What you think you’re teaching is STILL not what you’re actually teaching

Teaching is not passing on knowledge. It is passing on emotion.

Recall: How the brain learns

For knowledge to stick, your brain has to be ready to remember it. The hippocampus controls memory, so if you want to remember something, your hippocampus needs to be alive, alert, awake, and enthusiastic.

What’s the best way to wake up the hippocampus? With an alarm from your brain’s security team, the reticular activating system (RAS) and amygdala.

The RAS and amygdala are like guard dogs that bark at anything with emotional significance: a giant diseased squirrel, food, and anything else new, interesting, or scary. Just like real dogs, the amygdala and RAS want to maximize pleasure and avoid pain.

Meet Amygdala, one of your brain’s guard dogs working day and night to keep you safe. Pixabay

Teach the brain how it wants to be taught

When you’re teaching about, say, climate change, you might think the first idea you’re trying to pass on is “how greenhouse gases block UV radiation”, but you would be wrong.

The first idea is actually, and always, THIS IS IMPORTANT.

You are a rodeo clown cartwheeling and yelling. “Look at me! Look at this! This is important! This is interesting! Look at me!”

Now, how you signal that THIS IS IMPORTANT is more mysterious, and much harder to perfect than how to teach the greenhouse effect itself (show a diagram, draw arrows, and use the analogy of a real greenhouse).

Those are some great teaching points, but the details aren’t going to stick until the hippocampus wakes up. If you want the hippocampus to wake up, you’re going to need to say or do or show something to catch the interest of that doggo team (the amygdala and RAS).

Impacts on your pedagogy

This is why that disturbing image of the emaciated polar bears can be an effective way to start the climate change conversation.

This is also why teaching about climate change is usually easier than teaching plant anatomy. Some things are easier to signal the importance of than others.


The first idea you are teaching, every lesson, every day is the same: THIS IS IMPORTANT.