Stimulating Students’ Brains to Seek Learning

#3 in a series from The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt
Okay, I am not a neuroscientist, so some of the information in this book is more technical than I really care about, but I am still quite intrigued by the information continually being discovered that either supports or discourages the educational practices in our culture.  If you are a “don’t start the series in the middle” person, you may want to check out the previous blogs!

The emphasis in Chapters 3 and 4 is on the SEEKING system of the brain, one of seven emotional systems built into us all.  As for many of our brain’s functions, the primary purpose came from the drive for survival.  We have a natural desire to investigate, to make sense of the world around us, to “seek” for food, shelter, companionship.  Imagine you are on a walk with a three or four year old child.  They don’t care where you are going, they are not really interested in “getting there,” it’s the journey that motivates them.  They want to stop and look at a rock, identify a bug, ask a million questions.  The anticipation, the expectancy, of finding something novel, of understanding something new is their primary motivation.  The resulting release of dopamine and the feeling it brings drives our curiosity and is its own reward.
So I’ve been wondering for years, what happens that changes those kindergartners full of questions and excitement to learn into the apathetic teenagers many of us see in our classrooms?  Based on my reading I have several new clues.


  1. We have taken the adventure (and therefore the intrinsic motivation) out of learning.  When students are allowed to investigate, create their own questions and discover the answers themselves, the SEEKING system provides the drive.  It’s not about grades or rewards, it’s about the joy of learning.  (TMLC subscribers can find additional connections to this information in the review of Authentic Learning in the Digital Age and the summary of Daniel Pink’s discussion of motivation in education).
  1. By taking the adventure out of learning we have turned play into work. The first blog in the series discussed the importance of play, another of the seven emotional systems and defined in this book as “vigorous positive engagement with others.”  Can’t you still hear the sounds of a playground at recess: giggles, laughter, shouts of joy.  Play releases endorphins and stimulates a sense of joy, creating a strong connection to SEEKING and its release of dopamine.  Visualize a set of puppies involved in play.  They run, jump, crawl all over each other, etc.  In fact, Gregory and Kaufeldt cite research suggesting that the lack of outdoor physical activity and “rough and tumble” play (recall your children playing on the floor with Dad when he comes home from work?)  may be related to the rise in diagnosis of ADD and ADHD.  Play helps to build nerves and strengthen networks in the brain.  So maybe instead of trying to “settle them down” and “get them on task,” we need to start the day with recess!
  1. Those educational practices that we often leave out of the day due to time constraints and the drive to “cover the content” are actually the triggers the brain needs to bring back the joy of learning stimulated by the SEEKING system. It’s the wiring of the brain that makes playing games and working collaboratively more effective not only in keeping students engaged but in processing the learning.

“When we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about making meaning, it is the SEEKING circuits that are activated.  If, in fact, the SEEKING system underlies all positive motivation, tapping this system would be a key to success in classrooms.  If educators can stimulate this system into action, they can trigger students’ instinctual urge to get out there, do something, find answers, and learn!”  (p.45)


  1. So the next time you are planning your lesson and think, “I don’t have time for that,” remember the SEEKING system and its role in motivating the learning of your students. Ideas suggested for stimulating the brain include:  laughter, novelty, cartoons, YouTube videos, pictures, music, intriguing questions or a challenge.  The goal is to create curiosity.
  1. Create a classroom environment that supports adventuring. Provide materials and resources for exploring in a variety of ways, including visual, auditory and kinesthetic activities.  Teach social skills, important for collaboration both in and out of the classroom.  According to Gregory and Kaufeldt, brains that have more interaction with others build more cells while brains in isolation lose brain cells. Hmm… think about the student who is always sitting at a desk by themselves!

As I stated in “5 Reminders for a Brain Friendly Classroom,” many of these ideas we have heard before.  What’s new to me, and perhaps to you, is the understanding of WHY we not only should implement these educational practices but MUST implement them to develop the life-long learners our students deserve and our world demands.
How are you stimulating the SEEKING system in your students’ brains?  We would love to hear your ideas for creating a classroom full of curiosity and adventure!

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One comment on “Stimulating Students’ Brains to Seek Learning
  1. Anonymous says:

    The five ways in which we can help students to develop and keep their intrinsic motivation for learning is simple and easy to apply. This is a great way to remind teachers how to work smarter and not harder.

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