How Awareness of Neuroplasticity Improves Teaching

Understanding neuroplasticity can powerfully improve teaching. Plasticity, sometimes called neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, refers to the ongoing ability of the brain to change, and strengthen and build neural connections (Hsaio, 2013). Understanding nature of the brain, its structure, and the function of the nervous system enhances teaching, (and reaffirms the ideas of growth mindset!). Specifically, understanding plasticity and the nature of neural connections is most important.

Plasticity shows us that because the brain is so able to change and grow, learners can understand new things, and continuously make connections between ideas. This ability to strengthen connections between ideas serves to further carve out 'paths in the woods,' which become more clearly visible and easy to follow when they are traveled more often.

This very idea is fundamental to good teaching, which demands an awareness of every student’s ability to grow and learn. On a physical, brain-level, we can literally connect ideas together more strongly. This has incredible implications for teachers hoping to strengthen connections between ideas for their students.

Perhaps just as importantly, this understanding would also theoretically improve teachers’ techniques and skills, because they would be more intimately aware of how students best learn. For instance, good teaching practices would support the building of connections between ideas (Dehaene et al., 2010), which would allow neural connections between those ideas to be strengthened, thus making the knowledge more easily retrievable, and more genuinely learned. Thus, knowledge of brain structure and function of the nervous system enhances teachers’ awareness of growth mindset, faith in students’ abilities to grow and learn, and teaching techniques, overall improving the quality of teaching.

We can also make a connection between student engagement and neuron firing rate. A teacher may intuitively know to try to make his or her classroom comfortable, interesting, and relevant to learning, but may not understand why it is so important; a stimulating classroom environment can have a positive impact on students' learning and brain development.

Even simply understanding this would help teachers make the subtle mental shift from "how can I make my classroom pretty?" to the more valuable "how can I make sure my classroom supports students' brain development?" -- but the second one might yield a much more valuable result.

References

Dehaene, S., Pegado, F., Braga, L. W., Ventura, P., Filho, G. N., Jobert, A., Dehaene‑Lambertz, G., Kolinsky, R., Morais, J., Cohen, L. (2010). How learning to read changes the cortical networks for vision and language. Science, 330(6009), 1359-1364.