The Secret Science of Learning: 5 Dos and Don’ts

As educators, we sometimes forget the basic concept that teaching does not equal learning. No matter how much effort and care we put into our lessons, real success lies only in the students’ capacity to integrate the knowledge that we share with them.

Learning at any age goes beyond influencing how we see the world. Learning has the power to physically change the composition, neuronal structure, and tissue makeup in our brains, making it a process of true alchemy, science, and psychology.

Thankfully for teachers, there are many tried and true, science-backed methods to streamline the ways we instruct and organize our classrooms. Read on for a summary of our five favorite (and not-so-secret) dos and don’ts for amplifying the learning experience for your students.

Do this!

1. Hold space for curiosity. Curiosity is an innate facet of childhood. Young people have so much to learn in a relatively short amount of time if they are to become functional, happy adolescents and adults. Be open to silly questions and treat all creative endeavors with care and respect. Give students time to explore subjects and topics of their choice to foster curiosity, ingenuity, and a passion for learning.

2. Give kids a chance to explore what it means to have a purpose. Beyond history and math lessons, ask children some “bigger” life questions, like “what does it mean to live a good life,” or “what makes you happy?” Through open, contemplative conversations and other mindfulness practices, you provide children with skills to better understand their internal states and feelings and put a greater sense of meaning behind their education.

3. Encourage a growth mindset for resilience. A growth mindset, the antithesis of a fixed mindset, is based on the belief that one can achieve goals through hard work, dedication, and self-improvement, as opposed to being limited by current abilities or knowledge. Teach your students how to set reasonable, yet challenging, goals. It also turns out that maintaining your own growth mindset as an adult helps you evolve as a teacher, deepening your impact on your students.

4. Save time for play and physical activity. Kids have energy – and lots of it. Interactive playtime promotes a host of physical health benefits, as well as lights up and connects different brain areas to improve attention span, retention, and interest in learning.

5. Emphasize empathy over competition. Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, is “the experience or understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.” Practicing empathy not only generates kindness, but it also allows students to see the world from multiple perspectives. Here are some of our favorite empathy-building activities for the classroom.

Don’t do that!

1. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Learning styles vary widely from child to child, from class to class, and from school year to school year. Take time to reflect on your teaching style and consider making changes as necessary, such as finding new ways to use technology to your students’ benefit.

2. Don’t harp on avoiding mistakes and failure. Failure is inevitable and we’ve discussed it at length here on The Edvocate. Part of instilling a growth mindset means addressing failure. Read more on what to do and what not to do when teaching students to overcome their fears of failure and making mistakes.

3. Don’t make rote memorization the only way to succeed. While memorization has a place in learning, it’s far from the best way to succeed in school and beyond. By relying too heavily on memorization, we stunt creativity and the ability to integrate knowledge in innovative ways.

4. Don’t confine learning to lesson plans or core curriculum. Kids who don’t want to learn won’t learn. Keeping to the bare basics of lesson plans and curriculum could be stripping kids of their raw passion to understand and acquire information. Create excitement for learning by allowing kids to choose additional topics that they’re most passionate about.

5. Don’t create instability by changing rules and structure without cause. Adaptability, as described in #1, is critical, but it must be done in a thoughtful, intentional manner that doesn’t undermine the sense of stability in the classroom. When making changes of any magnitude, make them clear to the classroom, give specific reasoning, and stick to your changes for the sake of your students’ feelings of security and consistency regarding academic standards and goals.

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