A Very Short Course on Brain Structure

Brain Regions

Prefrontal cortex: The brain’s reasoning center, activated during decision making. For example, when students devise plans to climb levels on the Super Improvers Team, a fundamental WBT game, the prefrontal cortex is powerfully engaged.

Motor cortex: Along with other brain regions, the motor cortex via the hippocampus, directs the body’s physical movement. Mirror Words, one of WBT’s most popular strategies, involves the motor cortex in transferring information from short term memory to long term memory.

Visual cortex: One of the brain’s largest regions, the visual cortex processes input from the eyes and stores visual memories. WBT’s Scoreboard and most of its other games, provide strong visual, learning reinforcements.

Limbic system: the brain’s emotional core. Virtually every game in Whole Brain Teaching activates the limbic system, linking academic information to long lasting memory cues.

Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area: Understanding spoken language (Wernicke’s area) and producing spoken language (Broca’s area) are continuously involved during Teach-Okay, WBT’s primary instructional technique.

Nucleus acumbens:  When we engage in a pleasurable activity like listening to music, exercising, eating delicious food,  playing a game, the nucleus acumbens secretes dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical.   Interestingly enough, the most intense spikes of dopamine are produced by the nucleus acumbens when rewards are uncertain, rather than random or predictable.  Think about a slot machine.  We don’t know when the one armed bandit will pay off … every time we pull the lever we feel a small thrill, the sweet hope of uncertain reward.  Las Vegas would be bankrupt if slot machines paid off every tenth pull (predictable) or when any combination of images produced cash (random reward).  Every game, in fact, involves dopamine producing, nucleus acumbens activating, uncertain reward.  A dice roll in Monopoly, moving a chess piece, shooting a basketball toward the hoop all are uncertainly rewarding.  We are thrilled not by winning but by repeatedly thinking we might win.  Thus, in the most recent versions of WBT we employ dice and spinners to maximize the uncertainty of our games and increase student engagement (more details coming soon).

Brain on lecture

Please note that when you hear a lecture, only a small region of the brain (Wernicke’s area) is primarily activated.  Our dominant information delivery strategy, talking at kids, is one of the poorest ways for anyone to learn. 

Now, think about what happens when you play a video game.  You see images, hear sounds, plot strategies, initiate movement,  process language and never know what is going to happen next.  You hope you will be uncertainly rewarded by climbing to a higher level, gaining a Power Up, or surviving an onslaught to zombies.  Kids love video games because their whole braina are involved.  They play for hours because no brain region is available to process time passing.

Brain on video games
Brain on WBT games

Frankly, our goal in WBT is to make classroom instruction as exciting, as brain involving, as a video game.  When students are involved in a Whole Brain Teaching lesson, reasoning (pre-frontal cortex), moving (motor cortex), seeing (visual cortex), hearing (Wenicke’s area), talking (Broca’s area),, and especially having dopamine producing, uncertainly rewarding fun (nucleus acumbens) we maximize the brain’s resources.  Paradoxically, we have learned that the less teachers talk, the more kids learn.