Educational Neuroscience: Episode 1 in a short series… USE YOUR BRAIN

By Nigel Armitstead

Read time: 9 mins

A craftsman turns up not only with a set of tools neatly organised in a toolkit, but also an understanding of how they work best and sometimes even some personal modifications of the equipment to get a ‘just so’ utility out of it.

The toolkit for learning is the brain. Sometimes we say, ‘use your brain’ in the form of a frustrated exhortation to think in what seems to us the obvious way. We want students to use their brains, despite the apparent reluctance of many: brain work does after all require a lot of energy. It follows that we should know the equipment in their toolkit and help them to understand how it works best; even possibly encourage efforts to get a ‘just so’ bespoke element to their thinking.

Early theories of intellectual development arose from scientific observation, but not from awareness of the brain and its organic tools. Indeed Jean Piaget drew his fundamental insights regarding child intellectual development from his own childhood studies of an entirely different kind of creature. Without Googling can you say what it was?

Meanwhile I propose that it might be fruitful to re-establish our understanding of the nature and maturation of human thinking and learning by connecting up with the growing understanding of how the brain works. But, we should do this little by little, since it is complex and full of jargon. To start us off, here is a quick guide to the brain, and a particular part of it, followed by some fairly basic ideas that might have classroom use…

Quick Guide to the Brain

The cortex of the brain is a jelly-like mass of billions of connected up neurons (brain cells) all scrunched up and wrapped around the more basic parts of the brain. Following a universal genetic code (providing there is no unfortunate mutation) the building of a brain delivers, at birth, essentially the same thing for all of us.


In the picture above you are looking at the left hemisphere of your brain. The right hemisphere is over the other side, and matches it. They are both connected up with the more basic parts of the brain in the middle, and also have a thick band of electric fibres which make a direct connection. Both hemispheres are organised into four lobes, which are the coloured areas you can see above. The one we are concerned with for the present is called the frontal lobe and is the largest, coloured blue above. The frontal lobe is associated with all our thinking and reasoning.


This is the best view of the prefrontal cortex that I could find which has usage rights. Thank you to the originators, who I presume are French. It shows in the darker blue area the dorsal (upper) lateral (to the side) part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Collectively this is the ‘dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex’ (DLPFC). It would be the same if you were looking at the right hemisphere.

The DLPFC is hugely important to learning. In various ways, more complex than we want to trouble with as yet, it works with other parts of the prefrontal cortex to balance conflicting ideas and information. The evidence suggests that it has a bias towards conserving existing ideas, especially those which are concrete and visible. However, as its systems mature it develops the ability to use conflicting information fruitfully: to deepen the understanding and reconstruct naïve views. In other words, it is a core brain resource for reasoning. Have a good look at the diagram above: get to know and love your DLPFC!

How we as teachers can apply this knowledge in the classroom setting:

1] Causal Reasoning.

When we recognise that two things appear to go ‘hand in hand’ then we naturally seek to find a causal explanation. However life is a messy thing, and sometimes the possibility of a causal relation is buried in a noise of information. Enter the DLPFC to help us sort it out.

Some classroom exercises to stimulate this might include…

· In English suggest that a character in a novel is generally regarded as mean (or some relevant quality) and set up an evidence based debate.

· In history suggest Guy Fawkes (or another historical figure) was an evil man, and ask the class what evidence supports that view. Then ask if he might actually have been a noble believer in something he was willing to die for.

· In ICT, can artificial intelligence (AI) ever achieve the status of a sentient being. If it does, what are the dangers for us humans that we might want to ponder before we create AI?

Be creative, and alert for opportunities! With this, and also the ideas below, please give us feedback and pointers for other readers.

2] Deductive Reasoning

This is the kind of reasoning where one says, ‘if this is true then it follows that…’ in order to derive from an existing rule about things a new one which may also be helpful. The DLPFC is sensitive to quality of fit between standing rules and their logical extension.

Some classroom exercises to stimulate this might include…

· In maths, deducing the rule that governs a sequence of numbers.

· In geography, deducing the former presence of glaciers from the physical evidence.

· In science, deducing a hypothesis from a general theory, and checking it.

3] Analogical Reasoning


Analogies are an important part of explaining things, and an excellent thinking tool. An analogy might ask the question: ‘Speaking is to singing as walking is to what?’ Once again there is a subtle issue of sameness and difference to balance, and thus the DLPFC is involved, along with other areas of the prefrontal cortex. Within the classroom we can use analogies as part of explanation, and then ask the class to unpick the nature of the analogy and make sure they have been able to transfer the right ideas from the source concept to the target concept. Some examples…

· ‘Life is like a box of chocolates!’ How is that true?

· How are the causes of the French revolution like dry wood to a fire?

· Sawing wood should be like cutting a slice of bread.

A few final points…

In general, challenge students with counter evidence to what seems obvious, and get them sifting through ideas to achieve balanced rather than one sided views. Point at your own DLPFC whenever you say ‘use your brain’.


And finally, it was molluscs that Piaget studied as a lad, observing the ways in which they had adapted themselves to different lake micro-environments. He considered that every child lived in their own experience micro-environment; each a scientist building their intellect from conceptual adaptations

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Learnus, a community of academics and professionals working to embed neuroscience research in the evolution of teaching. Specifically the article above was informed by Mareschal, Butterworth and Tolmie (Ed.): ‘Educational Neuroscience’ – a Wiley Blackwell publication (2013).

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