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Engaging young minds: Part one

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

Understanding how our brains work could help you devise ways to motivate your class to learn

Illustrated head and cogs

Make a brain. Place your fists together, knuckles to knuckles, wrist to wrist, thumbs facing towards you. Your arms are now a well-out-of scale brain stem. Those fists, not far off the size of the real thing, represent the two hemispheres of the brain, and most of your hands are similar to its walnut-like cortex, crumpled over the top. Deeper down in the brain, where your fingernails are, we find the limbic system. In the first article of this series on learning we start down there, in the limbic system, with the process of engagement.

Limbic lessons

The limbic system stimulates motivation, emotion and memory and it is this part of the brain that makes initial judgements as to whether something is to be feared, jumped at or escaped. The amygdala, named after the Greek word for almond, and shaped like one, is the starting point for such responsiveness. Your brain passes what you see or hear to the amygdala, that puts the body on alert while it engages the frontal, thoughtful part of the cortex in deciding whether it’s safe and how you can relax and attend to this stimulus. That’s what engagement is all about.

One of the best definitions of this aspect of learning comes from Brian Cambourne, a professor, who describes engagement as the learner’s beliefs: I can do it, it is worth doing, and I have nothing to fear in having a go.

Cambourne says: ‘Learners are exposed to thousands of demonstrations each waking moment of their lives. However, a high proportion of these demonstrations merely wash over them and are ignored… Learners will only engage with demonstrations under certain conditions.’

‘Learners will need to be convinced of the following:

(i) That any demonstration that is witnessed must be perceived as ‘do-able’ or ‘owner-able’ by them.

(ii) That emulating the demonstrations they’ve witnessed will somehow further the purposes of their lives.

(iii) That attempting to emulate the demonstration will not lead to any unpleasant consequences if they fail.

Quotes from The Whole Story: Natural Learning and the Acquisition of Literacy in the Classroom by Brian Cambourne (Ashton Scholastic).

‘It’s while they are in Key Stage 2 that children start to develop concerns about the degree to which they are accepted and start to evaluate their own performance’

In the classroom

Learning needs to be within reach of children, ensuring that they get a sense of being able to do something. One way of doing this is by talking about their ‘kit’ – the things that they know and already can do that will equip them for a task ahead. Try to relate activities to real world examples that children will like and respect. For example, bear in mind the jobs done by adults that they know or the ones they dream of doing themselves in the future.


Any stimulus, teaching included, can grab and hold, or distract attention. To devise ways of grabbing children’s attention, it helps to think about a brain trick called the ‘cocktail party effect’ – the way in which you or I can be in a crowded room, with a hubbub of noise, but would still identify our name if it was spoken at some distance.

Attention involves the frontal part of the brain being tuned into a particular stimulus. If you want a good experiment to demonstrate how attention can be held, subject your colleagues to this:

  • Launch this video, but don’t start it yet.
  • When the video starts, you will need to count the number of basketball passes made by the team in the white shirts – just passes, not dribbles. Keep count.
  • Once you have done this, note down the number. Then watch the film again without counting. What do you notice?

In the classroom

Many children appear to have an interesting time on the way to school swapping the latest game cards, but can we turn their attention to multiplication? Try asking: How much was one of those card packs? How much are ten, or 25? How many could you buy for £5? You get the idea.


Everyone is motivated by something, the secret is figuring out what motivates a child. What I’m about to say always raises hackles – there really is no such thing as a lazy child. Children are only switched off by certain things – they may slouch over their maths but lunge at their football or games console.

In the classroom

One useful exercise to try is an analysis of children from the point of view of ‘can do/will do’ (see fig 1, below).

Table of information

This exercise provides a way of getting to grips with this and looking at things to try with certain children. One of the main groups to focus on is the ‘can but won’t’ – those children who could write five brilliant paragraphs but just can’t be bothered! To break this habit, try a strategy that:

  • involves children in two levels of assessment – looking at how they did before asking how they could have done if they had tried their hardest;
  • involves others. Ask other members of staff to create mentor-like links with these individuals. Engage parents with the difference between when a child does and doesn’t try – these children may be the ones who have parents that need chasing!

A growth mindset

Psychologist, Carol Dweck ( and, suggests that there are two mindsets – ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ – with which we can approach intelligence and progress. The ‘fixed’ mindset believes that such qualities – intelligence and progress – are fixed and you are stuck with your lot. It results in children getting hung up about the end result and how they will be judged, wanting to get it right and being troubled by mistakes. Experiments that show learners with such a mindset will try to cover up mistakes rather than learn from them. Children give up easily or won’t have a go for fear of failure.

Contrast this with the ‘growth’ mindset, where learners care about the process of learning, confident that they can improve and change, seeing mistakes as positive steps forward. For them the emphasis is on making an effort in understanding that things aren’t fixed.

In the classroom

Motivation changes during the junior years. It’s while they are in Key Stage 2 that children start to develop concerns about the degree to which they are accepted and start to evaluate their own performance, consolidating ideas about their ability.

Praise can actually be bad. If a mindset fixed on end product and perfection is to be avoided, then we need to focus our praise away from end products and on to the effort that gets children there. We need to catch and praise the trying, the hard work, effort and improvement, and in doing so we are cultivating that growth, and the mindset that believes in it.