Here’s how to reach every student brain

Armstrong began her BrainWare Safari webinar, “Practical Advice for Brain-Compatible Teaching,” by explaining that students often seem to have two types of mindsets: fixed or growth. “Fixed” means students often don’t seem to realize the value of effort, and “growth” means the students who are determined to progress.


“Teachers shouldn’t give up when they encounter fixed mindsets, because often they can create a classroom environment that can change that mindset,” said Armstrong.

To understand the basics of student mindsets and learning, Armstrong explained that most of a student’s initial ability to learn in class begins with stress levels and the kinds of stress placed on the brain.

What inhibits learning, according to Armstrong, is usually stress, fear of failure, and anxiety—all symptoms of “perceived threat.”

Under a perceived threat, the brain loses its ability to recognize subtle clues from the environment, reverts to the familiar “tried-and-true” behaviors, is less able to perform higher order thinking skills, and tends to over-react to stimuli in an almost “phobic” way.

“The amygdala plays a major role in instinctive emotional reactions and takes precedence over thoughtful reflection,” she explained. “It matures before the frontal lobes and results in adolescents responding with gut reaction rather than reason, which may account for impulsive and risky behavior.”

With a mature amygdala, emotions often run high for students, which can cause an adverse reaction thanks to cortisol, or glucocorticoids—a class of steroid hormones secreted from the adrenal glands during stress.

According to research from Robert Sapolsky, professor of Biological Sciences, and Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University, sustained stress can damage the hippocampus—the part of the brain that is central to learning and memory—due to too much cortisol. By damaging the hippocampus, the brain can be prevented from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories.

“During perceived threats, the adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin,” said Armstrong. “If the threat is severe or still persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals release cortisol. Once in the brain, the cortisol remains much longer than adrenalin, where it continues to affect brain cells.”

However, there is also “good” stress that can promote not only learning, but general health.

Ohio State University researchers found that stress from engaging in a memory task activated the immune systems, whereas stress from passively watching a violent video weakened immunity.

“Results suggest that deadlines and challenges, even if annoying in the short term, could be a good thing that helps strengthen the body’s defenses,” Armstrong noted. “Appropriate stress releases norepinephrine, one of the principal excitatory neurotransmitters, which is needed to create new memories; it improves mood and problems feel like challenges, which encourages creative thinking that stimulates the brain to grow new connections within itself.”

Armstrong described how it’s this type of good stress that acts as a stimulus to the brain, and it’s through stimulus that the brain creates new neural pathways—pathways critical to learning.

(Next page: Stimulus and minimizing bad stress)

"(Required)" indicates required fields