Brain-friendly learning
Part 3: What the brain notices

Margaret Cooling, well known for her writing, speaking and training, particularly in the area of RE, encourages us to adapt RE to make teaching and learning more compatible with the way the brain works.


Two more ideas for making RE more brain-friendly

1. Don't forget the role of emotion

There is a link between emotions and intelligence, but it is only a link, not a tight equation. Positive emotions increase the output of chemicals that make us feel good. For example, humour and praise can be part of creating a positive learning atmosphere in RE. Humour can be used in RE as long as you are laughing with people and never at them.

Negative emotions such as fear, too much stress and feeling inadequate may impair learning. RE is about important issues such as trust and suffering. Faith is also a part of some pupils' identity and is therefore likely to be a sensitive area for them. If a person feels threatened or upset by new information in an RE lesson they will often react against it. The emotions can then become a barrier in RE if they are not handled properly.

RE, by its nature, may challenge the way pupils think about God, themselves, other people and the world but pupils should not feel that their personal beliefs are being undermined or attacked.

Use 'owning and grounding' language when introducing religious material. For example, "Christians believe", "Hindus believe". Don't assume belief. Owning and grounding language leaves pupils free to identify or not with the religion being studied. Pupils can then decide on their response (which should include being respectful). It can be anything from: "Now I know why that is important to Jews," to "That is my story; I too believe."

New knowledge is processed by the brain and analysed for emotional content and 'value'. Emotions (positive or negative) attached to information are one thing that makes the brain take notice. We may encourage thinking about beliefs and behaviour in RE, but unless we link it to feelings, pupils may not see the point of learning it (the brain may not take much notice). This means that the affective element in RE has to be included. For example: Junior pupils can talk about what it would be like to start again in the infants and what they would miss about being their present age. This can be a way of introducing the Christmas story and Jesus coming as a baby.


2. Remember that the brain notices the emotional, the unusual, the dramatic and the exaggerated

The emotional, the unusual, the dramatic and the exaggerated need to be borne in mind when teaching. Information that is 'charged' in any of these ways is more likely to be remembered.

RE teaching does not have to be emotional in the sense of being sentimental, but it does need to be more than a cerebral experience. RE lessons should include some personal (emotional) challenge as well as intellectual challenge. RE is an ideal subject for this as it covers the big issues, such as life, death, love and forgiveness.

Many RE teachers use quite dramatic styles or incorporate drama into their RE. This can be in the form of puppets, sketches, plays, role-plays and demonstrations. Storytelling can also be dramatic.

Some ideas for puppets:

  • Glove puppets can be made from mittens with sticky dots for eyes.
  • Finger puppets can be made from simple paper shapes wrapped around fingers.
  • Simple expressions can be drawn on paper plates, which can be sticky-taped to rulers and used as puppets.
  • A clean sock can act as a puppet. Put your hand inside and use the heel section as the mouth. Use two sticky dots for eyes.
  • Paper bags make excellent puppets but you will need different sized bags. As the character's emotions change, just put a new and slightly bigger paper bag over your hand and draw a different expression on it.
  • Shadow puppets can be made from card with strips of acetate sticky-taped to them. These can then be moved about on the overhead projector.

The unusual just involves doing something different and surprising the pupils.

Exaggeration can be used in RE. It should not mean distortion of fact; it is a way of drawing attention to something. Storytellers often use it.

If this article has whetted your appetite to discover more about brain-friendly learning, check out the subscription service for RE teachers, the REthinking Network. Click here for more details.