Building Better Teachers, One Brain at a Time

Project Category: Preparing a Highly Qualified 0-3 Workforce 

Adrienne Seegers, MA
Professor of Child Development
Columbia College

Introduction: Those who teach current and future infant toddler teachers are in a unique position to support optimal infant and toddler development and impact countless infants and their families through their students.  In recent decades the field of early childhood education has successfully applied new discoveries from neuroscience to infant toddler development. However, the implications for teaching adults have been largely neglected. This project explores how those teaching adults can leverage what we know about how adult brains learn to best prepare our future infant/toddler teachers.

Methods: To explore this topic I reviewed the literature pertaining to cognitive neuroscience looking for prevailing themes that could be applied to teaching future infant/toddler teachers.

Results: The literature yielded three suggestions widely supported by research that teachers of adults can use to bring their teaching in line with what we know about how the brain learns.

Attend to relationships and emotions. Learning happens in relationship just as much for adult students as for infants and toddlers. As with the youngest learners, emotion is perhaps the most important driver of both learning and memory for adults. To maximize students’ potential to learn, build positive, safe, relationships with them and help them build relationships with each other as much as possible.

Recognize that nearly one-third of your students have been impacted by trauma.  Students who are fearful or anxious will not be able to engage in real learning. Students need to feel safe in order to be effective learners so providing predictability, a sense of safety and appropriate structure will help traumatized or stressed students open up to learning. As teacher educators we can help students by acknowledging the feelings they may be having, supporting them as they move through those emotions and teaching them how to minimize stress. While we are doing this we not only increase students’ ability to learn, we also role model invaluable skills to future teachers.

As with children, trauma may be part of the story for adults but it is not the whole story.  Neuroscience suggests that education can help adults repair and replace damaged neurons. By learning to reflect and gaining insight into their own experience adults can rewrite their learned narratives and change their actions. Build reflection, emotional awareness, and stress management into your classes.

Leverage existing experience and active processing to help students learn more effectively. Building on what students already know and are interested in and connecting new information to it is a powerful tool that not only acknowledges the competence and life experience of adult learners but also utilizes areas of the brain that remain plastic as we age. Information that has meaning to the learner and/or an emotional hook is much more likely to be retained. Find out what students know and are interested in and help them add new information to that foundation.

Just as infants and toddlers learn best when they involve their whole bodies and selves in an experience asking adults to go beyond rote learning leads to more memorable and meaningful experiences in your classroom. Engaging students in “active processing” through teaching peers, problem based learning, case studies, and experiential learning uses what the brain already knows which builds more durable neural networks and a higher likelihood of the information being retained.

Teach adults about their brain and how it works.  When you learn something you literally change your brain. We now understand that our brains are not “hardwired” at all, in fact they are very capable of change throughout the human lifespan. Encourage students to use research based study techniques and explain why they work. Convincing students that they have control over their brains and their learning may be enough to launch them toward success.

Discussion: The key finding of this literature review is that those teaching current and future infant/toddler teachers could increase the efficacy of their courses or workshops by utilizing teaching approaches based in neuroscience. This literature review did not include works criticizing the use of neuroscience in education and was not exhaustive.  There are additional articles and books that could be explored and detracting viewpoints to consider.

This literature review indicates that there are many useful lessons for educators to glean from neuroscience and related fields.  Continued study and dialogue between education and neuroscience will be needed to continue to bring current research to educators.

Adrienne Seegers
708 E Bald Mountain Rd.
Sonora, CA 95370


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