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,…

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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!