Sandra van Aalderen – Teachers Know Your Brain!

Sandra van Aalderen – Teachers Know Your Brain!


Educational researcher at the University of Twente, Sandra van Aalderen wants to know why teachers get to shape kids’ brains, and yet know very little about how the brain actually learns. As a former neuroscientist, she believes that improving our education starts with our teachers. If they gain a greater understanding of the human brain, they will not only become better teachers, but their students will also become more motivated to learn and able to retain much more of what they learn.

Meet Dr Sandra van Aalderen

At one point during high school, Sandra considered dropping out simply because she wasn’t motivated to use her brain by her classes. Fortunately, she decided against it and got into university where she studied Biological Psychology. She then went on to do PhD research on conscious and unconscious information processing in our brain. During that time, she finally felt it was appreciated when she used her brain, a motivation she obviously really missed before. She then worked as an education manager at the University of Twente and there began her research in talent development and science education. That is where her passion to improve education and her knowledge of the brain came together. She strives for a better understanding of our brain and that’s the reason she wrote a book on brain research, alongside two former neuroscience colleagues, titled Kijken in het Brein.

Why are we still teaching in a mostly passive way?

We all know that we remember better if we process information actively. Therefore, it is quite strange that children still spend a lot of time in school only remembering, understanding and applying knowledge. Van Aalderen claims that you can really make a kid motivated to learn by making the material more challenging, for example, by stimulating analytical, evaluative and creative thinking skills. Just knowing that active learning is important is clearly not enough, a teacher needs to understand this to really change their teaching habits and perspective. Dr van Aalderen states that teachers’ beliefs and attitudes have a major impact on their teaching behaviour in the classroom. “These are the most essential factors that shape a teacher’s approach to education.”

There are plenty of schools that want to change to improve education in their classrooms.  But they are looking at class management or things like class sizes and how many attempts a student gets to pass a test. Van Aalderen is convinced that this will not enhance the learning outcomes of the students. “You have to think about what goes on in the heads of your students if you want to make them better learners.”

How does the brain learn?

Dr van Aalderen takes the audience under the surface for about two minutes and explains how complex and stunning our brain actually is. It is plastic and ever changing through experience and our thinking, concluding that learning changes the organisation of the neuronal networks in our brain. With that she busts the common myth that teaching is like driving a car – you don’t have to know what is under the bonnet to be able to do it. In fact, teaching is nothing like it. Teachers are not the drivers of our children’s brains…they are the engineers! They actually shape the brains of our children.

When teachers learn about the brain

There is a fascinating study by Dubinsky, Roehrig & Varma (2013) on the behaviour of teachers who have acquired knowledge of the brain and its plasticity. We need more research on this, because the outcomes can be tremendous. “Teachers indeed change their beliefs and attitudes in the classroom and even start adopting a more child-centred teaching method,” Van Aalderen assures us. They use more active learning strategies and, most importantly, they start believing in the potential of the child. This is the vital turning point for their students’ learning outcomes.

So what can a teacher do? 

According to Van Aalderen teachers can use inquiry learning or discovery learning, for example. It is important to stimulate students’ curiosity and to relate topics in your classroom to real world problems. Asking your students deeper thinking questions. “Tell me,” Van Aalderen askes the audience, “which question activates your brain more?”

1. Describe to me what a camel looks like and how it functions?

2. How should a camel change in order to survive on the North Pole?

We all know the answer. Now let’s apply it.

Our teachers are never told how the brain works

Did you know that knowledge of the brain implies that everyone can always get better at a task? Simply put, a student can always get better with perseverance and practice, but they of course need to be motivated to do that. That is huge! Because it means that a small change in the beliefs of teachers can have a major impact on the achievement of kids. As a former neuroscientist, Van Aalderen is shocked to see how little teachers know about the brain.

At TEDxAmsterdamED 2015 we heard many speakers talk about teaching for the 21st century and about child-centred learning. That our teaching style is based on knowledge that is more than a hundred years old. Van Aalderen concludes her talk explaining that our understanding of the brain has taken a flight since the arrival of modern brain science. “We are obliged to use this knowledge to improve education. Just imagine, if we could stimulate the potential of each child, what would happen with their motivation for learning? Their creative thinking and the belief they have in themselves? Education is about changing the brain. So teachers, imagine what you can achieve when shaping the brain of your students!”

Photography © Victoria Jacob

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