Sunday, 19 July 2015

Learning with the brain in mind

This post is a nod to my friend and mentor Karen Boyes who I remember talking about the comfort and learning zones at a conference a long time ago... I loved the concept and intend to share this with our class this term as we continue to learn about our brilliant brains. 

I recently shared a post about considering the brain with behaviour management and shared some tools I have used to help explain the brain to the children I have worked with. Using Glenn Capelli's magic brain model to help describe behaviour has been effective and so using the same model I intend to focus on learning with the brain in mind (see below)... it could be said we are able to learn our best when we are in the Learning Zone which in the model below is in the blue thinking room.  

Here is a little reminder of Glenn's Magic Brain model: 
  1. The blue thinking room- where we have heaps of choices and this is where heaps of our learning happens 
  2. The glitter room of emotions (Glenn talks about this being the multicoloured room)- this is where our feelings are and when we are feeling big emotions or lots of emotions it can get pretty messy in here which makes it hard to the get to the door for the thinking room so we need to calm the glitter down 
  3. The red room of limited choices- often when we are afraid or angry we end up in the red room where we really only have 2-3 choices... fight, flight or freeze,  when the brain stem is engaged then the cerebral cortex is offline
One way to define a concept is by defining what it isn't so to explore what a Learning zone looks like I'll first establish what it isn't by looking at two extremes of a continuum... the Comfort zone and the Danger zone and what some internal dialogue relating to this might be.  

Comfort Zone
Danger Zone
This is easy
I don’t even need to think about it
I am so good at this
This is probably going to kill me!!!

So the Learning zone sits in the middle of these two extremes but it isn't there alone... the Fear zone is also there  so our continuum now looks a little like this... 

Comfort Zone
Learning Zone

Danger Zone

Fear Zone

When we are faced with a learning challenge, depending on our personal expectations, self talk and prior experience among other things, we will either enter the Learning zone or the Fear zone. 
Below is some internal (and even external) dialogue learners might have when they are in the Learning and Fear zones. 

Learning Zone
Fear Zone
This is challenging
(the brain loves challenge!)
This is too hard
This might be fun
This is stupid
I can’t do this, yet
I can’t do this
Mistakes are part of learning
Mistakes are bad
Oops, I got that wrong this time
Getting things wrong is bad
I don’t know this, yet
I don’t know this
This reminds me of something else that I know
This doesn’t relate to anything I know at all
Asking for help is part of learning
Asking for help means that I am stupid or dumb
I am a learner
I am a failure

The Learning zone lets us into the blue thinking room of the brain whereas the Fear zone takes us through the glitter room of emotions and sometimes into the red room of limited choices. 

If our learners go into the Fear zone when presented with something new then the chances of them getting as much out of it as they could is really limited... unless we can help them to identify what is happening in their brain at the time and find ways to access the blue thinking room. Please note: I am not suggesting we try to remove emotions from learning at all, in fact emotions are powerfully useful in learning just not so much when they stay all shaken up and are keeping the door to the blue room closed, so we need to find ways to keep that door open. 

So how can we help move into the Learning zone if we find ourselves in the Fear zone? Well this is one of the questions we'll be discussing in our class at some stage but in the meantime here are a couple of suggestions that I can offer: 
  • Think about another time when you learned something and it was really hard and then it got easier... often learning something new is hard at the start and that's normal.  
  • Relate to children learning to walk... they don't try once, fall over and then based on that experience decide that clearly walking isn't for them! They try and try and try again, persistence is a key to learning. Making mistakes, getting things wrong, falling over is part of learning. 
  • Remind yourself that it is OK to make mistakes... as a teacher you have the ability to support this mental framework so how do you make sure your learners know mistakes are OK? 
  • YET is a powerful word, it supports developing a growth mindset. 'I can't do this yet' is empowering where just stating 'I can't do this' is limiting. 
  • Remind ourselves that the brain LOVES challenges. Challenges help to form new connections and keep things interesting for the brain. 
  • There are strategies we can use to help make learning new things easier, here are a couple: 1. scaffolding- by relating the new material to something else we have done or learned in the past; 2. break it down- see if you can break the new learning down into it's parts so we are learning one smaller thing at a time rather than something absolutely ENORMOUS!  
  • Stop, Breathe, Think, Do works here too... when we hear ourselves saying that we are dumb or stupid or can't do this then that is a sign we need to STOP (have a break) and breathe. Then think about what we can do: perhaps ask for clarification or help if we need it; or have another go; or try a new strategy.

This work is designed to help make brain science accessible to our learners and I hope that as we work together the children will develop it further in ways that I can't predict, and that they will become more curious about their own amazing brains. For me the more I learn about this, the more I want to know and greater my appreciation for the magnificence of the human brain and our potential becomes. 

This is about empowerment of the learner, supporting them to better know themselves so they can unlock the potential within and shine which I figure is a big part of our role as parents, caregivers, teachers, school administrators, educationalists. I do appreciate your feedback and suggestions as I continue to build on these concepts with our children and hope that something in here might be useful for others as well. 

Some links that you may find interesting: 
From this blog: 
Supporting at risk students- reflecting on teaching practices to support students
Why we need mindfulness in our schools- a few thoughts about mindfulness in the classroom

Karen Boyes: 
Effort vs Accomplishment - a summary around fixed and growth mindsets
Everything is hard before it is easy- looking at this aspect of being in the learning zone 

Brene Brown: 
The power of vulnerability- exploring the feeling of vulnerability and seeing the powerful and positive that can be found in it (great for our own learning and development) 


  1. I was going to use the video you had on your previous post where students describe about anger and the gliitter jar. Can you please repost the link

    1. Hi there Sandi... here is the link to the glitter jar clip: and the blog post that I included it in is this: Hope that is what you needed :) Have a great week

    2. Hi there Sandi... here is the link to the glitter jar clip: and the blog post that I included it in is this: Hope that is what you needed :) Have a great week