Neuroteach — Glenn Whitman

Amazon link

Neuroteach is a meticulously researched crash course in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE), a subject found at the intersections of ed- and neuroscience. The book makes accessible the latest research in the field and builds cumulatively upon concepts that reoccur throughout the book (a little too often). Aimed primarily at educators, this book was fascinating to me not only because education at-large is so important - and apparently not done well - but also because as I'm still a student, it's been illuminating to reflect on my own positive/negative experience as a recipient of both good/bad pedagogical practices. 

(included at the end: a list of best and worst pedagogical methods lifted straight from the book)

Key concepts:

  • sleep: sufficient amounts are crucial for memory consolidation

  • spaced active retrieval: spaced: reviewing material (related concept: spaced repetition); active: doing questions not reading passively which creates 'illusory fluency'

  • stress/emotion: activation of the amygdala interferes with the engagement of the prefrontal cortex, thereby impeding higher-order thinking, eliminate factors that may cause identity threat [1]

  • metacognition: one of the most effective learning strategies that involves getting students to reflect on how they will study, how well they studied... develops a student's 'metacognitive toolbox', which encourages them to become independent learners; teachers have an interesting parallel in curriculum understanding which involves asking themselves questions such as 'what are the essential representations of my subject', etc. and helps them in turn become better teachers

  • arousal and engagement: (Yerkes-Dodson Law), arousal is good to a certain point then becomes distracting

  • primacy-recency and attention: loading the most important material at the front and end of a lesson, and no more than 20 minutes of one activity at a time (especially lecturing)

  • feedback: should be scaffolded [2], and fast [3]

  • the physiology of the brain: the importance of understanding this as an educator so as to avoid (i) labelling students as 'lazy' or 'not smart', etc., (ii) to support encouragement of effort > 'talent' and development of a growth mindset [0]

    • by this, referring to: neuroplasticity, myelination, and the development timeline of the prefrontal cortex

Immediate tools / extra resources: 

  • Education Endowment Foundation's Teaching and Learning Toolkit link

  • Mind, Brain, and Education: The Student at the Center series,

  • Neuroscience and the Classroom, an online course from Annenberg Learner

  • Applying Science of Learning: Infusing PSychological Science in the Curriculum,

4 models of educational neuroscience

  1. Neuroscience and the Classroom link

  2. The Brain Targeted Teaching Model link

  3. All Kinds of Minds link

  4. Brain and Learning, NEA

The authors of Neuroteach, both being teachers at St. Andrews, have great ideas and plenty of experience - they also started a new journal called 'Thinking Differently and Deeply' centered on sharing MBE research with other educators. Perhaps deliberately, the book itself is structured according to the MBE principles: every chapter is short (attention), loaded at the beginning and end with the most important material (primacy-recency), and at the end of every chapter, a page is left empty with some questions that prompt the reader to actively (i.e. write) participate in metacognition: "what were the 3 most important things you learned in this chapter?"

Informed by neuroscience, the book illuminates key concepts relevant to educators, such as the process of myelination, wherein neurons that have fired frequently become increasingly encased in myelin, which speeds up the process of future signal transfer. Concepts that stem from this physiological phenomenon include: (i) 'use it or lose it', (ii) mindset (growth vs. fixed, covered to death in 'Mindset' by Carol Dweck, here),  and (iii) the general principle of neuroplasticity, i.e. that your brain is still undergoing change (even for adults), stems from this. 

<< This topic is covered in more detail in the specific context of technology in Carr's 'The Shallows', notes here) >>

The distinct, interfering functions of the amygdala (fight or flight) versus prefrontal cortex (higher-order thinking and executive functioning (EF) such as self-control) are also highlighted. It's noted that developing these EF skills are important in helping children's brains in managing cortisol levels, and are inversely related to poverty and stress, i.e. chronic levels of high cortisol: paper: "Stress and the Development of Self-Regulation in Context".

One of my most favorite phrases in this book was "getting to yet", a play on the 'getting to use' mentality salesmen use, except applied to mindsets, students and educators. In the book, a few methods to encourage growth mindset development are included: (1) watching TED talks from Dweck/Duckworth, (2) showing how brain changes under 'effortful learning', AKA active studying techniques... I'd be interested in others and efficacy studies

A reference to Tony Wagner's 'Seven Survival Skills' for staying relevant in the 21st century was new to me, but certainly worth reflecting upon when criticizing the shortcomings of the current educational system (i.e. excess standardization as a product of Taylorization and an out-dated school-factory model, covered in Todd Rose's The End of Average, notes here).

The chapter on homework was interesting:

In elementary school, "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement ... hovered around zero." [4]

In secondary school, causation between homework and achievement has still not been satisfactorily shown, though correlation is much easier to come by. Confounding variables abound such as parental investment. "It is certainly the case that schools whose pupils do homework tend to perform well, but it is less clear that the homework is the reason why they are successful"

What is the opportunity cost of homework? Relationships are important in learning, and when homework dominates, a student's perception of studying shifts away from the classroom to homework, from a place where relationships are central to learning to one where they are not.

Finally, in their concluding chapter, the authors brainstorm a proposal for a hierarchical MBE educator structure with certified levels 1-4 for both educators and researchers. It's certainly more 'practical' than most theory gets... would love to see an implementation!


  • technology should not be taught as the end itself, but a means to an end (engaging higher-order thinking)

  • 1% of continuing professional development delivered to teachers was high quality acoording to a review by the Teacher Development Trust

  • not only is there little collaboration between neuroscientists and educators, educators themselves don't share too much with other and certainly underutilize their primary resource: the data each and every teacher holds with regards to their experience

Footnotes + selected materials

[0] why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? a social cognitive neuroscience model (2006), paper

[1] identity, belonging, and achievement: a model (2008), paper

[2] scaffolding feedback to maximize long-term error correction (2010), paper

[3] motivation by anticipation: expecting rapid feedback enhances performance (2010), paper

[4] the battle over homework: common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents (2006), book

[5] teaching adolescents to become learners: the role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: a critical literature review (2012), which studied 5 noncognitive skills:

  1. academic behavior: attending class

  2. academic perseverance: grit

  3. social skills: cooperation, empathy

  4. learning strategies: metacognition, goal setting, self-regulation

  5. academic mindsets, primarily four: (i) sense of belonging (ii) growth mindset (iii) self-efficacy (iv) expectance-value theory)

+ judy willis, how to teach students about the brain, 2009, article

+ mariale hardiman, the brain-targeted teaching model for 21st century schools (2012), book

The Authors' Favorite Authors

Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Kurt Fischer, Howard Gardner, Jay Giedd, John Hattie, Christina Hinton, Mary Ellen Immordino-Yang, Paul Howard Jones, ERic Kandel, Mark McDaniel, Michael Posner, Todd Rose, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Daniel Willingham, Judy Willis

Worst pedagogical methods

  1. pop quizzes for a grade

  2. starting a class by going over a homework

  3. ending a class by teaching all the way to the bell

  4. teaching students to use passive studying techniques

  5. defining students by an individual style

  6. varying the modality of teaching to suit these perceived individual styles

  7. applying labels to students such as "lazy" or "smart"

  8. believing students have a fixed level of ability

  9. content delivery dominated by lecturing

  10. assessment dominated by tests

  11. always being the sage on the stage and never the guide on the side

  12. praising achievement rather than effort

  13. not recognizing the connections between emotion, identity, and health in learning

Top 12 research informed pedagogical methods

  1. class periods should be designed with the understanding that students recall most what happens in the beginning and recall second best what happens in the closing minutes

  2. utilize frequent, formative, low-stakes assessments of learning

  3. provide more opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and performance

  4. teach that self-testing >> reading one's notes

  5. teach that sleep is critical to memory consolidation

  6. teach that "effort matters most"

  7. provide more opportunities for choice in their learning

  8. teach students learn to recognize the impact of stress, fear, and fatigue on their higher-order thinking and memory parts

  9. more opportunities to transfer knowledge through visual and performing arts

  10. varied modality of teaching and assessment based on content and time of day

  11. teach students to understand the anatomy of their brain and the role the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus play in their learning

  12. provide more opportunities to play