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The Neuroscience of Learning

The Neuroscience of Learning

By Shankar Rao

A student’s brain in school goes through a series of transformations. The evolution of cognitive abilities is primarily driven by activity that is happening in the classroom—first developing the ability to identify letters or numbers and then learning how to interpret those symbols in written words or math.

That transformation comes about due to new connections being made and strengthened in the brain. Learning is an active process and personalizing the journey expedites the development of neural pathways.

Personalized Learning

To personalize the learning experience for different learners, it is imperative to understand how educational experiences are driving changes in the brain.

The neural network or the wiring diagram of the brain is unique in each person and changes with experiences. There is a profound relationship between the way a person’s brain is organized and how well that person masters abstract intellectual skills.

Thrively’s strength-based, learner-centered approach with its comprehensive suite of assessments enables educators to meet learners where they are in their learning continuum—providing a great platform to start their respective journeys.

Embrace the Challenge

If you think you just don’t have the brain for certain skills, you’re not only deceiving yourself, you’re undermining your ability to learn—whether it’s math, basketball, or playing the saxophone.

Every year, students start school excited about what they’re going to learn, but when they see somebody who seems to be quicker or better at learning, they start doubting themselves.

Students often remember their teachers and parents telling them that only reason they haven’t gone into pathways they wanted to pursue is because they thought they weren’t good enough. Thrively’s approach is asset-based rather than deficit-based and dispels the myths that hold these learners back.

Celebrate Learning. Why?

Young learners and adults often struggle when they’re learning a new skill, which can feel excruciatingly painful. The reality is, if you aren’t struggling, you aren’t really learning. When we’re struggling and making mistakes, those are the very best times for our brains.

When next-generation educators hear students say, “This is so hard,” they should be elated. “That is absolutely fantastic! you are now pushing your brain to do things that are difficult.”

Just like our muscles, the brain also needs challenges or “desirable difficulties.” Embrace struggle. It’s emancipating! It changes how we go about our work. We’re more persistent. We interact with each other differently.

If you live just a single day with this perspective, you’ll feel it—particularly if things go wrong. It changes those moments pretty significantly.

Praising learners to be “smart” can actually be harmful. Is that true?

Why do we need this binary thinking about people being smart or not? Everyone’s on a growth journey. There is no cutoff where one person becomes “gifted” or “smart” and another is not. We were all born with the same amount of neurons.

Most parents and educators make it a point to tell young learners that they are smart. When they make their first mistake, it deflates them and they resign to “hmm, I’m not that smart after all.” What did we achieve? We promoted a culture that did not elevate a strengths-based, learner-centered mindset with the understanding that intelligence can be developed.

Thrively challenges the notion that success is about working with your strengths and giving up on your weaknesses. There are no weaknesses. Period! There are only relative strengths.

Learners today buy into the myth that they do not possess certain strengths because it was drilled into them that they couldn’t. We as educators and parents have to let go of the idea that kids at a certain place are just where they’re going to be.

Rewarding resilience, persistence, and tenacity develops hunger for learning and develops cognition. Learners become unafraid of making mistakes—an important step in their learning journey.

How can parents and teachers help students become more receptive to learning?

Using words that promote a strengths-based, learner-centered culture promotes a mindset of curiosity and discovery. Students start recognizing that intelligence can be developed.

You don’t have to be the expert in the room. You don’t have to pretend to know things you don’t.

There’s a whole host of research that has provided evidence that small changes and interventions can change the way our brain functions. However, the success of the intervention rests upon two central factors:

  1. A different form of Professional Development (PD) served to eradicate the learning myths that have stymied teachers and school administrators; and
  2. Teachers have space for developing strengths-based, learner-centered curriculum in the classrooms to develop learners for life.

Let’s change our mindsets and boost the confidence of our learners.

Knowing Ourselves and Knowing Our Students

Knowing Ourselves and Knowing Our Students

By Jeanette Simenson


Think back to when you were a child. Did you have a diary, an art notebook, something that you could doodle in to help you think, calm down, or just have some time to yourself?

There is power in creating space for yourself to do what is necessary to really find out who you are and how you react to situations.

I have seen my own children be so proud of the work they do in their art notebooks and their diaries. When they have come up with a new idea, art work, or writing piece, they share it with the people around them. They share their strengths and aspirations through these authentic reflections.


Now, think back to a moment in time when you were challenged. What helped you focus your thoughts and emotions?

Maybe you read, binge watched shows, created artwork, or wrote your thoughts. All of these activities can calm the mind and help you focus on the challenge at hand.

In fact, when people reflect back on their experiences, they are better able to take a step back from the emotions and consider alternative solutions or perspectives.

When we share our reflections and perspectives with others, whether it be through writing or speaking, we expand their experiences and create opportunities to get “feed-forward”—the process of sharing your solutions or experiences with others and allowing them to give you their perspectives and questions to help you move forward.

Critical Friend

Imagine if you have a critical friend who could read your journals or listen to your thoughts while continuing the process of feed forward with you on a regular basis.

Not only does this allow you to put into words what you are thinking and feeling, but you are able to take a step back and perceive the words at a later date when you are not feeling so emotionally charged.

Then, your critical friend can also provide support and encouragement. This makes the relationship even stronger.

Research says that when students experience a sense of belonging to their school and have supportive relationships with other students and teachers, they are motivated to achieve academic success, and exhibit higher levels of social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment.

Strong Relationships

How can we create strong relationships with students when we have so much to do and we teach 150 students in a typical middle or high school classroom?

One way can be with journaling and feed forward.

When students are given the opportunity to write how they feel about situations and challenges, they can receive critical support from their teachers through their journals. They will build strong relationships with educators that in turn will support their academic success and motivation.

Journaling can be done through writing, audio, and video in the Thirvely reflections that are in the Lessons and Playlists as well as in the Projects.

Take time out of each day or week to create a space for journaling and reflecting. It may even turn out to be the best part of each day for both you and your students.

Human Potential is Limitless

Human Potential is Limitless. We know this to be true. We know it because we feel a surge of adrenaline that covers our bodies in goosebumps when watching humans attempt the seemingly impossible. We root for the underdog because we know what it feels like to be a David up against a Goliath, and, when we prevail, we get a nice ride along the dopamine superhighway–and it feels good. What if you never felt those goosebumps or that dopamine surge? What if it were easier to wear off the jagged edges of high expectations for yourself and live safely? What if experience told you that it made more sense to hide than to proclaim: This is me! This is me, and I am trying! 

What fosters this sense of agency and positive learning identity that allows for such emphatic proclamations? At the core, it is the relationship that teachers have with their students. When students don’t just feel but have evidence of being known and valued they feel safe, and safety is the nutrient-rich soil from which all robust and healthy growth emerges. As with any relationship, interactions have to be rooted in true interest and concern and they have to be reciprocal–human being to human being, rather than keeper of knowledge to seeker of knowledge. 

Years ago, when I was a teacher in a Title 1 school in Los Angeles, my go-to strategy was Shared Inquiry. What I discovered was that my role wasn’t to guide my students to achieve a particular understanding of a text, but to grow their curiosity through my authentic curiosity about their perspective. I would encourage them to share where their ideas had come from and to say more, delve more deeply. With each inquiry, a student’s confidence would grow. It was magic, and it was so simple: All I had to do was make the time to ask. Not so easy though, right?

So much is expected of our educators today because we know so much more about everything from neuroscience to the long-term effects of trauma. Each child brings a range of experiences to the classroom. What can teachers do when they carry large rosters or serve students with wildly varying needs? Consider for a moment Dr. Edith Eger’s question: “How do you spell love?” It’s a four-letter word, she reminds us. Ready? “It’s spelled t-i-m-e,” she says. How do teachers find time in a day that requires so much of them? With the 1,500 decisions that teachers make a day, where do they find the time to authentically inquire, build meaningful relationships, and engender trust? 

Teachers, by the very nature of their work, have become models of efficiency. Watch your colleagues standing at the physical or virtual door, taking the time to look in each person’s eyes and welcome them. Teachers who use collaboration interfaces like Thrively might note how a group member brought a new idea to the team. “Something Miguel said yesterday inspired me to share this article with your group.” Or, “I was curious about an idea that Jazmine shared and I wanted to ask the group to explore that today.” These interactions only take a moment, but they are evidence of care, concern and genuine interest, which are all essential elements of trust. 

A culture of trust provides a solid foundation upon which all learning is built. Imagine a space where a student knows that she can be vulnerable, make wild hypotheses, color outside the lines figuratively and literally, push boundaries, feel those goosebumps that attend exploring the unknown, feel her pulse quicken, and get the dopamine surge that comes when her curiosity is encouraged. 

We can create a place of limitless possibility when we make the time ignite our own sense of wonderment and awe about the humans sitting right in front of us. What are their strengths, what are their dreams and aspirations, what makes them laugh, what makes them think? Everyone deserves to feel the excitement of discovery and who better to build that launch pad than a trusted teacher?

Jane Patterson – Senior Vice President, Customer Success, Thrively

I am a first-generation college graduate. Reared by self-educated intellectuals and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneurs, I have learned that intrinsic motivation is the key to personal fulfillment. What motivates us? What inspires us? What piques our curiosity? What moves us? I attribute my success in life to my mother and my 4th and 5th-grade teacher, Gene Howard. Mr. Howard knew that social-emotional growth underpinned current and future success. He encouraged me, saw the best in me, and was the person I could rely upon in turbulent times. Gene Howard would be proud—but not surprised—that a girl from challenging circumstances earned her undergraduate degree and doctorate from UCLA and joined Thrively to spread this message: Every child enters the world full of promise and brings their intrinsic strengths to the conversation. I join Thrively with gratitude and a clear vision of what is possible for our young people and for our collective future.