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Nuts and Bolts of Applying Brain Science to Teaching

I’m always on the lookout for ideas that apply knowledge of how the brain works to specific teaching and facilitation techniques. So, my interest was piqued when I came across Daniel Willingham’s article, “Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think.“* He explained that 16 years ago, as a psychologist studying brain science, he didn’t think teachers would care about what he had to say.

Now, 15 years, four books, and dozens of articles later, teachers and trainers rely on his unique perspective and research studies. In the article, Willingham pairs his research and theories with a collection of scientific observations translated into classroom applications.

Putting Theory into Action

Synthesizing his recommendations, I recalled a handful of tools and approaches that help teachers carry through on the kinds of efforts he suggests:

1) Practice is crucial.

Allow sufficient classroom time to practice new skills. Use paper, computers, or dry-erase boards, books –whatever you need. To eliminate the worry about time, use a Time Timer so everyone can easily see how much they have left.

2) Memory is more enduring if practice is spread over time.

Distribute lessons across multiple days.

3) Probing memory improves retention.

Use low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes to boost student memory. Jeopardy games are great for reinforcement, but you can also adapt many other game show-style games to your content quite easily.

4) Students who believe they can get smarter through hard work, try harder.

Take the time to recognize student effort and communicate your belief in each person’s abilities. No need for time-consuming or expensive endeavors; simply dash a note on a small Kudos Sticky Note or send a KUDOS Memo Note.

5) Shallow Understanding always precedes Deep understanding.

Don’t be put off if students’ initial understanding is shallow. Try building a pipe-cleaner tower to symbolize the foundational principles the group is starting with and build it up as concepts and understanding deepen. The visual image acts as a great reminder of the learning process and progress taking place.

What’s next?

Thanks go out to Dr. Willingham for sharing his research and insights, enabling teachers and trainers worldwide to make learning experiences more meaningful and productive.  I’ll definitely be putting his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? on my reading list and will report back more insights!

Read more

The 10 Biggest Breakthroughs in the Science of Learning

Six Brain Science Principles Every Teacher Should Know


* “Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think: A New Proposal for Reforming Teacher Education” by Daniel Willingham in Education Next, Summer 2018 (Vol. 18, #3, p. 42-49),; Willingham can be reached at [email protected].

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