Why Educators Should Think More about The Brain in the Learning Process

By Rachel Paling

Over the past eight years I have been training language teachers worldwide to become Neurolanguage Coaches®, bringing neuroscience or knowledge about the brain as well as coaching into the language learning process. As this is a relatively new concept, I often get teachers who are very skeptical, and in fact, one recently asked me

“Well, what is the reason for talking about the brain, we never did it before?” and my answer was “Surely, it’s time that we did?

In my own personal experience and at my mature age in life, I strongly feel that if I had understood more about my own brain as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult and throughout the last 20 years, I do think I would have been able to understand myself better and maybe even achieve differently and perhaps even more than I have to date.

In addition, as a teacher starting to teach English at the tender age of 17, many many years ago, I do think knowing about the brain would have greatly helped me to understand my learners more.

I have one memory of a lady in Germany some 15 years ago, who burst into tears as soon as I walked into the session. I remember at the time that my only options were empathy and sympathy and we got nowhere. With the knowledge I now have, I would talk to her about the brain in general, and how her brain obviously perceived learning English as a threat. I would explain to her about the fight or flight reaction or even freeze and then we would work out strategies together to propel her brain out of this state and into a calmer “perfect learning state” as I call it.

Understanding the limbic brain is key for any of us, as when we go into a fight, flight or freeze state. The resources needed for the “learning areas” of the brain (the rational and analytical pre-frontal cortex , the memory master – the hippocampus) become limited, hence the feeling of blockage, panic, nervousness and even physical reactions like shaking, stuttering or even feeling faint.

Today, neuroscience is providing us with so much evidence that I now believe that it is vital for ALL educators and especially language trainers, teachers or coaches, to recognise the role played by the brain in language learning and to understand how we can use neuroscience to improve language learning.

When I am teaching, I try to be aware of and understand emotional triggers and how these can devastate the learning process. I have to really ensure that:

  1. I personally am not doing anything during the learning process that could trigger a fight or flight reaction
  2. the circumstances of the learning process are not triggering the fight or flight
  3. my learner him/herself is not triggered into fight or flight by something from the past.
  • Secondly, I have to understand how to make the process more learner-centric and design the course or lesson specifically to my learner, because now we know that no two brains are the same. Ironically, I heard this summer that in the USA, they are now working on “brain prints” like fingerprints or iris reading; our brains have a unique print that distinguishes us one from another.

So, every learner sitting in front of us will have a unique brain. That means we have to understand how that person learns, and actually, how we can assist that learner to learn in the most effective, fast and efficient way.

  • Thirdly, we need to understand how to bring insights to our learners, that is “instant learning moments”. Those AHA moments where we understand how the conscious and the subconscious brain interact and how learning goes from short term to long term.
  • Fourthly, we have to know how to provoke constant brain connections with language and trigger L1 and L2 language connections, as we have the scientific proof that this is how the brain learns languages.
    Fifthly, we have to really take onboard the statement from science that says “the person doing it learns it” and get our learners to do more of the work actively and we have to stop doing it for them. This also encourages ownership and responsibility for the learning process by the learner.
  • Finally, as educators we have to know how to talk about the brain and discuss what is happening with our learner in very simple terms. We are not professing to be neuroscientists, we simply want to comprehend how we can enhance the learning process for each and every learner and understand what they are going through and what can be done to asist them to achieve their learning goals.

One of the greatest eye-openers for me, has been to understand how teachers can positively affect learners but also how teachers can negatively impact learners and in these cases often that negative imprint stays with the learner throughout their whole life.

I believe that all educators, whether trainers, teachers, coaches, educators and neurolanguage coaches, want our learners to have an extremely positive experience that they will never forget and in addition an experience which guarantees effective, efficient and fast learning.

Rachel has agreed to write more articles on the brain and neuro language coaching. Her next article will be in the January issue.

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