Neuroscience in the English Classroom

This school year, I decided to lean into something that I’d previously only been incorporating in a piecemeal manner in my classroom. Starting at the beginning of the school year, my 10th graders have gotten a healthy dose of neuroscience in my English classes. In part, it’s because I’m fascinated by it and often find myself reading articles, or books, or watching interesting videos related to how our brains function and make sense of the world.

I started out the school year with the benefits of reading, an introduction to neuroplasticity, and an encouragement that high schoolers are actually in one of the best places to take charge of the shape that their own brains will take. They’re mature enough to do more metacognition, have enough autonomy to make more of their own choices, but are not necessarily so stuck in certain ways of doing something that it’s more difficult to put in place new patterns. This also includes some specifics on how the teenage brain is different from a child or adult brain, and how understanding what exactly their brain is doing (from dealing with hormones to why their sleep patterns are different) can help them be more successful with what they want to accomplish.

Then, we watched some videos on procrastination, time-management, habit formation, and how to learn skills that don’t come to us naturally. Eventually, we did a unit at the end of the year in which students chose to read either Payoff by Dan Ariely or Indistractable by Nir Eyal. The first is a deeper dive on motivation while the second looks at triggers (internal and external) and how to shape our daily patterns so we’re not just rushing from thing to thing in a distracted manner all day.

I’ve gotten a massive amount of engagement from the students, far more than I thought. I knew I’d have some students interested, but pretty much every single one of my seventy 10th graders has really latched onto this. I’ve used excerpts to practice close reading, I’ve assessed on lots of standards related to summarizing main ideas, finding evidence to support an argument, and some discussion. I could have done all that with other topics—but I’m glad I didn’t. My students are hungry to know how their brains operate, want to learn how they can build autonomy into their lives, and when they spend time thinking about their own habits, patterns, successes and failures, they’re often very honest with themselves. Telling most teenagers what they need to change to be more successful doesn’t go well; giving them the resources and information to came to those conclusions themselves is much more powerful.

Based on this, I’ve had students tell me they’ve changed their intended career path. One said he’d decided to take different courses the next school year because he understand his internal motivation better. Several students have made massive strides in curbing their chronic procrastination. Another student finished a long-running independent project by implementing better time management. Others have said they’re better at prioritizing their sleep as they now know the benefits.

Of course they’re still tenth graders. There are still plenty of late assignments, students who lack almost all motivation, a few who haven’t really engaged with this. And yet, overall, giving students a chance to take ownership of their own thinking and learning has made a huge different in their approach to other aspects of my class (and hopefully in their other classes as well).

Here are a few of the resources I’ve used (either in full or as excerpts):



Books (these authors also have videos/TED talks)

  • Atomic Habits – James Clear
  • Quiet – Susan Cain
  • Indistractable – Nir Eyal
  • Payoff – Dan Ariely

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