Three simple and surprising ways the neuroscience of communication impacts your classroom | Liza Garonzik | 4 Min Read

February 28, 2023

Part of great teaching is developing and testing hypotheses as to why some things work for your students—and others, sometimes the most beautifully designed lesson plans—just don’t. Day in and day out, teachers make observations and run little experiments to figure out what engages, challenges, and delights students.

When it comes to class discussions, understanding recent findings from neuroscience about the ways in which Gen-Z is similar and different from previous generations of students can help teachers design lessons to effectively engage and empower today’s kids in conversation. This is information that marketers use daily—and that teachers need, too! 

Call it brain-targeted teaching; science of learning; learning and the brain; or neuro-teaching…but here are three phenomena teachers may have observed in class and the (simplified!) brain science behind each.

Phenomenon #1: “Students love when I tell a story!” True—and it’s not just because they think they’ve gotten you “off-track.” Study after study—including Paul Armstrong’s recent and beautifully accessible book—has shown that there is neuroscience behind the power of narrative. When someone listens to a story, their neurons fire to “mirror” those of the storyteller, e.g. if the narrator is going into excruciating detail about a sad experience, the listener’s brain may activate “sadness” emotions (a phenomenon called “neural coupling” or “neural mirroring”). This is, of course, the foundation of what colloquially we call empathy—the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. Stories also direct attention, they “hook” a listener and create a context for the listener to integrate each new piece of information (a phenomenon called “coherence”). TED Talks are perhaps the ultimate example of this; they are structured to maximize coherence! Corporate leaders have long been trained in the power of narrative as a leadership tool—but it’s a great piece of intel for teachers to know and to share with students, too. Stories work—science shows it. 

Phenomenon #2: My students have the attention span of a mosquito!” False. It’s longer than a mosquito—but you’re right that it’s short: more like a goldfish. The Gen-Z students in your classroom have an average attention span of eight seconds, which means that in order to focus on whatever task you assign, their brains re-direct attention roughly eight times a minute. This takes cognitive stamina, for lack of a better term, and is a relatively new challenge in learning. When it comes to content delivery, “engagement solutions” abound: use more short-form videos, gamify everything, etc. However, those solutions don’t work in a discussion, where a critical goal is relationship building and fostering human connection around ideas. When it comes to discussion, attention is critical because, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, attention is the purest form of generosity. Attention is the gateway to listening and making others feel heard—and that can’t be gamified. In my own teaching practice, I found that naming this challenge for students was useful—they are quick to describe how hard it is to listen in their lives that feel like that TS Eliot line of “distracted from distraction by distraction”—and generally amenable to strategies for improving their focus. One concrete strategy for helping students pay attention long and well enough to listen to each other in conversation is to provide visual cues that offer a teleology—like a note-taking guide that they need to complete top to bottom during a conversation. Even better? End the day by asking students to “shout out” each other for great contributions—because then they don’t just pay attention for the sake of it, they see how powerful it is to make someone else feel heard! 

Phenomenon #3: My students don’t really look meor each otherin the eye…!” This is a tricky one, both because of the cultural nuances of eye contact (in some cultures, eye contact is a form of respect; in others, it is considered aggressive or disrespectful) and the reality that on video-based communication—where Gen-Z students spend hours and hours a day—true eye contact is not actually possible. That said, “pupillary synchrony”—the idea that in conversation partners’ pupils mirror each other and the level of covariance is correlated to the connection they feel throughout the conversation—is well-established in the research; and, of particular interest to classroom teachers might be that it is most powerful at moments of conversational “turns” (when one person stops speaking, and someone else starts). So, I think that when it comes to teachers expecting students to make eye contact—this can be a great place to start. You can name that eye contact feels awkward, but science shows it builds deeper relationships especially during “turn-taking” in conversation. Otherwise, you might suggest non-verbal cues like turning your body towards the speaker or nodding to show agreement and connection. Explaining this science to students—even in a cursory way—helps them understand why you are asking them to do it!

The Bottom Line:

Understanding the science behind communication trends—like why narratives are so compelling, how long attention spans actually are, and why sustained eye contact is rapidly becoming a thing of the past—can help teachers design discussions that will meet Gen-Z students where they are. It can be tempting to mock or complain about these trends, but as it is so often said: knowledge is power—and great teachers will use this knowledge to design engaging conversational experiences for the Gen-Z kids in their classroom.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.

Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!

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