Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

Learning and the Brain: UPSHIFT! June 27, 2011

It is nearly the end of the school year for our district, with Wednesday being the last 1/2 day for students and we teachers working through Thursday. That being said, I am well into planning for the fall! I will be doing three days of workshops at the end of August I am calling “Math Camp”, with each day focused on a particular grade band.

As I have been preparing for these days, I have been compelled to add in a bit on learning and the brain. There is so much out there concerning that connection that one could do a whole day’s workshop on that topic, and indeed, there are those who present such workshops regularly.

While each day will be devoted to math, I will be tying in a small piece about the brain, in particular, about student engagement, because if there is no engagement, there can be no learning.

The Reticular Activating System or RAS is a densely packed bundle of nerve cells in the central core of the brain stem. Roughly the size of a little finger, it it said to contain about 70% of all the brain’s cells.

The RAS is the “attention” centre of the brain. It is the key to “turning on your brain” and is the centre of motivation. It acts like the brain’s “secretary” or “gatekeeper” monitoring what gets in. It allows only two kinds of information:
–Info that is deemed valuable right now
–Any alert to a threat or danger

Now, once any threat or danger has been perceived and the brain alerted, it sends chemicals into the bloodstream: adrenalin for an immediate response, and cortisol if the threat is ongoing. Both of these chemicals shut down the learning of the brain — they short-circuit the learning, as it were. There is an immediate DOWHSHIFT in the brain’s state, and as long as the downshift is in place, learning is blocked.

To re-engage the learning there must be an UP-SHIFT in the brain’s state, a reactivation of the RAS to something other than a threat or danger. There upshift is not immediate. It may take seconds or even minutes to move the brain back into a state for learning. But it is critical that it be done. In the down-shifted state no learning will take place!

So, what kinds of things can we do to help students up-shift, to
activate the RAS toward positive learning outcomes?
— Get kids moving — and tie learning to this movement
— Ask questions: “What if…?” or “What do you think about…?”
— Engage their curiosity
— Help them achieve a state of relaxed alertness (relaxed but up-shifted)
— Play Baroque music (dendrites dance to the music!)–Mozart’s is good, too!
— Give them choices
— Shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” — sounds silly, but it really works! “Woohoo!” works quite nicely, too! I tend to do that one quite often in math 🙂

Now, personally, I try to get all those suggestions in during a math class with the exception of the music. I only remember to play it sometimes. All the other ideas I put there are easily achieved during a problem solving lesson! — So that’s another great reason to give your students rich problems to “noodle” over 🙂

I talk to my students about the two brain states I described here. I have even made little posters (click here to download the pdf file) that I hang in the classroom to remind them that a down-shift hinders learning, but an up-shift allows the brain to engage in learning.

If you are stressed right now about anything, try letting out a good “Yes!” shout or a loud, “Woohoo!” and upshift your brain. Repeat as needed!!

Mathematically yours,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s