School is more than a place to impart material. Above all, it is a space for social gathering and learning. “Working together, meeting, acting together – it was a matter of course in everyday school life for so long, until suddenly it was no longer a matter of course,” says Michaela Sambanis. The professor, who trains English teachers at Freie Universität Berlin, combines brain research with teaching in her work. For them, the topic of interaction has become a special concern in recent years.
Numerous studies show that human relationships within a classroom are key to enabling children and young people to learn successfully. Interaction is particularly relevant to language learning, says Michaela Sambanis. “What really matters and creates the learning atmosphere are the interactions that enable social closeness.” But the phenomenon of interaction is elusive. Can their dynamics be objectively sought?
So far it has been difficult to respond to what goes on in the minds of schoolchildren while they are in class. Until a few years ago, brain researchers only looked at the social processes in individual subjects watching other people. However, electronic encephalography (EEG) can now be used to measure the brain waves of multiple students at the same time and compare activity patterns as people interact with each other.
“Neural coupling” in the classroom
Such studies use portable EEG machines similar to classroom hoods, explains Sambanis. The goal is to “look” and observe the brain during the most natural possible contacts. The scientists found that the students’ brain signals synchronized with certain activities. This “neuronal coupling” manifests itself in the phases of productive activation of the group, for example during stimulating class discussions.
If an alignment of brain activation can be seen in several interacting schoolchildren, this is a measurable indication of involvement in the classroom. This in turn forms a good basis for the cognitive examination of the material taught. “The higher the synchronization with classmates, the less they allow themselves to be distracted”, explains the teaching teacher.
A look inside the leaders of a school class also shows that the more comfortable students feel in their class and with the teacher, the more likely they are to engage with the material and pay the necessary attention. The sense of belonging among the students, the famous “class atmosphere”, is fundamental to establish whether the brain is synchronized with the others in the class, explains Michaela Sambanis. “With that in mind, the question of whether community building activities waste valuable class time or whether a small amount of time is worth investing in them somehow answers itself.”
Learn best through a positive learning atmosphere and social closeness
Pupils learn best when they learn with joy – this is an important conclusion of Sambanis’ work with teaching. A philanthropic phrase that probably most people working in the pedagogical professions would readily accept, not without adding a sigh: Yes, if it were that easy! But what can teachers do to create a positive learning atmosphere that allows for social closeness and cognitively activates students?
To find answers, Michaela Sambanis, together with Maik Walter, director of the Berlin adult education center in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, presented the publication “Make it work!”. The book combines neuroscientific findings and concrete tips for interactive teaching of foreign languages in secondary schools and presents activities that have been tried and tested in classroom practice.
One of the book’s three focal points deals with how online classes can be designed to be motivating and activating. Michaela Sambanis does not believe that digital teaching will be a thing of the past after the pandemic. “Many of the tips for interaction in digital lessons are not only applicable when schools are closed. Videoconferencing as a temporary supplement or substitute for face-to-face teaching can also contribute to school education in the future.”
Pay more attention to the emotional state of children
Regarding the discussion in German schools about “learning gaps” which must be closed quickly, Michaela Sambanis reminds us not to lose sight of the social dimensions of the school. Learning and creativity thrive in a relaxed atmosphere. It is therefore important to pay close attention to the emotional state of children and young people.