Does Your Brain Want to Learn? 5 Strategies to Promote Active Processing

#4 in a series from The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt
So far in this series we’ve talked about the importance of stimulating the SEEKING system of the brain through play, strategies for creating a brain-friendly classroom and promoting intrinsic motivation for learning through a sense of adventure and challenge for students.  These concepts really address the process of preparing students to learn.  The authors also discuss the research on neuroplasticity, the resulting changes in our brain as a result of our interaction with an enriched environment.  Although we are most concerned here with the brains of our students, I was reminded of recent research reporting a decrease in the onset of dementia for grandparents who babysit their grandchildren.  Obviously even those of us who are chronologically gifted can benefit from a stimulating environment characterized by play, curiosity and adventure!
Now that they’re ready, how do we stimulate the brain to WANT to learn and promote the active processing necessary for creating memories and long term retention of the learning?   Gregory and Kaufeldt emphasize strategies from five categories.

  1. Discussing New Learning Experiences

Through modeling and interactions, teach students to stop and reflect on their experiences.  Ask them open-ended questions about their experiences and push for details.  Provide the language they may need for discussing what they are learning, talk about how things work, ponder generalizations that may be possible, clarify the problems that occur, pose questions about what might happen next, or what might happen if, etc.  Engage students in frequent opportunities for them to discuss their understandings, their learnings and their wonderings with their peers.  Ask students to reflect on their processing in writing through reflection journals, tweets, one-minute or one-sentence summaries (what in Thinking Maps we call the So What?  and So Why? guiding questions for the Frame of Reference).

  1. Making a Connection to Prior Learning

The authors also emphasize the importance of connecting new learning to prior knowledge and experience.  They suggest recalling past experiences and learning, which might be accomplished by accessing prior knowledge of a topic or concept in a Circle Map or in answering the guiding questions about connections to prior knowledge answered in the green Frame of Reference.  Gregory and Kaufeldt also discuss the use of analogical thinking, which suggests the possible use of Double Bubble Maps for comparing and contrasting or the use of Bridge Maps for clarifying the common relating factor found in a group of paired items or concepts.

  1. Discovering Relevance to Students’ Lives

In their summary of the brain research Gregory and Kaufeldt note the brain is constantly looking for pieces of information which will prove to be useful.  If students are not seeing explicit relevance in the learning to their lives then the brain moves on.  I have noted several educational responses to this over the last few years:  Culturally Responsive Education, project-based learning centered on real-world community issues and an increase in the emphasis on “mathematics in context” found throughout the curriculum and standardized testing.  Just take a look at the new SAT test that was given for the first time in March.  Gone are the words no one has ever seen before and the math theory questions students have no clue about.  Almost every math question is in the context of some real-world situation. 


  1. Creating Sustained Anticipation and Interest

It’s all about the challenge, the figuring it out, working to find the answer and having that “A-ha” moment.  I love the phrase the authors use for placing the brain in puzzle mode:  mental discontinuity.  As they quote on p. 88 from C. P. Pritscher, “The mental discontinuity can function to help create a broader continuity (a larger connected chunk of reality).  A student who explores what she finds remarkable, interesting, and important is more wonderfully mentally aroused and engaged.  Teacher telling doesn’t help exploration.”  The feedback the brain receives from an experience either suggests engaging in similar experiences in the future or drives us to avoid similar experiences.  As any high school math teacher can attest, we see this every day.  Students whose past is full of negative experiences in math class are in no way intrigued by our content.  It takes many months of hard work for both teacher and student to erase the past and open up new possibilities for excitement about learning math.  But as important is the information stressing the damage of extrinsic rewards to developing intrinsic motivation.  From R. Brandt (p.90):  “There are at least 70 studies [and this was 1995!] showing that extrinsic motivators – including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards – are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on.”

  1. Developing Optimistic “Growth” Mindsets

As we have learned from the work of Carol Dweck and others, belief in your abilities is vital to motivation and perseverance.  Teaching students, and parents!, about the ability of the brain to grow and change, to get smarter, is vital to their acceptance of struggles and their willingness to work hard, to put in the time and effort needed, to reach success.  So many times I had parents simply accept a student’s problems in math because they had always struggled in math so they had no expectation their child could do better.  I often told the stories of one of my students whose grades in Algebra 2 went D, C, B, A and another who failed the first three quarters, made an A fourth quarter and a B on the final to pass the class!


So as you consider the applications of this information to your own context you might ask yourself:

How am I building metacognitive skills in my students?  What tools am I using to build explicit connections between prior knowledge and new learnings?  What are the strategies I employ to build relevance for the learning to my students’ lives?  What ideas do you have to take the focus of both parents and students off the grades, making the honor roll, etc. and back on learning because it’s fun and because it will lead to a happier and more fulfilling life?  What examples of struggles and the results of persistence from your own life could you share with students?

We all need to share our ideas and strategies; we are all smarter together!


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