Brain-Based Strategies for Teaching New Content


Teach new content with active learner engagement.

So you've engaged your learners with a captivating buy in activity, delivered the outcome, invited them to set a personal learning goal related to the outcome, and elicited relevant mental models. Now you are ready to teach new content. 

Teaching new content is where you can borrow from other learning theories to create interesting, brain-based ways to engage students in learning new concepts and skills.

Teach new concepts and skills using activities from Social Learning Theory.

Learning is a social experience and adult learners bring a lot to the table that can support the learning of their peers. Social learning theory says that we are more likely to imitate what others do when we see that what they do generates a positive result. The best results occur when learners perceive the model as someone very much like themselves. Think of the success of 12-step programs as an example.

To this end I might show a clip from a popular film or commercial that illustrates a new concept or skill in action, along with the benefits the people experience using those concepts and skills. My goal is to match the characters in the clip as closely as possible to my adult learning audience.

Another way to accomplish this is to invite a guest speaker or to tell a story about someone who is like my audience in experience and characteristics, but who has overcome some challenge that my audience also wants to overcome. What they share  or what the story includes when I tell it is how this person like themselves overcame that challenge.

Social Learning strategies are brain-based strategies.

Neuroscience supports the biological basis of social learning with the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated in our brains when we do something or when we observe someone else doing something. In other words, our mirror neurons fire when we observe the actions of others, often stimulating empathy and connection with the other person’s experience. This can build motivation within us for personal growth and change.

Here is a short, entertaining clip from Nova about the biological basis of mirror neurons and the impact they have on our empathy, motivation and learning.

Following is an activity I created that makes use of imitation and empathy building in a social context. I have used this activity many times for many years with professionals who are working with parents recently released from prison including teachers, caseworkers, parole and probation officers, and public health nurses.

Simulating prison release and community re-entry:

The frustration for some professionals working with recently released parents is that these parents sometimes miss meetings, are late, fail to follow through with requirements, or don’t participate in services and opportunities offered to them. This results in feelings of frustration and judgment on the part of professionals which leads to an inability to work effectively with these parents.

To counter this, I created and engaged trainees in a simulation in which I placed them in the role of a recently released parent, giving them various circumstances and tasks to perform that were similar to what their clients regularly encountered.

The goal of this simulation activity was not to shame professionals but rather to help them have a better-informed and more empathic understanding of the lives of these parents. 

In the simulation activity I provided them with relevant props and circumstances such as no car, no high school diploma or college degree, and then gave them job ads and asked them to find a job for which they were qualified (according to the circumstances I assigned them earlier) and one they could get to with no car. Other tasks included finding an apartment they could afford on minimum wage,  getting to back-to-back required appointments at opposite ends of the town using public transportation, and one or more stuffed animals to carry to represent their children (each with different and often special needs which I also assign them). Then I talked them through a "day in the life" of these parents, their clients.

Lessons learned from the simulation:

When we debrief this experience they share their new awareness and the resulting feelings and needs they have being in the simulation for just a short amount of time. Then they brainstorm strategies for working with these clients that take into account the many stresses they face and ways in which this group of professionals could work more sensitively, knowledgeably and effectively across systems to support them.

Behavior change and outcome accomplished:

One time I facilitated this simulation it was the starting point for professionals to apply the collective expertise of the group to their shared challenge. This resulted in the group generating a novel cross-systems solution of using one afternoon a week to come to the center where clients took GED and parenting classes to meet with parents there. This would save the parents multiple cross-town trips making it more likely they would actually attend their various appointments. The added bonus for the professionals was that that they could see several clients in an afternoon by coming to where they were! 

Teach new concepts using Constructivist Theory.

Constructivist Theory explains that people learn by creating their own knowledge as they interact and experiment with their environment and then think about and assess those experiences. Knowledge is constructed when learners use their reflections to adapt, enrich, overhaul or develop their mental models.

Using strategies from Constructivism I created a carefully planned shared experience followed by debrief questions so that learners were led to construct the content themselves, filled in by me, as needed. One example of this that I’ve adapted for different audiences is the backpack experience.

The backpack experience: 

In this activity, I ask my audience to work in small teams to brainstorm characteristics – both strengths and challenges – of  a particular person (by role) with whom they work or live and for whom they’d like a better understanding and more effective strategies.

I ask participants to work in their teams to brainstorm a list of the characteristics of the person in this role, one per peel-and-stick label. After 15 minutes I collect the characteristics from each table team and provide a short break. During the break I review all the characteristics and eliminate duplicates. Then I place them all (minus the duplicates) into a backpack and recruit a volunteer to help me.

When the break is over I tell participants I am going to tell them a story about the person in the identified role. I begin by introducing the volunteer and the backpack s/he carries as the person in the role. I say that we all have a backpack, we just can’t see them. Then I say that even though we normally can’t see each other’s backpack, we do frequently see the results of what’s in each other’s backpack because their contents influence what we pay attention to, care about, respond and react to. Then I add that for our purposes today we can see the backpack of our identified role player and we can even explore what’s inside of it.  I begin the story by saying, “Let’s see what our volunteer (in this particular role - client, partner, supervisor, etc.)  brought in his/her backpack today.”

Next, I open the backpack, extract each label that the group has generated and craft a story around those labels, peeling off the back of each one to apply them to the back of the volunteer. I take them as I extract them from the backpack, creating the story on the spot using the strengths and challenges they identified.


Debriefing the backpack experience:

At the end, I ask the volunteer how s/he feels, and then I invite reactions and reflections from the audience:

How do you feel seeing all of this?

What do you think this person needs?

Where is the overlap in what this person cares about and what you care about?

How can you use that common ground to approach this person with more empathy and respect?

What ideas do you have for ways to work more effectively with this person?

How will you know whether these strategies have been effective? What will be happening with this person or between the two of you?

If your approach needs further refinement, how will you use your common ground to engage this person in problem solving with you?

The group constructs their own knowledge:

The group is constructing their own knowledge; from the time they list the characteristics to the discussion after the experience. I’m doing very little except facilitating the experience, weaving the characteristics they identified into a story,  leading the debrief, and introducing some additional strategies for working more effectively with the person in the identified role. Even then, my contributions are discussed, massaged and adapted by the group to best meet their circumstances, experiences and needs.

Participants leave with a visceral experience that creates empathy and understanding within them. They leave with ideas they’ve constructed together to help them be more effective in relating to someone in a particular role that they previously may have misunderstood, unfairly judged, been afraid of, reactive and defensive towards, or even avoided. They leave with confidence in themselves and a set of strategies co-created with their peers and teacher. Because they've built this set of strategies themselves, they have motivation to try them out.

What brain-based activities do you use to teach your new content?

There are so many great ways to provide new content. The key is change it up, use a variety of modalities, turn some of the process over to your learners, get folks actively engaged with your content and trust the adults you work with to be active participants in their own learning.

How have you taught new content that actively engages your learners?

Please share your ideas in the discussion section below.