Mirror neurons are everywhere! From books to blog postings to last year’s first full conference devoted to the topic, mirror neurons are still generating excitement more than 20 years after their discovery.
All this fervor may not be misplaced. Scientists are currently exploring how these specialized nerve cells can influence everything from autism to speech disorders to one’s capacity for empathy.
In learning, students’ mirror neurons likely play a significant role in developing skill mastery. Teacher modeling, a common classroom practice, is a powerful instructional activity for skill learning. However, going through the motions is not enough. Research suggests we attend to specifics when we demonstrate new skills. Specifically, three details “matter.”
1. Goals matter. Mirror neurons engage when we observe someone acting to achieve a desired outcome. These specialized neurons in the brain’s motor system do not respond to mere movement; goal awareness activates them.1
Thus, when modeling a new skill for students, be sure the desired outcome, or goal, is obvious. Students need to know they are observing a goal-directed action, so state the goal each time you model the skill. For example, rather than repeatedly demonstrating a series of steps, such as a sequence used to revise writing for telling details, announce the goal each time you begin.
2. Relationships matter. Recent research indicates that mirror neurons are socially aware and selective; mirror neuron activation differs depending on whether the individual we observe is perceived as a friend or a foe. Why? Because you wouldn’t want to imitate the actions of someone you believe is trying to do you harm; the reaction encourages “caution around those with harmful intentions.”2
Generations of educators have debated teacher likability’s influence on student learning. I’ve even heard teachers cite students’ negative opinions of their teaching as evidence that their instruction was tough and demanding, and, therefore, effective. However, being demanding does not mean being disliked. Teachers can (and should) have high expectations while still creating a positive atmosphere for learning. And in this area, small things can yield significant results. For example, greeting students, by name, as they enter the classroom communicates a teacher’s interest in each individual. Responding to student errors as a welcome part of learning keeps interaction positive. When it comes to mirror neurons, others’ intentions matter. If a teacher is a perceived threat, all the modeling in the world may not overcome the social barriers that prevent the mirror neuron system from activating.
3. Understanding still matters. Scientists continue to debate the role mirror neurons play in constructing understanding. They do agree that skill mastery does not equal conceptual understanding, which is required for effective skill deployment.
It’s easiest to see this dichotomy in mathematics. In my early days of teaching, I spent days of instruction emphasizing the correct order of operations in long division. I spent far less — FAR less — time helping students construct understandings of what division was and where and when to use it. As a result, my students could generally perform the correct order of operations to find a quotient but tended to struggle when they first had to determine that division was the right tool to use. They knew how but lacked understanding of where and when. Without such understandings, students can gather skills throughout their school years that are only useful when someone else tells them to apply those skills.
How do we construct understanding? Recalled experiences provide reference points for further thinking about newly encountered data. “The frontal lobes access our hippocampus and regions in the interior of the temporal lobe and ask if there is anything in our memory banks that can help to understand this signal,” explains Daniel J. Levitin. “Have I [experienced] this particular pattern before? If so, when? What does it mean?”3 As a person recognizes relevant connections between the reference point and the new data, understanding gets constructed.4 And understanding empowers independent skill utility.
With their continued leading role in scientific research and debate, we may not have heard the last about what mirror neurons do and how they may contribute to learning. In the meantime, we can act on what we know and become more intentional in how we teach new skills.
And who knows, more intentional instruction may positively influence our teaching colleagues—via their mirror neurons, of course!
Kevin D. Washburn is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.
- Thomas, B., What’s So Special About Mirror Neurons? http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/11/06/whats-so-special-about-mirror-neurons/
- Yuhas, D., “Mental Mirrors Reflect Hatred,” Scientific American Mind (March/April 2013), 10.
- Levitin, Daniel J., This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 103.
- Washburn, K.D. The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Clerestory Press, 2010), 13-14.