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How can teachers empower students to be successful? By creating classrooms that nurture brain change, professor says. ​

Mar 8, 2021, 21:43 PM

Traditionally, teaching and learning have been defined based on the actions of the teacher and learner.

Along that idea, teaching is the concerted sharing of knowledge and experience, and learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences.

But Shelly Schmidt, an award-winning Professor of Food Chemistry in the University of Illinois’ Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition and second-year Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning Faculty Fellow, proposed defining teaching and learning based on brain science biology.

“If we can understand better how students learn, that will help us teach better, deeper, and more effectively because we are using the information about student learning to inform our teaching,” she said.

Schmidt's comments came during her presentation, Harnessing the Profound Connection Between Emotion and Learning to Enhance the Success of All Students, which she gave as part CITL’s Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series on March 4. 

From a biological perspective, Schmidt said, learning takes place via physical changes in the learner’s brain, with those changes being caused by the formation (learning) and elimination (forgetting) of synapses – or connections between neurons – in the brain.

If there are few synapses, learning is like a dirt path, Schmidt offered as an illustration. But if there are many synapses, learning is like a major highway in the brain.

“As experts in content areas, we have areas in our brain that are major highways for that information in our discipline,” Schmidt said. “We can use it in multiple ways. We can recall it. We can organize it in numerous ways so that others can understand it from multiple perspectives.

“So, if we want our students to develop major highways in their brains related to what we’re talking about, they have to have physical changes occur in their brains. Synapses have to be formed to be able to encode that information.”

From a biological perspective, Schmidt went on to say, teaching involves facilitating that change in the learner’s brain. And teachers can facilitate that by creating an environment and implementing practices that nurture brain change.

Understanding the “profound” connection between cognition and emotion

To accomplish the task of influencing students’ brains, Schmidt said teachers must leverage the whole brain – both the cognitive and emotion parts. She explained that cognition takes place in the brain’s cortex, while emotions are processed in the limbic system. And sensory information is first interpreted in the limbic system, then sent to the cortex for processing.

The limbic system “actually sets the emotional tone of that sensory information … If there’s something positive happening – there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s enjoyable – that increases motivation; which in turn, increases learning; which in turn, increases success,” Schmidt said, adding that if the emotional tone is negative, motivation, learning, and success will decrease.

To illustrate the profound connection between cognition and emotion in learning, Schmidt shared her high school chemistry experience. She recalled having a fantastic teacher who made the subject fun and relevant. Those positive feelings led her to major in chemistry at the U of I and helped her persevere in her “super tough” introductory chemistry courses.

On the other hand, Schmidt said, some of her students’ high school chemistry experiences created lasting negative feelings. Those feelings impacted their motivation in Schmidt’s introductory food science course once they saw there was a chemistry section.

“They already have a fear of chemistry without me teaching them one thing,” she said.

To further illustrate the connection, Schmidt offered two analogies from neuroscience. The first: In a china shop, emotions are like the shelves holding up the cognitive glassware. The second: In bricks and mortar, emotion is like the mortar that holds the cognitive bricks together.

“Without emotion, cognition has less support, making learning much less meaningful, useful, durable,” she said, adding for many neuroscientists, “the mortar is more important than the bricks in some sense. The important thing is … they’re intimately connected, and that connection can’t be taken for granted.”

“I did take it for granted for a long time in the classroom,” Schmidt said, adding she learned how to apply the connection in her pedagogy. “That’s why I’m passionate about it because I know how much that has changed and improved not only my teaching, but what we’re here for – my students’ learning, and that’s been dramatically improved.”

Decreasing fear, increasing pleasure and control

Schmidt went on to talk about the four elements the brain relies on to survive: Reasoning, which takes place in the cortex, and fear, pleasure, and control, all of which take place in the limbic system.

So really, the emotion bottom line is … ‘We will always be motivated to learn things that fit into what we want and to resist those that don’t, especially things that look like potential threats (fear) to our happiness (pleasure) or seem as if they might take away our control of our lives,’” Schmidt said, quoting “The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning” (2002) by J.E. Zull.

“What I’d like us to take away from all of this is that if we’re going to facilitate change in our students’ brains … we need to decrease fear because that’s going to impede our students’ learning,” she said. “Another way to think about that is we need to increase safety in the classroom. I’m not referring to physical safety but rather academic safety. Then, we need to increase pleasure. Lastly, we need to increase student control.”

Schmidt shared a story of the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and the effort that chief architect Joseph Strauss made to increase safety and improve the “loss of life” prediction that 35 men would die during the construction.

“He believed they could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers,” Schmidt said, adding the project ushered in hard hats, safety goggles, cream to prevent sunburn, and a safety net under the roadway, among other things. Those measures resulted in only 16 lives lost.

“But something else happened, Schmidt said, adding there was a significant boost in morale among the workers and the speed of the project was unprecedented “because the men felt safe.”

Strategies for increasing academic safety

Schmidt asked instructors to think about how they can employ Strauss’s revolutionary way of thinking about worker safety to their students’ academic safety within their disciplines. She shared a couple of her strategies:

1. Honoring all students as members of the discipline, and welcoming them into the social ecosystem of that discipline.

She provided a welcoming statement that instructors can give students: The discipline of ___ is open and accessible to you, and you are invited to explore what the members of this discipline actually do and what dispositions they actually demonstrate, and to develop your identity as a member of that discipline. It’s based on the book “Necessary Conditions: Teaching Secondary Math with Academic Safety, Quality Tasks, and Effective Facilitation: (2018) by Geoff Krall.

“If I got this of invitation, I would be on board … from Day 1,” Schmidt said, adding the goal is to help students enjoy and find relevance in the discipline, regardless of whether they actually pursue it as a career.

2. Clearing away any obstacles to success (even if they’re part of traditional pedagogy).

Schmidt offered three examples:

  • Time as in timed assessments

"I realize there are some disciplines and situations where time is important. But if it’s not, then timed assessments may be something we need to move away from to let our students really demonstrate their mastery without feeling that need for speed and pressure,” Schmidt said, adding COVID-19 helped her rethink how she gives exams.

  • Correctness and allowing students to learn from their mistakes

“Isn’t learning from our mistakes when we really learn something?” Schmidt said, adding she’s trying to build that idea into her course.

“We also need to help our students develop grit to succeed,” she continued, adding using a self-reflection and self-assessment tool can help them do that.

  • Grades

“We’ve got to flip the message of grades being a diagnostic tool, which is a very fixed mindset, to a standard of excellence that everyone can achieve,” she said.

Schmidt wrapped up by offering another quote by Zull: “The human brain is a learning organ; learning is what it does. The main task of the teacher is to help the learner find connections. Once a student encounters things that connect with her (his) life, her emotions, her experiences, or her understandings, she will learn. She won’t be able to help herself. Her brain will change.”

We have a great calling to be able to help students find what they connect with and be able to encourage them to dive into their passions,” she said.

The Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series takes place from 12 to 1 pm on the first Thursday of each month through May. Join CITL on April 4 when Lawrence Angrave (CS) presents, Accessibility, Equity, and UDL: Dos, Don’ts, and Time-Saving Practices.

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Learn more about The Art of Teaching here.