Our education system is dominated by a neurocentric model of thinking: we assume that students’ mental activity is contained inside their heads. But we open up a world of new possibilities when we encourage students to think outside the brain: that is, to use external resources to enhance their mental processes.
Such outside-the-head resources include the sensations and movements of students’ bodies; the physical spaces in which students learn and play; and the social interactions students engage in with others. My new book, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” offers an array of practical strategies for engaging these mental “extensions”; here, is a selection especially for teachers and parents.
Thinking with Gesture
Gesture isn’t mere hand-waving; it’s an essential part of a cognitive loop in which our hand motions influence our thoughts and vice versa. Becoming more aware of gesture, and using it more intentionally, can help teachers and students think more cogently, speak more fluently, and understand others more deeply.
Explicitly encourage gesture: When you see a student struggling to generate an explanation or solve a problem, offer a simple suggestion: “Could you try moving your hands as you say that?”
Listen to gesture: Pay close attention to the hand motions of learners, especially at moments when what their hands are “saying” is different from the message conveyed by their words. This mismatched state indicates they are ready to learn and receptive to instruction.
Supply “visual artifacts”: Students are more likely to gesture (and in so doing acquire a deeper understanding) when there are relevant objects nearby to gesture at.
Put students on the spot: Improvising a description or an explanation is hard mental work, so students automatically offload some of it onto their hands. The increased rate of gesture prompted by the act of improvisation can help them develop a deeper understanding of the material they’re talking about.
For every word, a gesture: Pair each new vocabulary word to be learned with a gesture in order to reinforce memory. When students add a hand motion to the actions of reading or speaking aloud a word, they’re sinking another “hook” into the material that will allow them to reel it in later.
Thinking with Natural Spaces
Over eons of evolution, our perceptual faculties were “tuned” to the kind of sensory information present in nature. While spending time in built interiors and urban settings drains students’ attentional resources, spending time outside refills the tank, restoring their ability to focus.
Think in terms of “environmental self-regulation”: Instead of asking students to get a grip on their thoughts and feelings from the inside, use exposure to the outside world—especially nature—to help them restore their equilibrium and refresh their attention.
Have students practice “soft gazing”: When in nature, encourage students to relinquish the sharp-edged focus that is required by schoolwork. This involves allowing their gaze to become relaxed and diffuse, drawn here and there by whatever attracts it.
Direct students to seek out “micro-restorative opportunities”: Research shows that looking at a scene of natural greenery—even through a window—for as little as 40 seconds offers mental benefits, including improved concentration.
Bring nature inside: Natural light, potted plants, and even images and motifs borrowed from nature help students enter a state of relaxed alertness. During a break in learning, try showing students a nature video.
Thinking with the Space of Ideas
We all tend to do too much “in our heads.” Students can think more effectively and more efficiently when they find ways to offload their mental contents onto physical space—whether it be the space of a whiteboard, a physical model, or a bunch of Post-It Notes. They can then interact with their ideas as if they were physical objects or a 3-D landscape, applying the spatial and navigational capacities that come so naturally to human beings.
Have students create a “concept map”: The brain treats abstract ideas like a landscape through which it must navigate. A concept map makes this mental terrain visible, allowing us to recognize patterns and make new connections.
Direct students to write it down: Our culture values “doing things in your head,” but research shows that writing down our thoughts carries benefits for memory, problem-solving, and creativity. Ask students to keep a field notebook, for example, in which they regularly record and review their observations.
Instruct students to sketch it out: Drawing the concept they’re thinking about has benefits for students above and beyond writing about it in words. It doesn’t matter if students say they “can’t draw”—simply attempting to capture a concept in visual terms will deepen their understanding and reinforce your memory.
Make it physical: The human brain evolved to manipulate physical objects, not to contemplate abstract ideas. Whenever possible, have students create a concrete model or representation of the concept they’re thinking about, and then encourage them to use their whole bodies to interact with it—moving around it so that they see it from different perspectives, manipulating its elements and trying out new combinations.
Thinking with Interoception
“Interoception” is the capacity to sense our internal signals. Students who learn how to tune into these inner cues can use them to make better decisions, to muster more mental resilience, and to exhibit greater emotional intelligence.
Lead students through a body scan: The body scan is meditative exercise in which non-judgmental attention is directed to each part of the body in turn. Practicing this exercise regularly will improve students’ ability to perceive interoceptive sensations.
Suggest that students label their internal sensations: Affect labeling is an activity in which each interoceptive sensation is noted and named as it is experienced. Research shows that engaging in affective labeling immediately reduces anxiety and distress.
Encourage students to engage in “cognitive reappraisal”: Cognitive reappraisal is an exercise in which the basic building blocks of interoceptive sensations are re-appraised as representing a positive emotion—for example, excitement instead of nervousness. Engaging in cognitive appraisal reduces negative affect and improves performance.
Ask students to fill in a body map: A body map is an outline of the human body on which users note what they’re feeling and where in the body the feeling makes itself known. Completing a body map can help students become more aware of their internal signals and where in the body they are arising.
Thinking with Movement
Humans didn’t evolve to think while sitting still. Moving the body in specific ways while engaging in mental work can help students to think more effectively, more efficiently, and more creatively.
Allow students to play with fidget objects: Playing with fidget objects can help students sharpen their focus, improve their mood, and boost their creativity. Different kinds of objects may generate usefully different mental states.
Have students sweat before they sit: Trying asking students to take a periodic “movement break.” Engaging in brisk physical activity just before sitting down to think will boost students’ mental acuity.
Direct students to act out the abstract: In order to commit knowledge more firmly to memory, ask students to act it out with whole-body movements. Research on the “enactment effect” shows that we remember what we do much better than what we read or hear.
Teach to students’ bodies: When learning about abstract concepts (say, “vector” or “torque” in physics), provide students with a physical experience of the concept that can be drawn upon when thinking about it later. The brain apprehends the abstract much more readily when it is “grounded” in bodily experience.
Instruct students to move as if they are it: In order to understand an entity from the inside, or to make discoveries about that entity, students benefit from embodying it—moving as if they themselves are the thing they are learning and thinking about.
Thinking with Built Spaces
We spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors, yet many of the spaces we occupy are not well-designed for extending the mind. We can take intentional steps to rearrange learning spaces so that they support intelligent thought.
Use space to implement “sensory reduction”: Allow students to work on challenging tasks in a quiet room free of distractions. Imposing such sensory reduction generates a state of “stimuli hunger”, in which weakly-activated internal knowledge (barely-remembered facts, elusive imaginative notions) becomes more readily accessible. (Students can achieve a similar effect by briefly closing their eyes.)
Give students a space of their own: Thinking and learning in a space over which students feel ownership and control gives them a feeling of empowerment, which in turn enhances their performance.
Offer students some privacy: Feeling “on display” all the time consumes mental bandwidth that could otherwise be applied to thinking. When students are able to shield themselves from the gaze of others, their cognitive load is reduced and they feel more free to experiment.
Fill learning spaces with “evocative objects”: Visual reminders of students’ academic identity—who they are, and what they’re doing in that space—can put them in an optimal frame of mind for thinking. Objects representing their deepest values and ideals may be especially effective when hidden from others and visible only to the students themselves.
Appoint learning spaces with cues of belonging: Inspect your learning space for cues that signal exclusion; these should be removed and replaced with cues that signal belonging. Students think and work best in a space in which they feel that they are welcomed and included.
Thinking with Experts
Our system of education is based on experts teaching novices—but we experts often fail to convey all that we know, because our knowledge is so well-practiced as to become “automatized.” Research is revealing more effective ways of transferring expertise from one mind to another.
Let students know that imitation is acceptable: Our culture values innovation and originality, but often the most efficient and effective approach to solving a problem is to copy what someone else has already done.
Encourage close observation: Children in other cultures commonly learn by observing and imitating their elders. Research has found that American children are not so adept at this practice—but that these capacities can be deliberately cultivated.
Exhibit model work: We expect students to produce excellent work without first showing them what excellence looks like. Displaying model examples need not threaten students’ self-esteem or quash their creativity; it can inspire them to do their own best work.
Break it down: Experts tend to organize their knowledge into “chunks”—agglomerated masses of information that can seem impenetrable to novices. We can help learners begin to acquire mastery by breaking down our knowledge into smaller steps, and then smaller steps still—even “micro-steps.”
Employ the “caricature advantage”: For experts like us, the most important aspects of a given scenario “pop out” at first glance. For novices, that same scenario is an undifferentiated mass of information. We can help by deliberately exaggerating and distorting—caricaturing—the aspects of a scenario that we want novices to notice.
Thinking with Peers
Our notion of how to engage in challenging academic work usually involves sitting alone and thinking hard—but in fact, students think best when they think socially. Social activities they engage in with peers, like storytelling, debating, and teaching, activate cognitive processes that remain dormant when students think by themselves.
Take advantage of the “protégé effect”: The act of teaching someone else leads the teacher to learn—even more than the student. As highly social creatures, we’re more motivated by the goal of conveying information to others than by the goal of simply studying for its own sake. Even struggling learners can benefit, by teaching younger students or by teaching their family members.
Ask students to create an instructional video: Teaching-for-learning can produce benefits for the teacher even when there are no “students” present. Recording a video generates feelings of “social presence”—the feeling that others are watching—leading many of the same factors involved in face-to-face teaching to kick in.
Promote students’ sense of “productive agency”: Create opportunities for student-teachers to enjoy the fruits of their labors: it’s motivating for people to see their pupils exhibiting and applying the knowledge they have been taught.
Set up a “cascading mentorship”: A senior group can teach a more junior group, who can in turn instruct a still-less-experienced group, thereby multiplying the benefits of teaching-to-learn.
Find the underlying dispute: Much of what we learn in educational settings is boring and forgettable because it’s been drained of all conflict, presented as settled wisdom. But almost every topic can be reinvigorated by casting it in terms of a “constructive controversy.”
Thinking with Groups
The days of the lone genius are over; in our era, the sheer abundance of information and the increasing specialization of knowledge mean that we and our students have to trade our habits of individual thinking for new practices that activate the powerful “group mind.”
Have students move in sync: Engaging in coordinated physical movement leads people to like others more, identify with them more closely, and cooperate with them more effectively. This can even take the form of a shared stroll: Research shows that when people walk together, they automatically and unconsciously match up their bodily movements.
Engage in group rituals: Ritual activities in which people do the same thing at the same time—even if it’s simply sharing a meal together—promote a sense of belonging and mutual trust.
Create “shared artifacts”: Group work is facilitated by the production of such artifacts, which should be large, complex, persistent, and revisable. Bonus: when such artifacts are available, people tend to gesture at them—enhancing their own understanding and that of their team members.
Implement the “jigsaw classroom”: This instructional technique, invented in the midst of the desegregation battles of the early 1970s, has been shown to increase cooperation and teamwork even as it boosts learning.
Generate a sense of “shared fate”: A sense of group motivation arises when the fates of each individual are bound up with one another—when they rise or fall together. Adjust the incentives and rewards offered to group members such that the outcome, good or bad, is experienced the same way by all.
Annie Murphy Paul is a science writer and author of “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” and “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.“