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The Sorting Hat: Is There a ‘Slytherin’ of Neuroscience that Applies to Education? Unpacking Cognition for Practical Classroom Applications

©2022 The DNA of Learning Blueprint Series
by Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf and Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S.


Oh no! What if we’re not in Gryffindor house! Neuroscience studies never intended to address learning, so what’s all the Hufflepuff about? They are much more likely to investigate sleep, depression, genetics, phobias, post-trauma plasticity, neuro-degenerative diseases, stem cells, and mapping anatomical structures. References to education are transfers used to bridge neuro-findings to our profession. While it’s a worthy cause, precious few findings are a direct hit with respect to the teaching/learning intersection.

Without becoming experts, we can adopt several practices that align with the fundamentals of generating “minds-on” processing (which far exceeds hands-on when it comes to processing). These practices promote results far beyond the rhetoric of “entertaining, flashy, the kids love it,” hype. Many so-called, common brain-based strategies are misunderstood and misapplied, yielding little benefit.
The litmus test comes when we use the “learning sorting hat” trilogy. It seeks to 1) identify concepts from cognitive psychology/neuro-studies; that 2) align with education research; which is also 3) aligned with what we have learned through experience. Time tested gold standards gleaned over years of work with youth must factor in more than slick marketing schemes.

“How do I teach this?” is not the same as, “How will they learn this?” Beyond getting their attention and maintaining decorum, understanding how information is being processed for understanding, for memory and for application is imperative for individuals, for commerce and for community. This piece outlines five “neuro-moves” that have a basis in education research as well as neuroscience and/or cognitive psychology (Greenleaf & Millen, In Press 2023). They have also been applied in many classrooms. Following are five applicable and readily incorporated approaches that have “passed” the trilogy of the litmus test!


NEURO-MOVE #1 Context’s Role in Learning
Context is pivotal as we develop understandings of others, situations, ideas and ultimately—all information. Everything that we see, hear, read, feel, and commensurately think and do, is a response to what the world puts before us—and how we interpret it. This makes the role of educator articulation vitally important. Contextualizing builds meaning. Meaning builds memory and provides capacity to change perspective and provide transferable applications.

Do You Suppose...
that students might learn more from studying the American Revolution if they first explored facets of a local issue that was contentious? For many, the times leading up to the revolutionary war are “yesterday’s news.” They see little relevance in tossing bundles of tea overboard to protest taxation nor a midnight ride to spread news of a pending land or sea invasion. Do we really think that studying an era of the past and then taking a test on how much recalled will capture meaning beyond grade or completion motivations? Doubtful. Context provides a reference point that enables transferring meaning to current events.

There are many current or local conditions that could serve to draw learners’ attention. We might link historical events with existing circumstances, starting with local, current events that align the big ideas of independence, rights, and the costs of freedom. When we bring the relevance of today’s world into focus as we explore the lessons of history, transferring learning’s big ideas to more fully understand today’s challenges becomes far more relevant.

Unpacking Context
Constructing memory is supported best when meaning is identified early and develops prior to dollops of content being introduced. Context is not the same as the objective or target of a lesson. Contextual elements enhance meaning, buy-in, understanding and ultimately, active processing to memory. Units of study must take this into consideration before the first lesson begins. There is a body of knowledge, set of skills and understandings contained in each segment of learning. The common approach is to teach, in sequential order, beginning to end, toward a determined set of learning outcomes within a unit of study. As the first lesson takes place, the teacher knows the context in which the content resides. The student does not. The curious brain will ask, “Does this new material relate to what I already know?” Without a contextual framework the learner becomes adrift, devoid of purpose and connection. Students’ complete assignments that result in minimal residual recall and no opportunity for transfer. Commonly practiced familiarity with vocabulary to be used can increase meaning and memory, however, context is even more important to learning than generic reading comprehension activities (Willingham, 2015).

Active processing to memory is far more likely to occur when thinking is embedded in contexts that tap into prior knowledge. When new information is introduced, it can overload working memory and elude comprehension, causing learners to “tread water” trying to keep up. Tomorrow’s discussion and/or a pop quiz become trial and error activities with blank faces and a scramble to recall “right” answers. This is frustrating for students and unproductive for teachers.
Every brain seeks meaning. Meaning gets attention and requires context. Thus, context must be used to frame each lesson. Ask yourself, “How can the overall context of the studies be articulated so that clear, explicit connections are available for learners to build upon?”

“We need mindsets of connection and relating, not coverage and completion”


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