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Classroom Culture: It’s All in Your Head

The amount of brain research concerning education and learning has grown in the past couple of decades. It has reached a point where educators now have scientific support showing that creating a “classroom culture” boosts the brain’s functions.

Teachers who familiarize themselves with brain research on how students learn and respond to social interactions may be able to improve student behavior, which will allow those teachers to focus more on academics.

Using Culturally Responsive Teaching to Spur Student Engagement

Research reveals that cultural responsiveness can help students engage with the material they are learning. However, there is a misconception that cultural responsiveness must include elements related to race or skin color.

“The most common cultural tools for processing information utilize the brain’s memory systems — music, repetition, metaphor, recitation, physical manipulation of content, and ritual,” said Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, in “Making Connections: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.” “The teacher is ‘responsive’ when she is able to mirror these ways of learning in her instruction, using similar strategies to scaffold learning.”

Zaretta gives an example in which a science teacher struggles to help sixth grade students grasp and remember science vocabulary. Typically, students would receive word lists and look up the definitions. The teacher revised this process based on cultural tools that students would recognize. She changed the learning process to be more game-like and active. This re-engaged students who in turn increased the use of vocabulary during lessons.

In Cult of Pedagogy, Hammond offers three ways to make a lesson culturally responsive:

  • Gamify it. Turning lessons into games helps the brain pay attention, a critical step in learning.
  • Make it social. Encouraging students to rely on each other builds communal orientation.
  • Storify it. Converting a topic into a clear narrative aids the brain in making connections for better understanding.

Unfortunately, some school districts misunderstand what it means to be culturally responsive. Culturally responsive teaching requires teachers to build routines, processes and structures in their classroom.

Science has proven a connection between emotions, trust and learning. Stress from a lack of trust interferes with cognition. Culturally responsive teaching builds trust in teacher-student relationships.

How Happiness School Helped an Inner City School

Brain World shares the story of a Detroit school where more than 95 percent of the student population qualified for free lunch or lunch at a reduced price. The school implemented “Happiness School” culture, a brain-friendly way of teaching and interacting at school. The school’s faculty and staff were trained to implement a Happiness School culture in their classrooms.

A Happiness School culture consists of teachers smiling and having a positive attitude whenever possible. They greet students with a smile every morning and praise them often. Students were happier because they felt safe and loved. This had a positive effect on their brains, which increased their motivation to learn and improved their behavior.

“Research shows that the brain finds fairness to be intrinsically important. In fMRI brain imaging results, scientists find that when people judge a scenario to be fair, reward centers of the brain light up, just as when they see a loved one or taste good food,” writes Warrington S. Parker in Brain World. “Fair treatment may contribute to students feeling positive and feeling good about themselves, having a positive impact on self-esteem. A feeling of social unfairness, on the other hand, generates significant amygdala arousal — the brain’s ‘fear circuitry’ lights up when we experience disgust.”

In short, students’ brains are more open to learning when they are in a positive environment where they bond and connect with teachers. When basic social needs go unmet or students feel teachers do not treat them fairly, students may have feelings of hostility. These feelings close off the brain, which shuts down the willingness to learn.

How to Learn About Culturally Responsive Teaching

School and curriculum leaders can research culturally responsive teaching easily, as a wealth of resources is available. Edutopia has a playlist of seven videos on culturally responsive teaching. Some school districts offer professional development classes on the topic. Nonprofits like ASCD have educational resources that cover the brain and learning.

Some colleges and universities offer courses on the topic. For example, “Culture and Student Engagement” is a required course in Northwest Missouri State University’s online Master of Science in Education in Curriculum and Instruction program. The course includes an analysis of literature on brain research, classroom culture, student engagement, and student performance. Degree candidates who take this course will gain tools that aid in creating a positive classroom culture to increase student engagement and motivation.

Research shows the need for school leaders and staff to understand the effect classroom culture has on students’ brains and use it to spur engagement and motivation. Schools that apply current scientific research on the brain and learning will be rewarded with motivated students who make connections and retain more information.

Learn more about Northwest Missouri State University’s online MS Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction program.


Brain World: Happy Teachers Make Happy Students

Cult of Pedagogy: 3 Tips to Make Any Lesson More Culturally Responsive

Edutopia: Five-Minute Film Festival: Culturally Responsive Teaching

Edutopia: Making Connections: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

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