Train the Trainer: Teaching to the Whole Brain

I always find it amusing when I get bored in a wine seminar.  After all, there is nothing I am more fascinated by than wine.  I have spent my entire adult life learning about and enjoying wine.  I teach wine for a living, and then in my free time go to wineries, wine tastings and wine stores.  And yet, I find myself falling asleep at a wine seminar!

What gives?  I am extremely interested in the subject at hand, and yet the speaker can lull me to sleep.  Most likely, I am being subject to a speaker that is only engaging a a mere segment  of my mind.  Most seminars include speaking (zzzzzz……………) which only engages a little area on the left side of my brain called “Wernicke’s Area.”  If you have ever heard the (not quite true) cliché that we only use 10% of our brain power, this is one situation where it makes sense.  Anyone sitting and listening to a speaker is only about 10% engaged, and the other 90% is probably either falling asleep or writing a grocery list.

To approach maximum engagement, we need to teach to the whole brain.  Luckily, modern science has given us the tools to do so.  We know now that we can teach to six separate-yet-connected parts of the brain, each controlling a different aspect of attention, cognitive processing and memory.  We also know the specific teaching techniques to use to keep all six of these areas of the brain firing on all cylinders. 

To be a practitioner of Whole Brain Teaching, work on including these six elements in your teaching:

Listening –This one is easy, as just about all teaching involves a speaker, which forces our audience to listen.  Listening is controlled by Wernicke’s area on the left side of the brain. This one is a given…however, to be a whole brain teacher, you need to move well beyond listening.

Visual – The visual cortex uses over half of the brain’s energy and is a powerful tool for both learning and engagement.  Most teachers and speakers these days use what they consider visual elements in their teaching with power point slides, white boards, and handouts.  However…words on a screen or a written handout are not true visuals!  Words on a screen or written documents are not “processed” by the brain in the same way a picture is.  When you see words on a screen you read them to yourself, and the data is processed by the verbal (listening) side of the brain.   To enhance learning and not distract the learner, make sure your visuals are true visuals – meaning pictures or graphs.  

Critical Thinking – Our brains are kind enough to give us a pleasurable “rush” of dopamine when we solve a problem.  It’s the reason that so many people like to do crossword puzzles and play Sudoku. It’s also the reason why you feel so good when your figure out how to stop the faucet from leaking or change the battery in your car.  The real rush comes from not just getting it done but the fact that you figured it out.  To put this in an educational context, remember that just sitting and listening can get very boring…but you can keep your students in the flow of what scientists call “reward-driven learning” by stimulating their pre-frontal cortex…that part of the brain that handles thought processes that involve decision making, compare and contrast, explanations, examples, and schema.  The point is to allow your students to solve a “mental puzzle” related to the subject at hand.

Movement – You can stimulate the very powerful motor cortex by adding gestures and movement to your teaching.  It may seem a bit silly, but kinetic memories are among the strongest memories.  You never really forget how to walk or ride a bike!

Speaking – Let your students talk! Adding active speech to your classes, whether from discussion or recitation, spark’s the brain region known as “Broca’s area” and is an excellent tool for engagement.  Breaking the students into small groups or even teams of two and having them relate back key points of the class, quiz each other or even “teach” each other for one or two minutes is an excellent way to bring speaking into class as a directed activity.

Emotions – The limbic system, at the center of the brain, controls emotions and emotional memories.  If you leave out the emotions, you have “hollow brain teaching”!  Use emotionally competent stimuli to invoke humor, curiosity, outrage, awe, nostalgia…any emotion will do!

Remember, the more you can use these six activities…the more you will be teaching to the whole brain…and the more your students will enjoy and remember your class.  Good Luck!


About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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