Educators educating Educators

May 28

Feb 17 Teachers as Neuroscientists

Would a heart surgeon place a stint or replace a heart value without full knowledge of the heart? Would a brain surgeon operate on the brain without knowing the intricacies of the brain?

These questions lead to this month’s Ed Tip topic: Should educators know the neuroscience of learning?

Why should educators know the neuroscience of learning? Naturally, educators know what teaching methods and practices work well. But by knowing the neuroscience reasons of successful teaching, they will develop a deeper understanding of how and why their teaching practices affect learning in the minds of their students.

Classroom of Brains

Knowing the neuroscientific principles of learning will enable educators to become more creative in designing additional pedagogy, by applying learned techniques from previous successful lessons to different educational environments and situations. Additionally, if an educator senses that a lesson is beginning to go astray or wants to enhance the lesson, an understanding of the neuroscience of learning will be enormously useful.

In addition, when suggesting a teaching practice to a peer, teachers will be able to explain the reasons for its success by providing a neuroscientific explanation, thereby enhancing the fundamental understanding of the principals involved in the instruction.

To simplify the above, knowing the neuroscience of learning will enable teachers to work smarter, not harder.

From the perspective of a child’s brain development, educators are faced with the supreme responsibility of being caretakers of the brain, given that the brain undergoes a dramatic period of development throughout the school years.

The video below will support this argument. The time lapsed video is the result of the research done by Jay Giedd, et al, of the National Academy of Sciences.

The video demonstrates how the brain changes in a child from age 3 to 18. The blue coloring represents the maturing of the brain’s neurons. As shown, the maturation of the brain begins at the rear and proceeds to the front of the brain.

Maturation of the brain is the result of two processes. One of the processes is myelination that occurs when a fatty white substance surrounds the axon of nerve cells, forming an electrically insulating layer. When the myelination of the nerves is finished, the speed of the impulse increases by a factor of 10. Concurrently, the child’s brain is being molded by reinforcing of its most used neural connections while at the same time removing (pruning) its least used circuits.

The maturation of the rear of the brain prior to the front of the brain is significant. The frontal area of the brain, often referred to as the CEO of the brain, is the area is where the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is located. Often referred to as the executive function center of the brain, the PFC controls the higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking, analytic thinking, and decision-making.

Jay Giedd video

Geidd Video

Jay Geidd's video

Arguing the same point but from a cellular level, John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, agrees that educators should have a working knowledge of how and why the brain learns.

Ratey refers to teachers as “plasticity guides” and “brain surgeons” because when students learn as the result of teaching, neurons in the brains of students are forever physically changed and altered based on experiences and instruction. Based on this supposition, Ratey posits that a student’s brain is actually physically different at the end of class versus the beginning as a result of the instruction given by the teacher.

To support his argument, Ratey uses the picture below, pictures he refers to as “porn to a neuroscientist.”

The picture illustrates structural changes associated with Long-Term Potentiation (LTP), the structural change in neurons that is part of the cellular basis of learning. In LTP, the synaptic interaction between two neurons (nerve cells) is temporarily strengthened as a result electrical interaction between neurons. Importantly, LTP occurs in one of the most important areas for memory, the hippocampus, the Grand Central Station of memory.

X-Rated Movie

Plasticity Guides


Brain development Chart


In next month’s Ed Tip, I will discuss two teaching practices based on neuroscientific principles that will increase student learning.

Summarizing this month’s Ed Tip discussion, it is helpful to recall the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” For a majority of the period from ages 3 to 18, teachers are the caretakers of students’ minds during one of the brain’s extreme, intense period of development. By having a knowledge of the neuroscience of learning, educators can be extremely confident that the brains of their students will be positively changed from the time they enter their class to the time they depart.


Read April's Ed Tip to understand how using video game design principles will improve instruction.  Moreover, educators should not view video games as the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching practices. When educators design instructional strategies, they must keep in mind the principles of video games, namely achievable challenge, and the role of dopamine in education.