Motivate the grey matter

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Learning amp; The Brain

By Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire and Richard Churches

Teachers' Pocketbooks, pound;7.99

How do you motivate pupils to learn? How do you help them remember things? The answers lie in the workings of the human brain. Neuroscience and education have started to communicate with each other, and this engaging little book is one of the best attempts I have seen to build a bridge between them, aimed at busy teachers.

The authors know about brains and classrooms. Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire are scientists at Oxford University. Both do outreach work with teachers and Dr Devonshire regularly visits schools. Richard Churches is a former advanced skills teacher and senior manager.

Learning amp; The Brain does a marvellous job at keeping this most complex of topics clear and useful, without too much technical detail. Most importantly, it is written and illustrated in a way that allows you to remember its advice and apply it in the classroom. Among the topics covered are how to suit lesson structure to attention patterns and how to move things from working to long-term memory.

Each section presents an aspect of the brain and explains how we can use it to teach better. For example, we are told how the brain has evolved to scan the environment for "things that might like to eat it", which is why "the unexpected always grabs attention". However, the brain quickly loses interest, so the authors advise the use of "rehearsal rather than repetition", such as looking again at the same material from different perspectives and stimulating thought with open questions.

This pocketbook may feature cartoon tigers, but its content is not lightweight. "The Neuroscience of Memory" is a fascinating chapter that stays in the mind. For instance, it explains why things are easier to remember if you relate them to yourself. The memory is "a network of information - a bit like a train or tube map - and the bigger the network, the stronger the memory". If you relate new facts to existing memories, this helps you to retain them. Since "you are an expert on you", personal memories form a strong network to which you can attach new facts.

The authors explain why it is worth teaching children about their own brains. Recent research shows that they can be motivated to work harder when they know about "brain plasticity": how the brain forms new connections when it learns something new. Brain capability is not fixed: it grows. "The more you learn, the fitter your brain becomes," it says.

Children can visualise their efforts to strengthen their brains. The lesson ideas on this include children lying on the floor pretending to be neurons, using marbles to act out how they send and receive information. Their fingers are dendrites, their legs are axons and so on. Inspired!

This is an addictive pocket guide to the most complicated thing in the universe, with one or two shortcomings. Brain statistics are mind-blowing, yet there are few of these. Nutrition would also have been worth a page or two. The book needed an index and glossary, as it covers so much, but there are excellent recommendations for further reading.

4 out of 4


Eleanor Dommett is a lecturer in neuroscience at Oxford University; Ian Devonshire is a research scientist at the Institute for the Future of the Mind; and Richard Churches is a principal consultant with the CfBT Education Trust.

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