our current educational system, the
level of individuation required to have every student constantly working within their zone
of achievable challenge is impossible. Teachers simply do not have the time to individuate
Differentiation for Achievable Challenge
What can teachers do to capitalize on the power of having students work within
their achievable challenge level? Each of the following topics are discussed in more detail
in the pages that follow:
Cultivate a “growth mindset”
Highlighting incremental progress
Activate prior knowledge and Personalization
http://animoto.com/education “Animotos”: Students can make Animotos for
homework to summarize what they have learned in a given lesson. Animotos can
also be used during the class period for differentiation. If a student has
demonstrated mastery of a concept based on a formative assessment, that student
can work on an Animoto that represents what she learned.
Pre-assessments are noncredit self-graded quizzes: A pre-assessment can be used to
alert both the student and the teacher to what the student already knows about a topic. This
gives an initial indication of an individual students “zone”. The teacher may find out that a
student is missing some foundational skills that will be needed for the topic, or that the
student already has a lot of knowledge, and without some additional challenge the student
may become bored and disengaged. Using pre-assessment also benefit students in the
They provide a preview of the upcoming key concepts. Neurologically, this
stimulates the circuits of any related prior knowledge the students have.
Activating this knowledge makes it easier for students to understand and
remember the new information.
When students make a prediction (by writing down what they think the correct
answer will be) they have more buy-in when listening to the correct answers
you provide following the pre-assessment.
The teacher provides timely corrective feedback by going over all of the answers
immediately after the pre-assessment. Students correct their own quizzes (in
another color). This allows them to notice, and then correct, their
To hold students accountable on these non-graded pre-assessments, you can tell
students that sometimes the pre-test will be the same as the final.
Scaffolding for Reading and Writing Lower the Barrier not the Bar
T: Text structure and organization F: Fiction/Nonfiction/Poetry
Scan for signal words to determine the Preview the text to determine the
external text structure and establish a genre and establish reading behaviors.
system for organizing new information.
R: Reveal a purpose L: Look at the text features
Ask questions to set a purpose and Skim the text features to create
to anticipate author’s point of view. interest and identify essential themes.
I: I already know
Make connections to determine existing
schema and identify difficult sections.
Julie B. Wise and Divonna M. Stebick www.myreadingsecrets.com
Scaffolding: For some students, the level instruction in your class will be beyond their zone
of achievable challenge. These students will need additional support and scaffolding. One
option is to provide pre-underlined books or partially filled in outlines from last year’s
students or note-takers. They can add their own notes as they participate in the lesson.
Rubrics: Students can use rubrics to develop individualized achievable challenge goals
before they begin a project or paper. It is helpful if students can see anchor papers
that previous students have done that correspond with levels of the rubric. Scaffolded
Previously underlined text
Tape-recorded text segments
Personalized Reading (predict, question, connect, summarize while reading) with
Varied level reading material on the same topic.
Graphic organizers = visual overviews and connections.
Preview reading for understanding and more active participation/prediction
Preview chapter questions
Visualize for comprehension and memory
Concepts of text and text cues
Retrieval is better when students know how information is organized e.g.
categories, and best when they create these categories or graphic organizers
Produce a product, make models
Role play, skits, pantomime
Link item to be learned with positive emotional events: flash bulb memory. (We
remember the song playing during our first kiss.)
Personal involvement in learning experience - hands on and discovery learning,
prediction, write on overhead projection paper to share with class, cooperative group
Some of the above from Understanding by Design, Wiggins and
Formative assessments: As students progress though a lesson or unit, they should
participate in on-going informal assessments with corrective feedback. For example, as a
teacher is providing instruction on punctuation, she can write several sentences on the
board and ask students to write down what type of punctuation they should use to end the
sentence. Students will write their answer on their individual white boards and hold it up
for the teacher to see. The teacher gets immediate feedback on how well everyone
understands the concept. The teacher then explains the correct answer to correct any
misconceptions. This practice serves a variety of purposes. It keeps all students actively
engaged in instruction unlike in traditional classrooms where only the student who raises
his hand and answers the question participates. The student becomes aware of their
misconceptions and the teacher has a sense of how to progress. Perhaps it is time for some
students to move on to a more challenging activity (to avoid boredom) and for some
students to remain with the teacher for some additional review (to avoid frustration).
Highlighting Incremental Progress
The experience of incremental progress increases the brain’s predisposition for
effort output. Students who feel alienated in school need additional support to regain their
confidence and feel motivated towards reaching a challenging goal. If struggling
academically has always been a source of disappointment for them, you can brainstorm
times when they have been successful towards reaching a goal (e.g. music, sports, art,
making friends, cooking something new, etc.).
Students should be made aware of the progress they are making towards a goal. In
general we experience an intrinsic reward when we realize that we are making progress
due to our practice and effort. Even noticing small changes can be helpful. For example,
having students keep a graph of how their reading fluency improves depending on how
much they practice can be very motivating.
In an amygdala-positive learning environment we see evidence of active learning and
Students observing and noticing with focused attention
Students discovering, thinking and questioning
Students solving traditional and extension problems
Students who are engaged, motivated, interested, self propelled learners
WRITE: Think back to the “Challenge Unit” that you wrote about previously. What
amygdala positive strategies could you use to reduce stress and promote a positive
attitude for your participants?
Amygdala positive strategies that would improve your “Challenge Unit”:
SHARE-OUT: Collaborate on ideas or after you have written a brief description, share your
ideas with partners
Dopamine – The Neurotransmitter of Pleasure, Memory, Focus and
How to Increase the Dopamine-Pleasure Response for Motivated
Delight from Dopamine
Develop motivation and increase participation with dopamine
Dopamine is neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain,
which transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Neurotransmitters allow for
information to travel from neuron to neuron throughout the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with (it both increases and is
increased by) pleasurable experiences and the anticipation of pleasurable
experiences. Its release also increases focus, memory, decision-making, and
When dopamine levels go up, the following behaviors are more prominent:
Persistence and perseverance
The following activities increase dopamine levels:
Being read to
Feeling self-appreciation-recognizing progress towards a personally meaningful
Interacting and collaborating well with classmates, including group work
CHOICE: The following strategies involving choice may increase dopamine
levels among students
Homework study habits: In the beginning of the year, the teacher can pose the
question, “Do you want to spend less time on homework this year?” The teacher
then explains that there is no one way that students study best. Instead, the
students are going to experiment and choose the most effective and efficient
system for themselves. Students then hypothesize about what strategies or
conditions (such as taking too-frequent snack breaks, interrupting their focus
with texting, creating a homework schedule, or turning off the television) will
help - or hinder - their learning. Once they have tested different strategies and
conditions they report back to the class on how they work best.
Homework deliverables: Students can be given some choice in how they
produce their homework. For example, if the assignment is to summarize a book
chapter, there a variety of methods that could be used. A student could create an
Animoto video online (animoto.com), create a graphic organizer or flow chart of
the information, create n picture or visual image, submit a hard copy of how they
would “text” or “tweet” about the information (hyper-condensing information in
this way requires the use of precise vocabulary and a clear understanding of the
content - just think about how much meaning can be found in a perfectly crafted
Vocabulary: When students are asked to choose how to arrange a list of words
(vocabulary, spelling, etc.) from words they find the most “pleasurable” to the
words they find the least “pleasurable”, they remember all of the words better
than if they had had no choice in the order of the word list.
MOVEMENT: The following strategies involving movement may increase
dopamine levels among students
Pantomime vocabulary words (English, foreign language, content specific)
Word Gallery: If students have a list of vocabulary words they can walk
around the room and record the number of the numbered poster that has a
verbal or pictorial representation of word. Subsequently students can add
their own sentences or drawings to the wall charts. Provide scaffolding by
allowing some students to have a one-word definition or work with a
partner. The activity can be even more dopamine enriching by playing music
that students can enjoy as they move through the activity.
Ball-toss review: Students can toss a ball to one another as each student
states one thing they remembered from a lesson.
Snowball fight: Each student writes a key point of a lesson onto a piece of
paper. The students then stand in a circle, crumple up their pieces of paper,
and toss them into the middle of the circle. Students take turns selecting a
“snowball” to read aloud to the class.
Write words with parts of the body: elbow, ear, knee etc.
Four corners: Each corner of the room can be marked with the letters A, B,
C, or D. Students can answer multiple-choice questions by moving to the
corner of the choice they believe to be the correct answer.
** Participant Activity **
Writing with your body
STAND AND WRITE: Stand up and write the word “dopamine” using either your
elbow or your ear.
** Participant Activity **
Challenge Unit – Dopamine
WRITE: Think back to the “Challenge Unit” that you wrote about previously. What
dopamine stimulating strategies could you use to elevate the mood of your
Dopamine stimulating strategies that would improve your “Challenge Unit”:
SHARE-OUT: Collaborate on ideas or after you have written a brief description, share your
ideas with partners
At the end of this session, go back and complete a plan for how you’ll incorporate
RAD strategies in planning instruction and goals for students, with a focus on
students with whom you work.
How can you apply R.A.D. strategies to a future lesson or presentation that
you will be doing?
Brief description of your future lesson or presentation:
1. In your future unit or presentation, how can you reach the attention of
your participants through the use of novelty and evoking curiosity? Refer
back to strategies presented in the “R” (RAS) section of this handout.
2. In your future unit or presentation, how can you decrease stress and
increase academic risk taking and participation? Refer back to strategies
presented in the “A” (amygdala) section of this handout.
3. In your future unit or presentation, which dopamine stimulating
activities and strategies will you use to increase pleasure, motivation, and
memory? Refer back to strategies presented in the “D” (dopamine) section
of this handout.
The Neuroscience and Strategies for Maximizing Student Memory
Making Memories That Stick: Activating and Sustaining the
Brain’s Patterning System to Encode New Learning into Memory
Part 1: Working Memory: Activating and Sustaining the Brain’s
Patterning System to Encode New Learning into Memory
Working (Relational) Memory: After leaving the amygdala, new information
makes one more stop before reaching the pre-frontal cortex. The new information
enters a brain structure called the hippocampus.
Hippocampus Prefrontal Cortex
When the new information enters the hippocampus, related memories are
triggered in various parts of the cortex. These related memories are stored in
different parts of the cortex depending on which sensory receptors initially
responded to the input. For example, the memory of ducks quacking is stored in the
area of the cortex related to auditory input. If you were listening to a lecture about
mallard ducks, the new information you were learning would enter your
hippocampus. Related memories about ducks (e.g. the sound of ducks quacking, the
image of ducks you saw in a pond, a fact you once heard about the properties of
feathers) would “meet” the new information about mallard ducks in your
hippocampus. The combination of the pre-existing related memories and the new
information is called a “relational memory” (also referred to as short-term or
Relational memories are temporary. They will only be converted to long-term
memories if they are mentally manipulated in the prefrontal cortex. (Activities that
require mental manipulation are described later in this document in the section
called “Mental manipulation”) Once the information has been converted to long-
term memory, when someone mentions something about a duck, your network of
relational memories will be triggered and available to you.
The ability of the brain to form relational memories is advantageous. If we were
unable to form relational memories, all new learning would seem random and
extremely hard to categorize and use. The brain’s ability to form relational
memories is frequently an automatic process. However, if students have not been
made aware how their prior knowledge connects with new information, it is
unlikely relational memories will be formed. Teachers can make the process of
forming relational memories more efficient, effective, and transparent to students.
Activating a Prior Knowledge Bridge.
Prior knowledge is data that students have already acquired
through formal teaching, personal experience or real world associations. Teachers
should “activate” this prior knowledge by alerting students to what they already
know that connects to what they are going to learn. This is consistent with the way
the brain makes these connections through pattern recognition and pattern
Activate prior knowledge by:
o Giving pre-unit assessments
o Showing videos or images that remind students of prior knowledge
o Holding class discussions starting with high interest current events
o Discussing with students what they learned about the topic from the
perspective of another course or cross-curricular studies.
Patterning: The process that directs relational memory
formation in the brain is “patterning.” To survive successfully animals need to
understand their environments and make meaning of what they see, hear, smell,
touch, and taste all around them. The brain is designed to perceive and generate
patterns and uses these patterns to predict the correct response to new information.
Based on our brains’ process of patterning, we are able to make predictions and
anticipate what might happen next and the best response. For example, a fox might
have acquired the pattern or relationship between cold temperatures and rabbits
entering their dens earlier in the evening. Therefore, on a cold evening, the fox can
predict that his best opportunity for catching dinner is before the sun goes down.
Teachers can capitalize on the brain’s patterning in a variety of ways.
Presenting information in context (real world connections, cross-curricular
themes of study, experiential learning, from concrete to abstract) helps students
identify patterns and connect new information with previous experiences and
memories (relational memories).
Graphic organizers: Help students “fit” new information into existing brain
patterns (neural networks) by using graphic organizers (e.g. a Venn diagram
used to compare and contrast new and old information)
Activate prior knowledge: All students have some previous knowledge or connection to
most new information they are introduced to. The teacher can help students make
connections between what they already know and what they are going to learn.
Neurologically, once prior knowledge is activated it forms a loose association with newly
introduced information. This association is what is known as working memory. When
information stored as working memory is consciously manipulated in some way it has the
potential to become long-term memory. Therefore, one can see how activating prior
knowledge is an important first step in the series of events that allows new information to
become long term memory.
Strategies for helping students build personal relevance and activate prior
Show students how what they are about to study relates to their lives or the
world around them. Watch a relevant video, such as those relating to math and
science found on the following website: http://www.thefutureschannel.com/
Connect a unit with current events
Read aloud something curious or interesting that relates to the topic at hand
Before a lesson or unit, tell a narrative about the life of the author, scientist,
historical figure, or mathematician when he/she was about the age of your
Discuss the “So what?” factor. Why should students WANT to know what you
have to teach them? You can discuss with students how information connects
the “real world” or to their lives. Further it is motivating for students to know
concretely how they are going to use the new information after you teach it to
them. Are they going to discuss it with a classmate, or teach it to younger
Part 2: Maximizing Long-Term Memory with Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity and the neuroscience of how our brain changes when we
learn: Neuroplasticity is the idea that through our repeated thoughts and actions,
our brains change. Scientists previously believed that many parts of the brain only
change during the “critical stages” of infancy. Research now suggests that all parts
of the brain are malleable throughout our lives. Specifically, if a region of the brain
is stimulated repeatedly (which happens when we practice using information), the
connections between neurons (nerve cells) in that region will be strengthened, and
new cells may be added. These strengthened connections, if used consistently,
become useful, long-term memories. Conversely, if a neural pathway is not used, it
will be pruned (removed).
Mental Manipulation: Information that we learn, including that which has become
integrated into a relational memory, will only become part of our long-term,
consciously retrievable, store of useful knowledge if it is mentally manipulated in
the prefrontal cortex. This means that the learner has to “do something” with the
information rather than passively taking it in. There are many ways that teachers
can have students mentally manipulate information.
VOCABULARY Mental Manipulation
Pantomime vocabulary with scaffolding
Word Gallery: vocabulary review can incorporate movement, positive peer
interactions, even music.
Younger children: If students have a list of words they can walk around the room
and write the number of the poster that has a verbal or pictorial representation of
word. Bring additional drawings or cut out pictures from home to add.
Older students: The posters can vary from having definitions or sentences that use
the word contextually in a sentence. Subsequently students can add their own
sentences to the wall charts.
Scaffold students who need it by allowing them to have a one-word definition or
work with a partner as walk the gallery
Students list vocabulary words by their own choice of most to least
Model and have students draw sketches with accompanying stories for the
words (e.g. SHADOW,
Play telephone, hangman, Pictionary with new words, content specific terms,
formulas, spelling rules
Vocabulary in Action with Simon Says: Point to an object that is a
Dend-Writes (a word play on the neural structures called ‘dendrites’) are brief
thinking/writing assignments that students do to help them make sense of and
consolidate new learning. They also can provide teacher feedback such as checking
for understanding. I usually have students write on small note cards.
Following are the ten Dend-Write prompts that I have posted in my classroom:
1. Create an analogy about what you learned; write what it reminded you
of, or how it fits with what you already know.
2. Draw a picture, diagram, or graphic organizer of what you learned.
3. Write a reaction/reflection of how something you learned relates to
4. Write about something that made you wonder or surprised you - a new
insight or discovery.
5. What do you predict will come next?
6. How could you (or someone in a profession) use this knowledge?
7. What did you understand today that you haven’t understood before?
What is something that you are confused about or find difficult?
8. What was the part of lesson that you enjoyed the most? What was the
part that was most difficult for you?
9. What strategy did you use to solve a problem today?
10. “So What?” – What do you think were the most important things in the
lesson? What are they important?
When and how to use Dend-Writes:
When checking for understanding, especially when on-going feedback tells
you there are problems, you can use Dend-Write prompts such as #4, #7, or
#8. Students should always start the response by including the positive
statement that relates to the first part of the question. For #8 one would
write, “The part of the lesson I enjoyed the most was ………and something that
still confuses me is…” In that way the student will have a burst of brain
satisfaction (dopamine) because they are recognizing an accomplishment.
They then feel less anxious expressing what they still find confusing or
difficult in the second part of their Dend-Write.
Feedback to you - how accurately the lesson was understood
Before the next class correct any misperceptions you discover
Make check marks on cards that you think the rest of the class would benefit
from hearing. Students with checks share those insights with the class as a
review or to promote discussion. (Because the teacher has identified the card
as useful or correct, it lowers participation anxiety of the student presenters
because they are confident that their responses are correct)
Students can add to their own notes based on what they learn from hearing
the information on their classmate’s Dend-Write
Cards can become study aides
Posted on bulletin boards, Dend-Write cards cover important information for
students who were absent and provide review information before the next
class or the test.
Additional examples of Mental Manipulation (especially effective if used within
the first 24 hours after new learning has occurred):
Create a narrative – students can write and share a story about the new
information. They should be encouraged to use personification and amusing
details to make even the driest of facts memorable. For example, one of my
previous workshop participants told an amusing story about a lonely piece of
new information that entered a brain. It felt lost and sad until it found its
family amongst the related memories in the hippocampus. Illustrating the
story adds a further level of mental manipulation.
Teach the new information to someone else – understanding something
well enough to teach it to another person requires a clarity of thought and
understanding that ultimately supports the “teachers” long term memory of
Pair-share or collaborate: Students experience a greater level of
understanding of concepts and ideas when they talk, explain, predict, and
debate about them within a small group, instead of just passively listening to
a lecture or reading a text.
Similarities and differences: Just as survival depends on recognizing the
changes in an animal’s expected environment (e.g. what has changed and
what has stayed the same in the environment of the fox), people are also
responsive to remembering information by identifying similarities and
differences. Researchers have found that identifying similarities and
differences is the most effective way of committing information to memory.
Creating analogies allows students to relate information in new ways. For
example: White is to Snow as Blue is to Sky. You can scaffold analogies by
using ones students made in previous years, and leaving out one or two of
the four components of A is to B as C is to D. Then they can explain and
expand on the characteristic or relationship that ties the two sets together.
Creating similes such as “exercising my muscles makes me stronger like
reading makes me smarter” also supports building long terms memories of
Mental Manipulation Strategies to Increase Memory Storage and Retrieval
Memory retrieval increases with multiple and varied modes of instruction of
the same material.
Avoid one lesson fits all. Differentiated instruction: use different learning
style focuses each time you teach review the material.
Retrieval is better when students know how information is organized e.g.
categories, and best when they create these categories or graphic organizers
Visual imagery: Students visualize a mathematics or science concept or
procedure then note it using words or sketches.
Produce a product, make models
Role play, skits, pantomime
Personal involvement in learning experience - hands on and discovery
learning, prediction, manipulatives, write on overhead projection paper to
share with class, cooperative group work.
Here-Me-Now so Students See Value of the Information: If students don’t
sense the information is important to them, it won’t go through the
hippocampus, become patterned into new synaptic connections (relational
memories), and become long-term memory. Memories that are associated
with emotional or personal meaning are most likely to become relational
memories and be stored.
Real World Connections and Teachable Moments
When would this knowledge be useful to you?
Meaningful comparisons: Comparing the language used in IM or Text
messages to formal literature.
Extend working to relational memory by asking students to construct verbal
and written summaries, represent the content as pictures, symbols, graphic
organizers, physical models, and create mental images. LATER revise their
notes, pictures, graphic organizers, homework,
Achieve maximal memory storage conditions with teaching strategies that
connect with students as individual learners through their strengths and
promote positive emotional states.
Summarize: Use “twitter” or “text message” style to be summaries concise.
Younger children make “phones” (decorated towel or toilet tissue roll) and
practice short overseas calls to someone in “a far away country – real or
imaginary” but need to keep toll charges down with short call planned in
Creating a puzzle on Puzzlemaker.com
Animotos that summarize
Graphic organizers (maps, timelines, flow charts) are like an external prefrontal
cortex in the way they match the brain’s mechanisms for arranging information in
meaningful ways. Just as the prefrontal cortex automatically seeks links and
patterns amongst facts, ideas, concepts, topics, and other categories of knowledge,
so does the student who organizes new information into a graphic organizer. Some
of the skills required when using a graphic organizer are: prioritizing, categorizing
and recognizing relationships. These skills relate to prefrontal cortex executive
functions that are not yet mature in our students. Therefore, scaffolding students in
the use of these skills supports the development of their executive functions.
Additional reasons that graphic organizers are beneficial:
Graphic organizers require students to summarize. It requires active
thinking on the part of the student to make large amounts of information,
from different sources, manageable.
Graphic organizers provide an opportunity for students to actively learn as
they reconstruct information they hear, read, and discover, into a personally
They can be done as a syn-naps (short brain break) and/or as a group
Allowing students choice in regards to which graphic organizing template
they use boosts dopamine.
Samples of graphic organizers can be found at these websites:
Multisensory learning and review for building long-term memories:
Multisensory learning: When there are multiple pathways (cross-brain
referencing) connecting to the learned material, there are several neuronal circuits
connecting to the information so retrieval can occur from a variety of cues. The
building of these multiple pathways by which students can access and recall the
information is the reason multisensory learning and review (rehearsal) makes
memories permanent and actions automatic.
Review: Each time students participate in any endeavor the specific pathway
of neurons is activated and neurons and their connections in this pathway are
stimulated again. The more times they repeat the thought process or action, the
more efficient, stronger, and less susceptible to pruning these brain pathways
become. Eventually, only triggering the beginning of the sequence of an action or
recalling first part of a set of data, will result in the remaining pieces following in
sequence. Examples: Tying shoes, touch-typing.
“Talking Back to the Text” is an interactive reading strategy that helps students become
personally engaged with what they are reading. Students begin by writing questions and
prompts on post-it notes or other small papers that they can insert into their text. Some
questions are prediction questions the student will answer before reading. Other questions
and prompts will be answered while the student is reading:
Before reading the students writes and answers prediction questions:
o What do I think you’ll be telling me?
o I already know things about YOU so I predict.....
During reading students can complete the following questions or prompts:
o You are similar to what I have learned before, because you remind me of...
o I would have preferred a picture of...(or sketch or download your own)
o I didn’t know that and I like what you have to say (or I’ll bet this will be
on the test)
o I disagree
o This is not what I expected
o This gives me an idea
o I want to know more about this than you have to offer and I know how to
o I know there is more than one way to interpret this information
o I won’t let you get away with anything, so I’ll check your source
o What clues do you have to help me answer the Big Question? Ah, this
could be one right here.
PEER INTERACTION: The following strategies involving peer interaction for
mental manipulation (and dopamine)
Think-Pair-Share: Students, even in middle school and high school, can
listen to directed lecture with focused attention for only fifteen to twenty
minutes without some type of break. Having students take a moment to
process information and communicate with the student next to them is an
excellent, dopamine raising mini-break.
Group projects: Groups work best if the members have a common, relevant,
high interest goal that they can only achieve if all group members are
accountable for the outcome. Students benefit from having opportunities to
teach each other. In addition, students are more likely to ask each other
clarifying questions, rather than asking in front of the whole class. Ideally,
the problem or question that the group is investigating should involve
opportunities for critical thinking and reasoning things out together.
Game show: Students can be grouped in teams and given the chance to
converse as a group before answering review questions in a quiz show
format. In addition to the benefit of the peer interaction, game shows are fun,
which provides an additional dopamine boost.
Group presentations: Teams can collaborate to produce graphic organizers
related to a given topic. Graphic organizers can be used for synthesizing
information at the start of a unit, or for review before a test. The teacher can
offer a challenge by asking students to relate newly learned information to a
topic that students are more familiar with. For example, imagine that a class
has been discussing the Winter Olympics and have generated a lot of
excitement around the topic. When the class is taught some new anatomy
concepts, the teacher challenges them to make a graphic organizer that
relates the Winter Olympics to the parts of the body. A team might make a
graphic organizer where a figure of a person has different body parts doing
different sports all at once. While the right foot is skiing, the left foot is
snowboarding, and the arms are lifting an ice-skating partner overhead.
Because knowledge of both art and sports are needed to complete the
“anatomy” challenge, more students than just those who typically thrive
during science lessons will be engaged. Teams can then present their graphic
organizers using an overhead projector, which brings with it the added fun of
using the teacher’s special tools.
Part 3: Mistakes for Stronger Accurate Memory
Prediction + Mistakes + Neuroplasticity = Accurate Durable Memory
Mistakes are useful, but scary! For most students, their greatest fear is making a
mistake in front of the whole class. However, learning actually increases when we
make mistakes. Every time that a student responds to a question, and receives
feedback as to whether their response was correct or incorrect, the student is
learning. If the student made a correct “prediction” (answer), the neural network
storing the related information is strengthened. If the student made an incorrect
“prediction” (answer), but then received corrective feedback and was able to revise
their misunderstanding, their neural network will be corrected. However, if a
student does not make any “predictions”, because they are not actively participating,
their neural network will not be strengthened. In addition if a student makes a
faulty prediction, and their misconception is not corrected, their misunderstanding
will likely persist which can severely restrict future learning. Therefore, the goal is
to keep all students participating and engaged because only the person who THINKS
Reducing the stress of participation: Students learn best from corrective feedback
when they are in a state of low stress. Therefore, despite the fact that students learn
from mistakes, it is not ideal for a student to be “called out” as having made a
mistake in front of his peers. Ideally, students share their predictions (answers)
through the use of individual white boards. The students make a prediction, and
hold up their white board for their teacher to see. After the teacher acknowledges
that they have seen the students’ answers, the students lower their white boards so
they are not on display for their peers. This protects students’ privacy and prevents
cheating. When the teacher provides the correct answer, each individual student
will know if they made a mistake, and can make their corrections. Of course there
are times for class discussions and the public sharing of ideas. It is important to
build a class culture where all answers, both correct and incorrect, are treated with
respect and seen as learning opportunities. However, the white board strategy is
useful not only for having students feel comfortable participating and predicting,
but it also requires participation from all students, which is important because as
mentioned above, only the person who THINKS (predicts) learns.
What is happening in the brain when we learn from mistakes: There is a small
brain structure called the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens constantly
releases a small stream of dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with
pleasure) into the area of the prefrontal cortex where memories are formed. When
we make a prediction (answer), and discover that our prediction is correct, the
nucleus accumbens releases an extra dose of dopamine. While we may not
consciously register the surge of pleasure caused by this dopamine boost, our brain
does. The brain patterning connected to this correct prediction is strengthened to
increase the likelihood that the correct prediction, and corresponding surge in
dopamine, will occur again.
Conversely, when we make a mistake, the nucleus accumbens diminishes the flow
of dopamine. Our brain registers a decrease in dopamine, and reacts to this
displeasure by deactivating the brain patterning that led to the incorrect prediction,
the goal being to avoid making the mistake again with its corresponding decrease in
Prediction Reward Circuit
Strategies that increase participation and risk-taking in school:
Activate prior knowledge so students feel empowered by what they already
Frequent interactive formative assessments during lessons keeps students
Use “safe” prediction opportunities like KWL charts and individual white
Ask students to discuss information in pairs. Then, have on student from
each pair share-out either their own or their partners ideas
Examples and non-examples columns: If you are asking students to list
examples of odd numbers, and some students offer even numbers by
mistake, you can add the even numbers to a “non-example” category so that
the student contribution is still useful
When students answer incorrectly, if any part of their answer is correct, you
should repeat that part of their answer before clarifying and correcting their
Teach students about neuroplasticity - that they literally have the power to
change their brains and become “smarter” by thinking, making predictions,
incorporating corrective feedback, and practicing and using the information
A little neuroscience goes a long way in motivating students: Students who come to you
with a high level of negativity can also benefit learning about how powerful their brains are,
regardless of previous performance. Even in elementary school, children enjoy discovering
they can change their brains and intelligence (neuroplasticity). This can be especially
powerful for students who have been marginalized by learning differences. Information
about the brain, and how to teach students about the brain can be found in the following
articles I wrote for Educational Leadership. I call them my “Brain Owner’s Manual” but the
journal articles are: What You Should Know About Your Brain
(http://radteach.com/page1/page8/page45/page45.html) and How to Teach Students
About the Brain (http://radteach.com/page1/page8/page44/page44.html)
Topics included in the “Brain Owner’s Manual”
Intelligence and accurate memory is constructed by the brain when we make
mistakes and learn from them because of neuroplasticity
They learned things already by learning from mistakes: how they learned to walk,
talk, ride a bike
Use sports and musical instrument analogies about building greater skill the more
Show visual images of the efficiency of movement with multiple pathways to the
Whether to combat stereotype threat about math ability or to empower students with
knowledge of their neuroplasticity and unlimited potentials of their brains, a Brain Owner’s
Manual can change both the minds and mindsets of all students from pre-k to graduate
See Neuroscienceforkids.com and google image for sample photographs/diagrams
Part 4: The Master Control System that Only Human Brains Have –
The CEO in Residence is the Executive Function System
Prefrontal Cortex for Higher Order Skills (Executive Functions)
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the region of the brain that allows us to make
conscious decisions in regards to our thoughts and emotions. It is the last part of the
brain to mature, and maturation continues into the mid twenties. The PFC, once
mature, is associated with the highest cognitive processes, also referred to as
executive functions. Executive functions can be thought of as the skills that would
make a corporate executive successful. These include planning, decision-making,
reasoning, and analysis. These executive functions further allow for: organizing,
sorting, connecting, prioritizing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, self-assessing,
abstracting, creative conceptual problem solving, focusing, and linking information in
order to take appropriate actions.
Mature humans are the only creatures with the ability to analyze their
thoughts and behaviors and direct them in a way that leads to the successful
fulfillment of their goals. However, even in college students (early to mid-twenties),
these functions are still being developed. Following are several executive functions
that educators can help support in their students:
o Judgment: This executive function, when developed, promotes a student’s
ability to monitor the accuracy of his or her work. Techniques such
estimation, and editing and revising one’s own written work require
o Prioritizing: This executive function helps students to separate low
relevance details from the main ideas of a text or topic of study. It also
promotes one’s ability to combine separate facts into a broader concept. In
college, many students still need to develop prioritizing skills to help them
make the most efficient use of their time.
o Setting goals, providing self-feedback, monitoring progress: Until
students fully develop this PFC executive function, they are limited in their
capacity to set and stick to realistic and manageable goals. They need support
in recognizing their incremental progress towards their goals.
o Remembering and applying information from the past: The ability of
students’ to apply “lessons” they have learned from past experiences to their
current situation is still developing in some college students.
Culminating Thoughts: What have you learned that if implemented could have the
most valuable impact on your students? What resources/assistance would you
need? How will you evaluate your success?
Did You Know?
Topics for discussion with your colleagues
Through neuroimaging studies (of the amygdala, hippocampus, and the rest of the
limbic system and through measurement of dopamine and other brain chemical
transmitters) we now have visible evidence that there is a profound increase in
long-term memory and higher order cognition when students have trust and
positive feelings for teachers, and supportive classroom and school communities.
The more dopamine students have released by positive emotional experiences (in
school and out) the less likely they are to seek dopamine/pleasure surges from high
risk behavior of drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, risky fast driving, overeating. More
sports, music, dramatics, and enjoyable learning = less high-risk behavior and
suicide in teens. This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place
when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interests,
Learning connected with positive emotional significance that leads to the new
information being stored in long-term memory. Learning associated with strong
positive emotion is retained longer, and stress/anxiety interfere with learning, so
those lessons do not sustain for end of the year testing, even if students pass unit
Syn-naps: Any pleasurable activity (singing, walk about the room and chat with
friends, listening to music, having a few pages of a class book read aloud to them, or
sharing jokes) used even as a brief break can give the amygdala a chance to “cool
down” and the neurotransmitters time to rebuild, as the students are refreshed.
Dopamine release (and the pleasure associated with it) has been found highest in
school students when they are moving, laughing, interacting, being read to, feel a
sense of accomplishment, and when they have choice.
The last part of the brain to mature (through plasticity and pruning is the prefrontal
lobes. Students and many teenagers do not have fully developed delayed
gratification skills during their school years. The prefrontal regions are major
participants in the executive function networks of judgment, prioritizing, and
delayed gratification processing. This is one reason students from kindergarten
through high school continue to need support and encouragement from their
teachers to keep their efforts directed on long-term goal achievement.
For students with attention focusing difficulties, each time they focus their attention
they are activating the brain’s alerting and focusing pathways. This repeated
stimulation of these pathways makes the neural circuits stronger and increases
their ability to actively direct their attention where it is needed.
Enthusiasm is generated when students are presented with novelty and find
creative ways to explore or connect with the new material and are inspired by it.
Whenever you can generate this awe and sense of wonder, students will be pulled
into the school lessons they bring home and they will be motivated to connect with
the information in a meaningful way.
Students experience a greater level of understanding of concepts and ideas when
they talked, explained, and argued about them with their group, instead of just
passively listening to a lecture or reading a text.
Use more senses: The experiential education motto is that you learn 40% of what
you hear, 60% of what you hear and see, and 80% of what you hear, see, and do.
Acetylcholine: A neurotransmitter that stimulates multiple brain centers including the
hippocampus, brainstem, and forebrain where new learning takes place. Associated
with attention and focus.
Affective filter: Steven Krashen, in his studies of linguistics developed a theory of
language acquisition and development that included the hypothesis of an affective filter.
He described higher success rate of second language acquisition in learners with low
stress and slower language acquisition when stress was high. He postulated that anxiety
and low self-image created a mental blockade that filtered or blocked out new learning.
The term is now generalized to refer to an emotional state of stress in students during
which they are not responsive to processing, learning, and storing new information.
This affective filter is represented by objective physical evidence on neuroimaging of
the amygdala, which becomes metabolically hyperactive during periods of high stress.
In this hyperstimulated state, new information does not pass through the amygdala to
reach the information processing centers of the brain.
Amygdala: Part of limbic system in the temporal lobe. It was first believed to function
as a brain center for responding only to anxiety and fear. When the amygdala senses
threat, it becomes overactivated (high metabolic activity as seen by greatly increased
radioactive glucose and oxygen use in the amygdala region on PET and fMRI scans). In
students, these neuroimaging findings are seen when they feel helpless and anxious.
When the amygdala is in this state of stress, fear, or anxiety-induced overactivation,
new information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass
through the amygdala’s affective filter to gain access to the memory circuits.
Axon: The single fiber that extends from a neuron and transmits messages to the
dendrites of other neurons (or to body tissues).
Brain Mapping: Using electrographic (EEG) response over time brain-mapping
measures electrical activity representing brain activation along neural pathways. This
technique allows scientists to track what parts of the brain are active when a person is
processing information at various stages of information intake, patterning, storing, and
retrieval. The levels of activation in particular brain regions are associated with the
intensity of information processing.
Brain Stem: The brain region between the spinal cord and the rest of the brain. This is
also where nerve centers essential for basic survival, such as heart rate, breathing,
digestion, and sleep, are located.
Cerebellum: The lower posterior region of the brain that supervises coordinated
movement, posture, and balance and adjusts actions in response to external cues, such
as where your foot is in relation to the step. The greatest numbers of connecting
neurons to and from the frontal lobe are in the cerebellum such that this region appears
to influence higher cognitive processes such as reasoning.
Cerebral Cortex: This outer layer of the brain where most neurons are located is also called
gray matter due to the coloration of the neurons. The cerebral cortex is associated with the
highest cognitive processes, also referred to as executive functions, including planning,
decision-making, reasoning, and analysis.
Computerized Tomography (CT Scan, CAT scan): This scan uses a narrow beam of x-
rays to create brain images displayed as a series of brain slices. A computer program
estimates how much x-ray is absorbed in small areas within cross sections of the brain
to produce the image.
Dendrite: Branched protoplasmic extensions that sprout from the arms (axons) or the
cell bodies of neurons. Dendrites conduct electrical impulses toward the neighboring
neurons. A single nerve may possess many dendrites. Dendrites increase in size and
number in response to learned skills, experience, and information storage. New
dendrites grow as branches from frequently activated neurons. Proteins called
neurotrophins, such as nerve growth factor, stimulate this dendrite growth.
Dopamine: A neurotransmitter most associated with attention, decision-making,
executive function, and reward-stimulated learning. Dopamine release on neuroimaging
has been found to increase in response to rewards and positive experiences. Scans
reveal greater dopamine release while subjects are playing, laughing, exercising, and
receiving acknowledgement (e.g. praise) for achievement.
EEG (Electroencephalogram): EEG measures the electrical activity occurring from
transmissions between neurons in the cerebral cortex.
Executive Function: Cognitive processing of information that takes place in areas in
the left frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex that exercise conscious control over one’s
emotions and thoughts. This control allows for patterned information to be used for
organizing, analyzing, sorting, connecting, planning, prioritizing, sequencing, self-
monitoring, self-correcting, assessment, abstractions, problem solving, attention
focusing, and linking information to appropriate actions.
Frontal Lobes: With respect to learning, the frontal lobes contain the centers of
executive function that organize and arrange information and coordinate the
production of language and the focusing of attention.
Functional Brain Imaging (Neuroimaging): The use of techniques to directly or
indirectly demonstrate the structure, function, or biochemical status of the brain.
Structural imaging reveals the overall structure of the brain and functional
neuroimaging provides visualization of the processing of sensory information coming to
the brain and of commands going from the brain to the body. This processing is
visualized directly as areas of the brain “lit up” by increased metabolism, blood flow,
oxygen use, or glucose uptake. Functional brain imaging reveals neural activity in
particular brain regions as the brain performs discrete cognitive tasks.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): This type of functional brain
imaging uses the paramagnetic properties of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood
to demonstrate which brain structures are activated and to what degree during various
performance and cognitive activities. Most fMRI scan learning research has subjects
scanned while they are exposed to visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli and then reveals
the brain structures that are activated by these experiences (exposures).
Graphic organizers: Diagrams that are designed to coincide with the brain’s style of
patterning. For sensory information to be encoded (the initial processing of the
information entering from the senses), consolidated, and stored the information must
be patterned into a brain-compatible form. Graphic organizers can promote this more
patterning if they guide students’ brains when they participate in this creating of
relevant connections to their existing memory circuitry.
Hippocampus: A ridge in the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain that consists
mainly of gray matter that has a major role in memory processes. The hippocampus
takes sensory inputs and integrates them with relational or associational patterns
thereby binding the separate aspects of the experience into storable patterns of
Limbic System A group of interconnected deep brain structures involved in olfaction
(smell), emotion, motivation, behavior, and various autonomic functions. Included in
the limbic system are the thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and portions of the frontal
and temporal lobes. If the limbic system becomes overstimulated by stress-provoking
emotion (seen as very high metabolic activity lighting up those brain areas) the
information taught at that time will be poorly transmitted or stored in the long-term
Metacognition: Knowledge about one’s own information processing and strategies that
influence one’s learning that can optimize future learning. After a lesson or assessment,
when students are prompted to recognize the successful learning strategies that they
used, that reflection can reinforce the effective strategies.
Neuronal Circuits: Neurons communicate with each other by sending coded messages
along electro-chemical connections. When there is repeated stimulation of specific
patterns of a group of neurons, their connecting circuit becomes more developed and
more accessible to efficient stimulation and response. This is where practice (repeated
stimulation of grouped neuronal connections in neuronal circuits) results in more
Neuron: Specialized cells in the brain and throughout the nervous system that conduct
electrical impulses to, from, and within the brain. Neurons are composed of a main cell
body, a single axon for outgoing electrical signals, and a varying number of dendrites for
incoming signals in electrical form. There are more than 100 billion neurons in an
average adult brain.
Neurotransmitters: Brain proteins that are released by the electrical impulses on one
side of the synapse, to then float across the synaptic gap carrying the information with
them to stimulate the next nerve ending in the pathway. Once the neurotransmitter is
taken up by next nerve ending, the electric impulse is reactivated to travel along to the
next nerve. Neurotransmitters in the brain include serotonin, tryptophan, acetylcholine,
dopamine, and others that transport information across synapses. When
neurotransmitters are depleted, by too much information traveling through a nerve
circuit without a break, the speed of transmission along the nerve slows down to a less
Occipital Lobes (visual memory areas): These posterior lobes of the brain processes
optical input among other functions.
Parietal Lobes: Parietal lobes on each side of the brain process sensory data, among
Plasticity: Dendrite formation and dendrite and neuron destruction (pruning) allows
the brain to reshape and reorganize the networks of dendrite-neuron connections in
response to increased or decreased use of these pathways. Plasticity refers to the ability
of synapses, neurons, or regions of the brain to change their properties in response to
Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans): Radioactive isotopes are injected into
the blood attached to molecules of glucose. As a part of the brain is more active, its
glucose and oxygen demands increase. The isotopes attached to the glucose give off
measurable emissions used to produce maps of areas of brain activity. The higher the
radioactivity count, the greater the activity taking place in that portion of the brain. PET
scanning can show blood flow and oxygen and glucose metabolism in the tissues of the
working brain that reflect the amount of brain activity in these regions while the brain
is processing information or sensory input. The biggest drawback of PET scanning is
that because the radioactivity decays rapidly, it is limited to monitoring short tasks.
Newer fMRI technology does not have this same time limitation and has become the
preferred functional imaging technique in learning research.
Prefrontal Cortex (front part of the frontal lobe): The prefrontal cortex responds to
event and memory processing and makes conscious decisions. It is the region of the
frontal lobe where the brain directs the planning of the movements to do a task
Reinforcement Learning Theories: Theories (such as Dopamine Reward Learning)
based on the assumption that the brain finds some states of stimulation to be more
desirable than others and makes associations between specific cues and these desirable
states or goals.
Relational Memory: Learning consists of reinforcing the connections between neurons
when students learn something that adds to what they have already mastered that
expand on neuronal networks already present in the brain.
Reticular Activating System (RAS): This lower part of the posterior brain filters all
incoming stimuli and making the “decision” as to what people attend or ignore. The
Reticular Activating System alerts the brain to sensory input that sense receptors in the
body send up the spinal cord. The main categories that focus the attention of the RAS
and therefore the student include physical need, choice, and novelty.
Scaffolding: This is instruction based on the concept that learning always proceeds
from the known to the new. Students construct their new learning on the foundations of
what they already know with the help of teachers, parents, or a more knowledgeable
other who support them with instruction to help them build upon the abilities and
knowledge they have to reach a higher level.
Somatosensory Cortex Areas: One in each parietal brain lobe where input from each
individual sense (hearing, touch, taste, vision, smell) is ultimately processed.
Survival Level of Attention: Ideally students are beyond a basic survival mode and can
direct attention to more than just avoiding danger. However, too much stress can push
them into this survival mode. This can occur when students feel confused and
overwhelmed by a classroom experience such that they cannot connect with, focus on,
and create patterns and meaning from lesson’s sensory input data.
Synapse: These gaps between nerve endings are where neurotransmitters like
dopamine carry information across the space separating the axon extensions of one
neuron from the dendrite that leads to the next neuron in the pathway. Before and after
crossing the synapse as a chemical message, information is carried in an electrical state
when it travels down the nerve. It is through synaptic transmission that cells in the
central nervous system communicate when an axon sends a neurotransmitter across
the synaptic cleft to activate the receptor on the adjacent dendrite.
Temporal Lobes: These lobes on the sides of the brain process auditory and verbal
input, language and phonetic discrimination, mood stability through projection fibers
leading to limbic system, and learning.
Venn Diagram: A type of graphic organizer used to compare and contrast. The outer
areas are for differences and the similarities are listed in the middle area.
Working Memory (Short-term memory): This memory can hold and manipulate
information for use in the immediate future. Information is only held in working
memory for about a minute. The memory-working span of young adults is
approximately seven for digits, six for letters, and five for words.
Dr Judy Willis’ Multiple Web Links to Articles, Books, Videos
Resources for Educators to Teach Students About their Brains
How to Teach Students About the Brain link:
What You Should Know About Your Brain link:
NEW HORIZONS FOR LEARNING JOURNAL. Free Online Journal from Johns
Hopkins School of Ed Teaching Students A “Brain Owner’s Manual”.
www.NewHorizons.org or direct link http://bit.ly/dopWyO
Books by Judy Willis
All ASCD books have direct from my website www.RADTeach.com or directly from
ASCD.org “publications” to several free chapters and downloadable study guides
Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a
Neurologist/Classroom Teacher, ASCD 2006.
Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and
Comprehension ASCD 2008
Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom, ASCD 2007
Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student Attitudes and Get
Results, ASCD 2010 Free chapters and study guide download at:
Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, Challenging. Great Potentials Press,
How Your Child Learns Best: Brain-Based Ways to Ignite Learning and Increase
School Success. Foreword by Goldie Hawn. Sourcebooks: 2008
Current Impact of Neuroscience in Teaching and Learning. A chapter in, Mind, Brain,
& Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom. Ed. D. Sousa. Solution
Tree Press, 2010.
Archived Ask Dr. JUDY Webinars:
Maximizing Student Memory by Learning from Mistakes with Dr. Judy Willis, view
archived webinar from 10/14/2010: http://bit.ly/anjSqo
Emotion and Learning: How To Promote a Learning-Receptive Emotional State Feb
How Can I Motivate My Students? http://bit.ly/deEq07
View webinar with Dr. Willis' unique brain-based perspective on ideas to motivate
Why Don't Students Pay Attention? from May 11, 2010 ASCD archives
http://bit.ly/a0LbMa. The first 10 minutes have a voice repeat/delay, but that goes away
and the rest is clear.
The webinars in the ongoing series are interactive and sustained with an ongoing
discussion group at the free ASCD EDGE network discussion page called, How the
Brain Learns http://edge.ascd.org/_How-the-Brain-Learns/group/110564/127586.html
Free On-line Articles, Psychology Today Posts, Videos,
Edutopia links, and On-line Discussion Groups
Dr Judy Willis Edutopia Webinar: http://www.edutopia.org/webinar-discussion-
Edutopia’s “Big Thinkers in Education”: 1-hour interviews with 16 people of interest
to educators including Howard Gardner, Sir Kenneth Robinson, Arne Duncan, Jane
Godall, T. Berry Brazelton, Linda Darling-Hammond….and coming in March, me.
ASCD interviews and videos
Interview about Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a
Neurologist/Classroom Teacher, ASCD 2006. Free Study guide at
Interview about differentiation Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion
Interview about Teaching the Brain to Read
Video interview about Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student
Attitudes and Get Results, ASCD 2010 ASCD author interviews
Articles & Blogs (partial list of those with links here or through the
ASCD author EDGE page link:
&b or below http://bit.ly/aqDjQp
Psychology Today online miniarticles links:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/radical-teaching. Example of a post is: Want
Children to “Pay Attention”? Make Their Brains Curious! available at
Top 10 Memory Tips (PDF) at http://bit.ly/7ZpBz2
Then go to "download this media"
at the top
How Your Child Learns Best (PDF) at http://bit.ly/8GKfW5 and click "download
media" at the top.
ASCD Whole Child 4-part Series about Creativity, the Arts, and the Brain October
Rubrics as a Doorway to Achievable Challenge
New Horizons for Learning,
Journal of Graduate School of Education, Johns Hopkins University. Fall 2010
Harvard Educational Letter Spring 2010: Interview about collaborative learning
“Dr Judy Willis and Goldie Hawn are Building Better Brains by Bringing
Neuroscience into Classrooms”. Neurology Now: Publication of the American
Academy of Neurology March/April 2010 - Volume 6 - Issue 2 - p 14–17.