After a bit of reflection on joy and efficiency yesterday, I poked around a bit to figure out what neuroscience could teach me about the science of joy and learning. I found a great 2007 article in ASCD’s Educational Leadership called “The Neuroscience of Joyful Education,” by Judy Willis. Willis reports: 

Cognitive psychology studies provide clinical evidence that stress, boredom, confusion, low motivation, and anxiety can individually, and more profoundly in combination, interfere with learning (Christianson, 1992).

Neuroimaging and measurement of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) show us what happens in the brain during stressful emotional states. By reading glucose or oxygen use and blood flow, positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicate activity in identifiable regions of the brain. These scans demonstrate that under stressful conditions information is blocked from entering the brain’s areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. In other words, when stress activates the brain’s affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt.

She goes on to offer this acronym to help teachers keep brain-friendly practices at the forefront of their planning:

A common theme in brain research is that superior cognitive input to the executive function networks is more likely when stress is low and learning experiences are relevant to students. Lessons that are stimulating and challenging are more likely to pass through the reticular activating system (a filter in the lower brain that focuses attention on novel changes perceived in the environment). Classroom experiences that are free of intimidation may help information pass through the amygdala’s affective filter. In addition, when classroom activities are pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholinem, which increases focused attention.

The acronym RAD can remind educators of three important neuroscience concepts to consider when preparing lessons:

  • Novelty promotes information transmission through the Reticular activating system.
  • Stress-free classrooms propel data through the Amygdala’s affective filter.
  • Pleasurable associations linked with learning are more likely to release more Dopamine.

Rule #1: Novelty beats monotony


Focusing on presenting class content through novel means opens up the brain’s pathways to lead to deeper learning. This makes total sense. Can you remember what you ate for lunch three weeks ago? Probably not – your lunchtime routine is likely as monotonous as mine and doesn’t register as important or worth memory space. Can you remember your vacation from three years ago? You probably can, because this experience was packed with novelty and your brain altered itself to new details and recognized their value. The same goes for the classroom – when we go through the same routine and lesson structure each day, brains turn off down and learning shuts down. Take the kids outside, “walk and talk” during a think-pair-share, wear silly hats, push the desks out of the way and sit on the floor. Even these small novelties will make a difference. 

Rule #2: High stakes = low learning

Stress — which in some ways can be seen as the opposite of joy — blocks learning just like boredom does. Planning low-stakes opportunities for practice and regular changes to “shake off” mistakes can reduce the brain’s natural tendency to shut out new information when it gets overwhelmed. Teachers might decide to play review games before an assessment not only because it’s “fun,” but because it reduces stress and makes the brain less likely to put up walls that block learning. Sometimes we want to instill urgency in students and compel them to focus by emphasizing the potential for failure (“Pay attention! This is going to show up on the quiz and you won’t earn the grade you want if you aren’t taking notes!”). But when every moment of class feels “high stakes,” stress rises and learning drops off. 

Rule #3: Intentional fun is non-negotiable 

Resist using fun activities as a reward for the “real” work of school (“If everyone works hard on their spelling lists for the next 15 minutes we will play a game!”). Fun is the real work of school. The more students find pleasure in our classrooms the more they release learning-friendly hormones that drive academic success. Consider starting class with a silly game to prime kids’ brains for learning rather than saving it for the end (“If we have time…”). Or plan a “brain break” before you transition to tougher material so kids are primed to do their best. Challenge yourself to insert fun, for the sake of fun, into each lesson as  a turbo boost for learning.