Neuroscience and Why Relationship Matters for Student Success

Happy New Year! I thought I would give everyone a few days to re-acclimate to the schedule and routine of the new semester before posting for the first time in 2019. It has been a wonderful start to the semester after a rejuvenating holiday break–I hope that has been the case for all of you, as well!

I am excited about the new semester for many reasons. Reflecting back on the recently completed fall semester, there have been some wonderful successes here at Greenwood. New course offerings have included more advanced options in core courses with the addition of some Honors options and advanced mathematics courses, as well as innovative enrichment courses to pique students’ interests, cultivate students’ sense of social responsibility, and to encourage their exploration of post-secondary options and career ideas. As we endeavor over the upcoming months to build upon those initiatives by continuing to integrate educational technology in our classrooms, expanding our curriculum offerings, growing the student population, and achieving faculty professional development goals, I thought I’d get a little bit deeper today. Neuroscience in general is fascinating to me, and recent studies in the field have provided even greater evidence that Greenwood School’s approach to student learning is brain research in action! Bear with me–this will be fun!

The brain actively predicts how to budget energy based on previous experiences. That’s why it is important to design academic content in a flexible way, with resources and options for active learning that align with the intended goal. This is also driven largely by emotions, as connections the brain makes based on the context in which new information is presented drive physiological responses to meet the energy demands of the learning event—at the same time, the brain (through the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) is labeling/tagging/categorizing the incoming stimuli to determine which pieces of information to pay attention to and send to storage (memory) and which to acknowledge and discard as interesting, but extraneous information to the learning event. The form of delivery, the context of the classroom, and the context of memories of previous similar experiences all influence the learner’s brain in its sorting and energy-budgeting activity.

For some students with specific learning differences, the processes described above can be quite challenging, and not as automated in the subconscious as with other students. For example, a student with dyslexia, when trying to visually process new information presented in print format, often experiences miscategorization in the cingulate cortex, which may or may not be (dependent upon severity of expressive symptoms) exacerbated by a slightly narrowed central visual field, when compared to students without the challenges of dyslexia. Similarly, students who exhibit characteristics of autism spectrum often are experiencing synesthesia, which tends to involve hyper-connectivity between two or more sensory areas of the brain, which may help to explain why some students on the spectrum may have particular sensitivities to loud noises, certain textures, colors, physical touch, etc.

A simple summary of why that matters—Greenwood School has been helping students since 1985 on the seemingly simple, yet powerful premise that no two students are alike; the more that scientists understand about the intricate and interconnected operations of the human brain, the more the research reinforces what Greenwood’s program design provides for students with learning differences. The wonderful part of the rapidly deepening scientific understanding of the brain is that the research also supports our steadfast belief that students’ brains can be taught to overcome their specific challenges—as we have been doing for over 30 years.

In the past, we often spoke of students’ individual “learning styles” and how our multisensory instructional techniques ensured we were addressing each student’s “style.” The terminology and the “learning style” concept is more aligned with what the research said 5-7 years ago, which is why we now talk about students’ individual strengths and needs instead. Recent research on the plasticity of the brain, however, provides much clearer insight into why Greenwood’s methods enable so many students to experience success. During learning, as the flow of electrochemical signals in the brain increase, those repeatedly firing signals encourage the development of myelin, which acts as a sort of seal along the axons of the brain. That increased myelinization enlarges the connections between neurons, thereby strengthening the density and complexity of dendrites and axons. Basically, this is increasing the retention of information—it doesn’t “leak out.”

The brain’s individual preferences, based upon the emotions and experience contexts mentioned earlier, are what we used to refer to as “learning style—“ but in reality the variability of a student’s electrochemical preferences for processing of new information depends immensely upon emotion and experiential context; therefore, flexibility of curriculum and the cultivation of an environment in which the student feels safe in taking academic risks and “being themselves” are what trains the brain to process through, around, over, and under the challenges specific to their individual learning differences.

Why all the science? Because it matters. Scientific research into the functional processes of the brain proves that the relationship with the student as an individual matters a great deal, regardless of their specific learning challenges. That’s why Greenwood School will always emphasize the academic and social strengths of each individual in order to appropriately support the students’ needs—and our dedication to these principles were well ahead of the research in the scientific community! On our first day of 2019 at Greenwood, our faculty learned and practiced some instructional techniques that reinforce that emotional connection to information that makes information “stick” for students. I wish I had been more attentive in my high school science classes!

Have a great day, and come by and see brains in action at Greenwood School!


Dr. Anthony D. Mortimer, Head of School

The references concerning recent findings in neuroscience and its relation to academic learning were synthesized from the following source:
Posey, A. (2018). Engage the brain: How to design for learning that taps into the power of emotion.
Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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