How to teach… the brain

Why do you always remember how to ride a bike? Is a brain really more powerful than a computer? Here’s our guide to teaching all things cerebral in class

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If you missed the great dress debate of 2015 you were probably living under a rock. Staffrooms across the globe threatened to come to a standstill as teachers addressed the all-important question – was the dress white and gold or blue and black?

This is just one example of how our brains interpret things differently. So, with the 20th anniversary of Brain Awareness Week from 16 to 22 March, this week we bring you a collection of ideas and resources to get students’ synapses firing.

The brain is one of our most interesting organs, and advances in technology and medicine mean we now know more about it than ever before. Brain Awareness Week is a global campaign to raise awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. The organisers, the Dana Foundation, have put together an assortment of teaching materials for primary and secondary students.

For children aged five to nine, the Mindboggling Workbook is a good place to start. It includes information on how the brain works, what it does and how to take care of it. There’s also a section on the nervous system, which you could turn into a fun group activity. Ask one student to lie down on a large sheet of paper while others trace around them. Add a drawing of the brain and the spinal cord. Use different coloured crayons to illustrate how neurons send messages around your body when you a) touch something hot, b) get stung on the leg by a wasp, and c) wriggle your toes after stepping in sand. Can students explain why the brain is described as being more powerful than a computer?

Follow up pupils’ learning with this reading comprehension activity about the brain by PrimaryLeap. Use it as a homework exercise, or challenge students, working in pairs, to mark the keywords with highlighter pens. Use these to create a brain-themed wordsearch or crossword. Alternatively, you could send your class on a fact-finding mission with this worksheet by Seeme Resources.

For students aged 11 to 14, It’s Mindboggling is a workbook of information about the brain. It’s set out in a fun format including games, riddles and puzzles. Based on what they have learned about the brain, can students explain why, in a noisy dinner hall and despite an overload of signals to your brain, you can still hear your name in a conversation (not directed at you) across the room?

Inside the Brain, an edition of the Wellcome Trust’s Big Picture magazine, looks at how imaging research has changed the way we study the human brain. There are lots of interesting related resources here. The magazine also examines some myths about the brain. For example, “A bigger brain is a cleverer brain” and “We only use 10% of our brains”. Assign groups a myth to research. Where did it come from, how has it been challenged, and what do neuroscientists currently believe? Students could present their work in the style of a televised debate.

More Mindbogglers is a key stage 4 resource that covers topics including learning and memory, the senses, drug addiction and how the brain and nervous system work. Using the booklet, ask groups to research the following questions: What are some of your most vivid memories and why do you remember them? Why is it that you never forget how to ride a bike once you’ve learned? Groups can use their learning to create a large, labelled diagram of the brain.

Students thinking about a career in neuroscience will be interested in a pamphlet which answers questions about brain research. It explores how research is advancing our understanding of the brain and explains the brain’s influence on the function of other body systems. As an extension activity, assign groups a brain disease or disorder to research then report back to the class. Students can also follow the latest advances in neuroscience here.

Other useful careers information can be found in this guide from the British Neuroscience Association. It covers basic neuroanatomy, undergraduate and postgraduate entry into neuroscience and possible career paths, as well as case studies from a range of neuroscientists. Using figures from the guide, ask students to create an infographic showing why brain research is so important.

Some of the most recent and significant breakthroughs in neuroscience are covered in Brain Facts: A primer on the brain and nervous system. Created by the Society for Neuroscience and aimed at secondary students, you will find a wealth of useful support materials including videos here.

For more ideas, see this Guardian article on how to use brain science to engage students and this How to teach article on mindfulness. We also have an edition of the Big Picture on thinking.

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