How can I unleash the power of the brain to optimise learning in the classroom?

Read this article by Farid Zaiter, which explores how we can use the power of the brain to enhance our students' learning.

Two learners in an Indian classroom comparing notes

It might sound peculiar to think that the inspiration for this research was a simple image of half a lemon, but that's precisely how my journey with neuroplasticity began. As I was planning one of my lessons, the image of half a lemon came up and triggered my mouth to flood with saliva. This led me to think of the incredible power of our brains, particularly their potential to produce chemicals for learning. If a mere image of a lemon can prompt such a physiological response to aid digestion, could the brain also produce certain chemicals to aid learning just by prompting it properly in different contexts?  

Delving into the mysteries of the brain became my passion, and I wanted to explore how I could use its full potential for improved learning, productivity and overall well-being. As I witnessed positive changes in my own life, I wondered if there were any benefits of applying some of the things I'd learned in my classes to optimise the learning experience for my learners. My experiments showed promising results, which encouraged me to share them with the wider teaching team.  

Our brains have the remarkable ability to adapt and rewire themselves, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine play a crucial role in mood regulation and motivation. So, how can we use these powers in the classroom?  

More practice, more connections 

The secret lies in not just acquiring knowledge but forging and maintaining new neural connections. Think of it as the brain's superpower; myelin, a brain cell membrane, makes it easier for learners to access the language they learn whenever they need to use it. Taking the time to understand new language individually, practise it in pairs, then move on to a new partner before sharing answers with the whole class are just some of many ways you could give the learners more practice of the target language to create more connections. Why not also try to get the learners to explain a part of the lesson to their classmates in their own words? The more different types of practice, the greater the number of connections and the better the retention of new learning. 

Visualisation and the element of surprise 

Now, imagine adopting a strategy used by successful athletes prior to them competing! Visualisation can be used in the classroom by getting the learners to picture themselves in a real-life context using the target language, before actually using it in class with their partners. Tell the learners to sit down quietly with their eyes closed, and walk them through some guided visualisation of being in a shopping centre in a country they would like to visit. Tell them to imagine walking into a clothes shop and asking the shop assistant for help to try on something they really like, asking for the price, etc. Try this mental exercise and witness the enhanced language productivity with more confidence that your learners will show in using the target language. 

Challenge your learners to use their non-dominant hand for certain activities and watch the magic happen. Not only does this improve their motor skills it also enhances whole-brain learning. Next time you think an activity is not challenging enough for the learners and it's too late to change it, introduce the unexpected twist of completing it with their non-dominant hand.  

In the world of rewards, dopamine takes the lead, but you should know it's really the element of surprise that stimulates the brain. Beware not to overindulge your students with hundreds of points for every correct answer. Instead, strategically introduce surprise rewards in your lesson to trigger that rush of neurotransmitters, creating an environment where every correct answer could become a surprise.  

Positive atmosphere in the classroom 

It's easier to create a positive atmosphere in the classroom than you might think. Give your learners a compliment on their improved pronunciation or for participating fully in a speaking activity and you will see a positive effect lasting throughout the lesson. Compliments are a powerful confidence booster, especially when they are genuine. Taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate the learners' efforts goes a long way in fostering their confidence.  

Using affirmative sentences for classroom rules instead of negative ones is another way of making these rules more effective. Learners are more likely to listen to what we want them to do and do the exact opposite of what we do not want them to do. A simple example is 'Speak English' instead of 'Do not speak Arabic!' Affirmative sentences have been proven to be a hundred times stronger than negative ones. So let's make use of these!  

Oftentimes, we underestimate our learners to only then be pleasantly surprised with how much they can achieve. The theory of the Pygmalion effect suggests that our perception or preconceived notion of someone can potentially influence their performance. Applying this to the context of the classroom, just believe in your learners and often they'll rise to the occasion. 

Introduce movement and music 

Engaging learners through movement adds a dynamic dimension to your lessons and keeps your learners’ brains active. Plan a mix of stirrers to energise and settlers to focus and allow learners to express themselves in diverse ways to keep their brains actively involved.  

In the same way, integrating calming elements, like playing some nice relaxing music in the background while learners are working or getting them to sit down and count down from ten with their eyes closed, can help put the brain in a relaxed alpha state, which is optimal for learning.  

Time to reflect 

At the end of my lessons, I always have a reflection stage. In the past, I would get my learners to write something like 'Today, I learned…'. I have now changed this to: 'Something I learned today that I am grateful for… and someone who helped me today that I'm grateful to…'. This simple change helped to foster gratitude and camaraderie. It enhanced learners' connection and co-operation, as well as allowing them to see how much progress they made in just one lesson.  

Having experimented with these ideas, I witnessed a remarkable shift in my learners' performance, motivation, participation and self-confidence in the classroom. Their active participation increased, and stress associated with mandated lessons decreased, reducing their affective filters and creating a more receptive learning environment.  

In conclusion, the journey of effective teaching isn't just about delivering lessons, it's about crafting experiences that shape minds and instil confidence. Unlocking the power of the brain in the classroom is an exciting journey filled with exploration and creativity. These strategies are not just theories, they are transformative tools waiting to be applied. Try them and witness the transformation in your learners' learning experience; after all, the brain is a powerful tool waiting to be unleashed!  


Farid Zaiter is a senior teacher at the British Council Teaching Centre in Bahrain, with over 15 years of experience in general, academic and business English teaching across the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout his career, Farid has catered to different age groups and levels. Possessing CELTA, DELTA and an MA, Farid is committed to innovative teaching methodologies. His recent research delves into neuroplasticity, exploring techniques to optimise English language learning by leveraging insights into the learners' brains. 

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