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Getting Everyone on the Same Page: How YOUR Classroom Can Experience “Brain Synchronicity”

Have you ever had a class where, for whatever reason, you and the class didn’t feel connected like you’ve experienced before? Or perhaps you’ve taught at a school where the leadership and staff were not in sync? It’s not pleasant.

What if you could intentionally create that “in-sync” experience with your class or staff? And what if you knew how to use it to improve student behavior, attitude, and learning? Things could be a lot better. Ever heard, “We gotta get everyone on the same page”? It’s possible and we’ll show you how!

The Research

One of the main complaints about neuroscience research is that it is too far from reality, out of touch, or just not very practical for educators. Actually, some of it is both useful and relevant to you. This month we’ll explore what it means to be sync-ed up in our classrooms and all the benefits that come with it.

With this information on brain synchronicity, your class can become more like a “family” faster. You can increase student focus and engagement. In addition, you can minimize (or possibly erase) discipline issues dramatically.

How we’ve come to this new knowledge is through breakthroughs in neuroscience. Let’s begin with questions. What does “brain-synching” actually mean? And, how does our brain actually do the “synching”?

Here is a simplified explanation of brain syncing: in certain conditions, our brains begin to look and behave similarly to the people around us. 

This fascinating science of brain synchronicity involves several neural systems including the mirror neuron system, the prefrontal cortex, andthe mentalizing system.

Your “mirror neurons” are highly involved in syncing behaviors. These brain cells can activate when you perform a task AND when you observe (or hear or feel) a task being performed by someone else that you may be interested in doing yourself (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). Mirror neurons are likely the basis for imitation learning, contagious yawning, social learning, mob behaviors, copycat crimes, and why kids pick up on teacher’s emotions. Mirror neurons are present throughout the brain’s motor system, premotor cortices, and the parietal cortex.

Second, the brain region where syncing is actually happening is the pre-frontal cortex, a region highly involved in learning (Scholkmann, Holper, Wolf, & Wolf, 2013). The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for planning, integrating information, regulation, and other high cognitive functions appealing to educators. Other areas play a part, too.

The “mentalizing system” is highly involved in cognitive tasks such as self-referencing and understanding the intentions of others (Sperduti, Guionnet, Fossati, & Nadel, 2014).

These three systems are working together to create synchronicity between your brain and the brains of your students (Holper, Goldin, Shalóm, Battro, Wolf, & Sigman, 2013).

This synchronicity is enhanced when a strong social connection exists between teacher and student (Bevilacqua et al., 2019) or vice-versa.

When students feel engaged with the material or connected to each other, their brains sync up (Dikker et al., 2017). Even more so, students who spend time connecting socially outside of class demonstrate greater brain synchrony during class.

How on Earth Does it Happen? 

One of the new technologies that is putting educational neuroscience findings into overdrive is the discovery of hyperscanning. Now, researchers can concurrently (in real time) map brain activation from two or more people who are engaged in some form of social interaction. While wearing what essentially looks like a headband, brain activity can be recorded using these portable, cordless brain scanning devices.

Why is this relevant to you as an educator? Because, for the first time ever, we now have technology that can track the interactions of brain activity in real time within a classroom environment.

Curious how teacher’s anxiety or enthusiasm impacts students’ brains? Ever wonder what really happens to the brains of students when they are working collaboratively on an assignment? They can both be traced, second-by-second, as well.

Perhaps the most fascinating discovery from hyperscanning studies is the degree in which people’s brains sync up. This is especially of interest to educators working tirelessly to get all students engaged, focused, and learning together. How can educators utilize these systems to improve classroom behavior and learning? That’s next – keep reading.

Practical Application

Can an educator harness the power of brain synchronicity? Here are two simple, yet powerful ways to get everyone’s brains, attitudes, and behaviors on the same page.

  1. Model the Behaviors You Hope to See in Students

Use the brain’s natural synchronizing systems to help you teach the skills and behaviors of successful learners. As students watch you demonstrate these habits they will begin to mimic your modeling. What should you model? Everything you believe your students need to learn. Model empathy. Model appropriate behavior. Model how to complete an assignment or activity. Model what high quality work looks like. In short, whatever behaviors you wish to see in students, be the first to model valuable academic and life skills.

While you’re at it, model your enthusiasm and passion for teaching and your subject. Because of this brain syncing, students unconsciously pick up on their teacher’s mood, facial expressions, and actions far more than previously thought. There is a positive relationship between a teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject matter and student performance. Similarly, there is a positive correlation between a teacher’s enthusiasm for teaching a subject and student performance (Mahler, D., Großschedl, J., & Harms, U. (2018). This suggests that you can optimize teaching by finding something amazing, cool, or quirky in your teaching that gets you REALLY pumped. Let that excitement show and then your students can sync up and join the “enthusiasm party.”

  1. Engage Students with Activity Syncing

Collaborative student engagement is a product of brain-syncing. Orchestrate synching through quick, fun energizer activities.

One way to have them get in sync is through movement.

For example, have everyone march in step, jog in place, or do a popular line dance. You can also ask a team leader to demonstrate sports movements (like shooting a basket) and everyone on that team mimics each of the moves exactly. Even a quick game of Simon Says can get brains synced up.

An easy way to “disguise” the activity is to frame it as “morning stretching” or an “afternoon energizer.” With younger students, use the games like “Red light, green light” or “Head-Shoulders-Knees and Toes” task (McClelland et al., 2014). Engage table groups in a quick round of “Follow the Leader” (staying within the classroom, but moving quickly) with music that has a great beat.

Call-responses can facilitate synching up. Songs like “Day-O” or “YMCA” and many others will work. In addition, cadence walks have been used by the military for generations to “synch up” a group. The history of cadences goes back to early slave music. Cadence songs were used by slaves to help cope with the constant oppression by using the expression of songs which gave a distraction, sense of control and unity of culture. Today, there are 100’s of military cadences, used in all of the service branches. They range from being very simple (“Left, right, left, right,…”) to being quite practical (from following rules, to higher aspirations and eating tips). In your classroom, students can walk in pairs circling the classroom as they do a cadance.

In the following cadence example, the teacher says the first line and the students follow with the response (“That’s right!” “one two ” “Eat right!” “three four”). In time, they can learn to repeat every line. Remember, you can create ANY cadence you want and all lines can be switched out to customize for your class. You could have cadence walks to prepare for almost anything in your classroom ex. writing, test prep, cleaning up the room, even eating habits (as in this example).

“I don’t know, but I’ve been told… (pause) too much sugar’s bad as mold”
“That’s right!” “one two ” “Eat right!” “three four”
Eat those veggies, nuts and fruits … (pause) be real smart and know your roots”
“That’s right!” “one two ” “Eat right!” “three four”
Eating right will build a body… (pause) you’ll get health and BE somebody”
“That’s right!” “one two ” “Eat right!” “three four”
Stand real tall, start looking good… (pause) you oughta be in Hollywood!”
“That’s right!” “one two ” “Eat right!” “three four”

Students surrounded by other students (and a teacher) that are highly engaged will have to work really hard to not get pulled into the fun of learning. In short, brain synchronicity is something you can orchestrate AND your students will love it.

Remember, this synchronicity is at its best when there is a positive relationship between students and teacher, as well as between students. Keep building those relationships as you orchestrate greater brain synchronicity. Having everyone in sync in a classroom creates the joyful, connected, and engaged learning environment you want. You got this!

Citations:

Bevilacqua, D., Davidesco, I., Wan, L., Chaloner, K., Rowland, J., Ding, M., … & Dikker, S. (2019). Brain-to-brain synchrony and learning outcomes vary by student–teacher dynamics: Evidence from a real-world classroom electroencephalography study. Journal of cognitive neuroscience31(3), 401-411.

Dikker, S., Wan, L., Davidesco, I., Kaggen, L., Oostrik, M., McClintock, J., … & Poeppel, D. (2017). Brain-to-brain synchrony tracks real-world dynamic group interactions in the classroom. Current Biology27(9), 1375-1380.

Holper, L., Goldin, A. P., Shalóm, D. E., Battro, A. M., Wolf, M., & Sigman, M. (2013). The teaching and the learning brain: A cortical hemodynamic marker of teacher–student interactions in the Socratic dialog. International Journal of Educational Research59, 1-10.

Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. N. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current biology : CB23(23), R1057–R1062. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.051

Mahler, D., Großschedl, J., & Harms, U. (2018). Does motivation matter?–The relationship between teachers’ self-efficacy and enthusiasm and students’ performance. PloS one13(11), e0207252.

Scholkmann, F.,Holper, L., Wolf, U., & Wolf, M. (2013). A new methodical approach in neuroscience: assessing inter-personal brain coupling using functional near-infrared imaging (fNIRI) hyperscanning. Frontiers in human neuroscience7, 813.

Sperduti, M., Guionnet, S., Fossati, P., & Nadel, J. (2014). Mirror Neuron System and Mentalizing System connect during online social interaction. Cognitive processing15(3), 307-316.

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