The mission statements of schools across our country share a common theme: All students can learn, and we will help them to achieve. However, few schools are delivering explicit instruction consistently on two principles that could make this stated mission attainable:

  1. Learning changes the brain, allowing students to become “functionally smarter” if students experience conditions that facilitate their learning.
  2. All students can attain more of their academic potential if teachers are taught research-based frameworks for effective teaching and a range of versatile strategies to facilitate the process of learning,

Educational leaders today stand at a unique point in history when mind, brain, and education research on how people learn has the potential to transform teaching practice in support of these principles if this new research about how people learn is put into practice.

The Perfect Storm for Positive Change

Teachers we have worked with report that when equipped with effective brain-based frameworks, knowledge, and strategies that assist them to deliver such instruction, they can successfully reach more students more of the time. In our professional development with educators, we focus on five elements that form the perfect storm for positive change now.

Meeting or exceeding standards

Schools today are accountable for ensuring that all students achieve more rigorous standards that require higher-order thinking. Rather than assuming students will naturally develop the necessary skills to attain these standards for college and career readiness, explicit instruction is instrumental in guiding students to learn to become critical thinkers and problem solvers, to communicate and work productively with others, and to know when, why, and how to wield metacognitive and cognitive strategies to enhance learning. Metacognition, which can be defined as reflecting about one’s thinking with the goal of improving learning, is at the heart of “learning how to learn.”

Applying the “Science of Learning”

Understanding brain plasticity — the process by which learning changes the structure and function of the brain when the conditions for learning are right — can form a scientific basis for increasing expectations for greater learning by all students and teachers. Embracing the concept that students can become functionally smarter has the power to transform schools. Equipped with this understanding, teachers know they must create more challenging and personalized lessons in the knowledge that they are helping students to “wire their brains” for greater achievement gains. When students are taught that intelligence is not fixed but is instead malleable and dynamic, they may become more intrinsically motivated to persist through the sometimes hard work and ongoing practice required for self-directed learning.

Engaging and Inspiring Teachers

In our experience, both novice and veteran teachers are highly motivated to acquire practical knowledge about how the brain learns and to apply frameworks and strategies to guide students to attain current standards and to be prepared to thrive in the 21st century global knowledge economy. Teachers are also inspired to discover that brain plasticity applies to them as well, fueling their potential to be lifelong learners in pursuit of their professional and personal goals.

Meeting Educational Stakeholders’ Expectations

Parents are increasingly aware of these new opportunities for improving learning by applying relevant research about how the brains learns, and many expect schools to be applying this current knowledge. Some of the best-selling books for parents are based on recent findings about the brain and learning. Beyond parents, other stakeholders, such as school board members and community leaders, know that students need strong metacognitive, cognitive and interpersonal skills to prepare them for college and careers.

Teaching Students to “Drive Their Brains”

The positive impact of teaching learners to wield metacognitive and cognitive strategies has been well established by educational research. Yet proactive teaching on the use of these strategies is not commonplace. Only one in 10 elementary classrooms across the country emphasizes the development of cognitive skills; other researchers have advocated for explicit instruction of metacognitive, cognitive, and other strategies to facilitate the process of learning as a way to engage and motivate middle and high school students. If educators are empowered to incorporate lessons about the positive impact of reflecting on their learning and using specific strategies to improve academic performance from the early grades on, students will be better equipped with the skills they will need to thrive in school, in their personal lives and in the working world.

Driver’s education offers an apt analogy for teaching students to drive their brains. They need explicit instruction on how to steer their thinking — when they may need to slow down and when it’s OK to speed up, where they might take shortcuts to get to their learning destination, and when they might benefit from a relaxed trip along the back roads of knowledge. Developing the skills and mindset to take charge of their learning will take students further in life than the keys to any car. And they don’t have to wait for their teenage years to take “brain-driving lessons.” They can and should start learning about metacognition and how to use cognitive, communication, and interpersonal skills at an early age and apply these abilities across all core subjects and in life lessons.

Big Picture View to Maximize Results

Applying the Drive Your Brain framework for teaching and learning to improve academic outcomes is best accomplished at the systems level across school districts and states through:

  • Professional development to help teachers enhance their understanding of the implications of mind, brain, and education research;
  • Curricular changes to incorporate explicit instruction on neuroplasticity, metacognition, and practical strategies to transform classrooms into positive learning environments in which students feel safe, accepted, encouraged to take intellectual risks, empowered to take charge of their learning, and motivated to persist through the work required to progress academically;
  • Opportunities for teachers to collaborate and take the lead for student learning gains from their classrooms in order to capitalize on research showing that teachers are more likely to adopt effective new strategies and approaches recommended by their colleagues;
  • Efforts to share information about brain plasticity, learning potential, metacognition, and cognitive and motivational strategies in learning opportunities for parents and other educational stakeholders.

Key actionable conclusions from the science of learning and brain-based teaching are that the vast majority of students come to school with the potential to perform at or above grade level and that brain plasticity is one of the processes by which they develop requisite academic skills in response to effective instructional support. When educators are taught that learning changes the physical structure of the brain, their perceptions about the academic potential of students shift. Moreover, the concept of learning how to learn provides a vision both for teachers — that what they do in the classroom makes a difference for their students — and for teachers themselves.

New understandings about how people learn point the way to developing more effective educational environments and instructional processes to enhance the academic achievement of all students. With these skills, young people can enter the workplace and pursue their dreams as curious, competent, creative thinkers and problem solvers who can collaborate to improve the world.

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers are professional developers and the authors of 20 books for educators, including “BrainSMART®: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning,” “Smarter Teacher Leadership: Neuroscience and the Power of Purposeful Collaboration,” and the upcoming “Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas,” due out with ASCD in June 2016. They are also developers of the Drive Your Brain® curriculum for students. Contact them to learn more at donna@brainsmart.org and visit www.brainsmart.org.

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