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Aurora Institute

Are You a Neuroteacher?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

This is the fourth book in the series Conversations with Authors About Competency-Based Education.

I hadn’t realized that the concept of the “empty vessel” in which we pour knowledge into children’s brains was still lurking in my mind, shaping what I was learning, until I read Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher. Over and over again, the authors reinforce the idea that for learning to happen, the mind must be active. Over and over again, they also reinforce the idea that “teachers are brain-changers.” They explain that a neuroteacher is “one who intentionally applies research from the field of mind, brain, and education to his or her instructional design and work with every student.”

However, the real power of mind, brain, and education science (MBE) comes into play when students are able to apply the research to their own learning. The authors explain, “Research also shows that putting mind, brain, and education science into the hands of young people in ways that are accessible to them actually empowers them to be more efficient, confident, and higher–achieving students.” Thus, a neuroteacher is one who applies the MBE research to instructional design so that their students can apply the MBE research to their learning.

It’s a fun-to-read book full of interesting insights on mind, brain, and education science (MBE). It was the most helpful book I’ve read in terms of helping to process the implications of research on learning related to specific practices. For example, we tend to talk about deeper learning as if it is some how better than memorization and comprehension. However, Neuroteacher explains that understanding and being able to recall core concepts is a vital part of deeper learning. If students are struggling to remember ideas, they are using their working memory on recall rather than analysis, evaluation, or synthesizing the concepts. They also explain that help in developing executive functioning is something all children need, not just those identified as having challenges in that area. We are all always learning to build our ability to manage our attention, our feelings, and our minds.

Throughout the book, the authors challenge neuro myths and dive deep into specific practices. They offer an “unconscionable list” of practices that teachers often do that are in direct conflict with what MBE tells us as well as a set of research-informed practices that should be done by every teacher.

Unconscionable List

  • Pop quizzes for grade.
  • Starting a class by going over homework.
  • Ending a class by teaching all the way to the bell.
  • Coaching students to use passive studying techniques, such as reviewing for a test by just reading their notes for textbooks.
  • Defining kids by an individual style, such as this person is an auditory learner, that person is a kinesthetic learner.
  • Varying the modality of teaching to match these perceived individual learning styles.
  • Applying simple labels to students, such as ‘lazy’ or ‘smart,’ rather than making judgments based on observations.
  • Believing students have a fixed level of ability
  • Content delivery dominated by lecturing.
  • Assessment dominated by tests, particularly multiple-choice test.
  • Praising achievement rather than effort.
  • Not recognizing the connections between the motion, identity, and healthful learning.

Research-Informed Strategies Every Teacher Should be Doing with Every Student

  1. Class periods should be designed with an understanding that what students will recall most is what takes place in the first part of the class and what students will recall second most will take place in the closing minutes of class.
  2. Student should be given more frequent, formative, low stakes assessments of learning.
  3. Students need more opportunities to reflect and think meta-cognitively on their learning and performance.
  4. Students need to know that the pervasive way they choose to study is actually hurting their ability to learn for the long-term. Testing is much more effective than reading one’s notes.
  5. Students, parents, teachers, and school leaders need to understand that sleep is critical to memory consolidation. Without sufficient sleep, we create a system that perpetuates the illusion of learning.
  6. Students need to know that ‘effort matters most’ and that they have the ability to rewire their brain to make themselves better learners and higher achieving students (the concept of neuroplasticity).
  7. Students need more, but well-judged, opportunities for choice in their learning, which enhances engagement and intrinsic motivation.
  8. Students need to love their limbic system and recognize the impact that stress, fear, and fatigue have on the higher-order thinking and memory parts of their brain.
  9. Students need opportunities to transfer their knowledge through the visual and performing arts.
  10. Students need their teachers to vary the modality of teaching and assessment based on the content: What method suits this topic best? What methods have I just used and will use soon so that I can provide a range of challenges? All students learn best when taught in a variety of modalities, and when the modality is chosen with the content in mind rather than the student.
  11. Students need to know the anatomy of their brain, especially the role the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus play in their learning.
  12. Students need frequent opportunities during the school day to play.

There are questions at the end of each chapter (modeling activities to help remember and recall ideas) and a formative self-assessment on readers’ knowledge of MBE is available online. It is also a balanced book that understands that research can only inform practice. It is up to teachers to use their professional judgment to consider multiple sets of research findings within the context of the needs of specific students.

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