Learning & the Brain: How the Body Knows its Mind

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

How the Body Knows its Mind, Sian Beilock author of How the Body Knows its Mind and Choke

Sian Beilock explores the relationship between body and mind and how what we think is intimately tied to our bodies and surroundings. She focuses on different ways in which physical movement can help with math. For example she explained how learning to play a musical instrument helps develops the corpus callosum, the area of the brain that helps both sides of the brain communicate with each other and also controls finger control and mathematical number sense. She also showed us how using one’s fingers to “move” numbers from one side of an equation to another helps students to better understand algebraic principles.

Beilock made a strong case for the impact surroundings have on our ability to focus. Counterintuitive to most teachers best practices, Beilock argues that over-decorated classrooms can be distracting to learning because the stimulus uses some of our brain’s resources that could otherwise be used to focus on the topic at hand.

Finally, Beilock shared a study that shows how writing just before a test can decrease anxiety and improve test results. She conducted a study accross and entire class of high school students in which the students were divided into a control and test group. The test group was given ten minutes before their final science exam to write down what they were feeling about the test. The control group was asked to think, but not write, about it. The students were then divided into high and low anxiety test takers based on self-reporting. Of the high anxiety test takers, those that did the ten minute free write, scored on average six points higher than the control group. And what they found when reading the journals was the much of what the students wrote about was initially their anxiety and then ultimately how it was “just a test” rather than something that was worthy of angst. The process of physically moving the anxiety out of the brain and onto the paper gave students the head space needed to perform on the test rather than unnecessarily worry. Now that’s cool stuff.

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