Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

July 22, 2008

Teaching With the Brain in Mind

On October 11, Ave Maria Press is offering its annual Teacher Enrichment Day at Notre Dame. This year's keynote speaker is Brother Robert Bimonte, FSC, who will speak on the importance of providing brain-compatible learning in religious educucation. The Hewlett/Packard Foundation has recognized his work in this field. Br. Robert, who is currently the Executive Director of the Elementary Department of NCEA, has conducted numerous retreats and workshops on a wide variety of topics, including collaborative learning, the power of myth, transformational leadership and brain-compatible learning. Reprised below is an article Br. Robert wrote for the Ave Maria Press Religious Education newsletter.

For more information and to register for this year's Teacher Enrichment Day, please contact Karey Welde. Admission is free!

Teaching with the Brain in Mind
By Robert R. Bimonte, FSC

Trying to get adolescents excited about religious studies is often a challenge. In my experience, their most frequently asked question was, “Why do we need to learn this? But if truth be told, that is a very good question. All learners—whether they are children, adolescents or adults—need motivation to learn because that is how our brains work.

In order to activate the chemicals and proteins needed to allow our brains to focus and pay attention, the limbic region of the brain must be stimulated. This area is located in the middle of the brain above the spinal cord and below the cerebral cortex. It is the center of both memory and emotion, and thus the two are inextricably linked—both literally and metaphorically.
In terms of perception, this is the first part of the brain to be stimulated when taking in information. Whatever we perceive through our senses travels to the limbic brain for evaluation. In a split second, this part of our brain determines whether or not this sensory information or experience is new or old, interesting or boring, similar to a pleasurable experience from the past or one that we would rather forget. If the limbic system determines that this is something worth our attention, it triggers a series of chemical changes in the rest of our brain that cause us to focus and pay attention. Thus, in a very real sense, stimulating the limbic system is the key to turning on the brain for learning.

The main challenge for educators, therefore, is stimulating the limbic part of students’ brains. How do we do that? Remember the word “CUE,” which is an acronym for:
C reative
U seful
E motional Connection

Creativity in teaching is one of the best ways to ensure that learning will take place. Humor, novelty, rhyme, music, dance, drama—anything out of the ordinary will cause the limbic system to take notice and activate the brain’s learning processes.

Usefulness is the answer to the question, “Why do we need to learn this?” Telling students that they need some piece of information or a particular skill for the future only provides motivation if students know what they plan to do in the coming years. Usefulness is really determined by the individual learner in the here and now. The answer to that question needs to be in the present tense. How is learning about my faith going to help me today? Helping adolescents discover how faith can help them in the challenges and decisions they face each day is essential.

Did you ever have a teacher you really loved or admired? Did you learn for that teacher? You absolutely did. When students know that they are loved and cared for, the emotional connection that is established between teacher and student provides a very powerful motivation to learn. Teachers must not only communicate love for their students, but just as importantly, love for their subject. Teachers of religion must be on fire with the love of God and communicate that passion to the young people in their classrooms. Passion and enthusiasm are signs of God’s presence and that is truly what we want our students to catch.

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