Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)
What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.
Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?
Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.
The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.
What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:
1- Show them who you are
I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life
2- Find out who your students are
This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.
3- Show enthusiasm
How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.
4- Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk
I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here
5- Be kind and understanding
Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.
6- Be firm and keep your promises
One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.
7- Take their needs and interests into consideration
Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.
8- Keep them curious
Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.