101- The Brain Science Behind Your Students’ (Missing) Engagement

December 23, 2021

When things aren’t working, sometimes you need to return to the basics. In this episode, we look at the brain science behind student engagement (or lack thereof) in the classroom. In the midst of a global pandemic, the “stuff that gets us by” might not be effective enough to “get us by” — so we may find value in returning to the foundations of authentic student engagement and successful 3D teaching: strong classroom relationships, safe community, and routines.

This episode (the first of a short series) digs into what’s going on in your students’ brains as the first step to understanding what you can do to meet their needs right now while paving the way for more successful learning in your classroom moving forward.

This is part of a two-episode series on student engagement. In the next episode, Nicole discusses what this means for teachers and what they are bringing to the classroom.

Defining Student Engagement

According to Dr. Elizabeth Barkley, student engagement is “the product of motivation and active learning”. According to Barkley, you can’t have engagement if you don’t have both.

Quote: Student engagement is "the product of motivation and active learning".  -Dr. Elizabeth Barlkey

There are three major components that must be considered in order to engage your students in authentic science learning.

  1. Relationships
  2. Relevancy
  3. The Learning Process

These factors work together to create real, authentic student engagement. We want our students to be truly excited about the content and understand why it’s relevant. This allows them to invest time, energy, and effort into their learning.

Why is it important to understand the brain science behind student engagement?

Often, as teachers, we feel upset or confused by student actions. However, understanding the “why” behind student actions allows us to tailor our approach. When we have a tailored response to student actions, we instill confidence in our students and build a stronger relationship with them.

Understanding the Brain Science is more important than ever.

Teachers report that this is one of the most challenging years of their careers. Many students returned to school after being out for most or all of last school year. And, all students faced disrupted routines caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we return to a “normal” school year, the things we did in the past aren’t working as they did before. This is causing increased stress for teachers. Nicole and Erin want to alleviate the stress teachers are facing.

Below is an explanation of how the brain works and how that can be used to improve learning in our classroom. In addition to listening to this episode, Nicole suggests grabbing a copy of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta L. Hammond to learn more.

Brain Goals

The brain has three major goals. First, it wants to avoid threats. Also, it wants to help us to be happy. Finally, it pushes us to live better. These goals influence all major brain functions and must be considered when thinking about learning.

Your brain can’t distinguish between physical, emotional and social threats.

Your brain can’t distinguish between the major types of threats. Rather, it acts as though all are equally life-threatening.

In fact, the same parts of the brain that light up when experiencing physical pain also light up when a person is experiencing emotional pain. So, your brain works just as hard to avoid emotional and social pain as it does to avoid physical pain.

Many of the things that students experience at school are incredibly painful. Being embarrassed, being socially awkward, and feeling like a failure are all threats that their brains are actively working to avoid. In our classroom, we ask students to take enormous risks each day. Understanding how these risks are felt by our students in the classroom is the first step in making them feel more comfortable.

Happiness is the best remedy.

Knowing that our classes can feel very threatening is important. But, how do we make them feel more comfortable? It turns out, that sprinkling in moments of happiness is key.

This is tricky because many of the things that make us happy are unique to us as individuals. They are linked to our own personal beliefs, values, and identity.

But there are a few things that humans almost universally react positively to. These experiences include being included in a group, receiving a smile, and being recognized and valued as a person. When we react, we release certain hormones that make us happy.

All people, including our students, seek out experiences like these. Knowing this can help us frame our classroom experiences.

Capitalizing on the Desire to Live Better

We all start out in life with the innate desire to learn, improve and grow. This is why young children ask so many questions and show unlimited curiosity. While this characteristic is often associated with childhood, our brains are designed to learn and grow for our entire lives. Because of neuroplasticity, our brains can grow an unlimited amount of gray matter.

However, in the interest of avoiding threats, we sometimes give up on our desire to learn. But, if we can lower the threat level, we can capitalize on this desire to learn.

Parts of the Brain that Inhibit Student Engagement

There are several parts of the brain that influence student engagement. The parts that are most influential are also the oldest evolutionarily. This makes sense because they help us with the most basic brain functions.

The Lizard Brain

The lizard brain strives to keep us alive by performing low-level functions that are completely reactive. There is no higher-order thinking that occurs in the lizard brain.

This part of the brain houses the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is constantly scanning for novelty and threats. The RAS is helpful in many ways. For example, it allows you to hear your name being called across a crowded room. And, it helps you to pick out your child’s cries on the playground. It highlights the things that are important to us.

The Limbic System

The limbic system is a related region of the brain. It connects emotions, behavior, and cognition. It helps us learn from experience, manage our emotions, and remember. And, it creates our internal frameworks that build our background knowledge on prior experiences.

Because of the way that the limbic system functions, we remember emotionally charged experiences more than other experiences.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus stores long-term memories and makes those memories resistant to forgetting. This is where deep memories are stored.

The Amygdala

The is responsible for releasing stress hormones throughout the body and is able to bypass normal brain function in a threat. This helps it react quickly to threats of any kind. When the amygdala is taking over, all other cognitive processes stop. Therefore, students are unable to learn when the amygdala is triggered.

In order for students to engage, you have to bypass the amygdala.

Students can’t learn if their lizard brain and amygdala are triggered. Therefore, brain functions must be considered when designing functional classrooms. We must work around the amygdala and RAS in order for students to perform higher-order functions.

Here are a few steps to working with the brain in your classroom in order to improve student engagement.

Building Relationships

Knowing our students is the first step to authentically engaging them. And, we only really know them when we build authentic relationships in our classroom.

Students are only able to learn when they feel safe and secure in our classrooms. They must feel safe physically, emotionally, and socially. In positive social settings, the brain releases chemicals that calm the RAS and amygdala.

When we don’t have a good relationship with our students, we are seen by them as an outsider. Students are less likely to absorb information from someone they aren’t connected to.

Collaboration, Community and Student Voice

Creating a collaborative environment helps to ease the RAS and Amygdala. When students’ voice is valued in your classroom, students are less likely to feel threatened socially.

Taking Advantage of the RAS

The RAS is always scanning for relevancy. So, using phenomena in your lessons helps to activate the RAS in a way that works to your advantage.

To learn more about phenomena, check out this episode.