The Sorting Hat: Is There a ‘Slytherin’ of Neuroscience that Applies to Education

Oh no! What if we’re not in Gryffindor house! Neuroscience studies never intended to address learning, so what’s all the Hufflepuff about? They are more likely to investigate depression, genetics, post-trauma plasticity, neuro-degenerative diseases, and mapping anatomical structures. References to education are transfers used to bridge neuro-findings to our profession. While it’s a worthy cause, few findings are a direct reference to the teaching/learning intersection.

Without becoming experts, we can however, adopt several practices that align with the fundamentals of generating “minds-on” processing. Such practices promote results far beyond the rhetoric of entertaining, flashy hype. The litmus test comes when we use the “learning sorting hat” trilogy. It seeks to identify concepts from cognitive psychology/neuro-studies that align with education research and with what we have learned through experience.

“How do I teach this?” is not the same as, “How will they learn this?” Beyond getting their attention and maintaining classroom management, understanding how information is processed for understanding, for memory, and for application is imperative. Following are five applicable, effective and readily incorporated approaches.

NEURO-MOVE #1: Context

Unpacking Context
Context, the setting or circumstance surrounding a word or idea is pivotal as we develop understanding of all information. Everything that we see, hear, read, feel, and commensurately think and do, is a response to what the world puts before us and how we interpret it. This makes the role of the educator vitally important. Context builds meaning. Meaning builds memory and provides the capacity to change perspective and provide transference and application of the learning. For instance, a logger and a bird watcher bring differing meaning to trees.

So, which house in Hogwarts will you be sorted into? Context is not the same as the objective or target of a lesson. Contextual elements provide setting and relational cues. They enhance meaning, buy-in, understanding and ultimately, active processing to memory. Units of study must take this into consideration before the first lesson begins. There is a body of knowledge, set of skills and understandings contained in each segment of learning. The common approach is to teach, in sequential order, beginning to end, toward a determined set of learning outcomes within a unit of study. As the first lesson takes place, the teacher knows the context in which the content resides. The student does not. The curious brain will ask, “Does this new material relate to what I already know?” Without a contextual framework the learner becomes adrift, devoid of purpose and connection. Students’ complete assignments that result in minimal residual recall and no opportunity for transfer.Active processing to memory is far more likely to occur when thinking is embedded in contexts that tap into prior knowledge. When new information is introduced, it can overload working memory and elude comprehension, causing learners to “tread water” trying to keep up. Tomorrow’s discussion and/or a pop quiz become trial and error activities with blank faces and a scramble to recall “right” answers. This is frustrating for students and unproductive for teachers. Beginning units of study brainstorming what is already knows about the big ideas/concepts helps ground subsequent efforts.Every brain seeks meaning. Context constructs meaning. Meaning gets attention. Thus, context must be used to frame each lesson. Ask yourself, “How can the overall context of the studies become clear such that explicit connections are available for learners to build upon?”

Neuro-Move #2: Classification
The brain always looks for connections as it interprets new learning for understanding.





Unpacking Classification
From birth, the brain encounters the world seeking meaning. When we do not recognize what we are experiencing, the brain instinctively will seek patterns in an attempt to identify common attributes that provide structure or meaning. Early on, to make sense of what we experience through our senses, we first look for that which may be familiar to us, similar enough to be grouped with something we know. We also notice what distinguishes one item from another. Instinctively, the mind seeks patterns to make sense and meaning. We compare/contrast inputs with familiar ones as explorations evolve into more comprehensive, greater depths of understanding.From infants right up through higher education the practice of classifying begins with sorting, grouping, and organizing (Marzano, 2019). These become increasingly more sophisticated in our learning, with concepts such as pros/cons, argument, and debate.

Early learners quickly sort objects by color, putting all the red pieces together, then grouping blue, then yellow and so forth. As the years pass, adolescents explore patterns of similarities and differences among people, cultures, governments, countries, and eras in history. Aligning instructional practices with something the brain already does naturally is a “no-brainer.”

What if…
…the sorting hat placed Harry Potter into your school? What if before studying the Crusades, American Revolution, WWII, or any other war in a social studies class, we discuss the big idea, purpose and intent of studying history first? Perhaps framing the learning through the lens of conflict would connect with learners as they relate varied forms and expressions of conflict across global, community, family and even personal issues… all embedded in current times!

Extension activities can deepen understanding. Our first grouping criteria are typically based on prior experience. Soon, we become aware of other possibilities for organizing the same material. This is reclassifying. Beyond our initial sorting, we can expand thinking by reviewing initial perceptions and reclassify with different criteria. Revisiting our work increases understanding across additional applications and venues. The capacity to transfer to aligned or even non-related areas engages understanding, deeper levels and becomes timeless.
Locating patterns, classifying and generating comparisons helps the brain strengthen connections. Classifying leads to organization, problem solving, relationship building, and transfer of knowledge.

NEURO-MOVE #3: Dual Coding

“A picture is worth a thousand words… be it hard copy or internal imagery”

Unpacking Dual Coding
Let’s explore imagery in the brain. Close your eyes and ask yourself, “How many windows are in my living room?” Our visual memory scans the room and knows exactly. Right? Now ask, “What type of locks are on the windows?” Internal visual scanning now focuses on the location of the locks. The brain visually codes information as experiences are processed. All of this without intentional study.
Infants first learn to understand the world through their senses. Prior to letters and numbers, the mind learns by seeing/hearing patterns and by trial and error. Processing visual cues becomes a vital component of assessing the world into which we are born. When available, the visual modality is key to both early and later learning and is often underutilized.

What if…
…we placed pictures of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln side-by-side. Things in common written between the images while things that distinguished them on the outside of respective pictures. Dual coding is the merging of visual and verbal cues for the learner simultaneously. EXPLICITLY (directly stated, not implied) and SIMULTANEOUSLY (at the same time) are imperatives. When we use both modes to consciously process verbal and visual attributes together, our brain integrates pathways. This is NOT to be construed as having students use pictures to understand text. It is a deliberate, conscious interweaving. Visuals contain many cues, subtleties and prompts that support memory, recall and transfer. Whether internal imagery, paper, screen or otherwise visual processing occurs naturally.

What if…
…We provided each student with an enlarged copy of a central representation regarding their study. Students write directly on the image in whatever way has meaning for them. Materials often have an image cueing something meaningful about the content. Students capture anything relevant, locations, chronologies, characterizations of key people, etc. on the visual. They create symbols and markings that signal importance for them. This builds clarity, connections, and potentiates deeper understanding. Many students struggle to retain the ocean of content before them. Ultimately, when a learners create their own internal imagery, cueing memory and capacity for transfer increases.








What if…
…. We “drained text” from visuals? As words come to mind from a key image learners contribute ideas, emotions, and personal references. The little boy in the picture elicits ecstasy, joy, and elation. Group generated vocabulary and perspectives can lead to word choice, synonyms, genres—whatever the objective. Purposeful images provide learners opportunity to interpret and build meaning that enhances processing.

Neuro-Move #4: Emotion
“No meaning, no memory. Period!”

Unpacking Emotion
Can YOU Relate to this situation? You spot the mother of a student heading your way. Instantly, prevailing emotions of past interactions flood your mind. Anticipation comes with each approaching step. You feel a dominant emotion emanating from prior interactions with this parent. Frequent… and common.
Now think of one of YOUR students. Notice what germinates in your mind. The sum-total of interactions constructs emotions. These undertones range from pleasure to anxiety and more. They influence our disposition. Keep this in mind as you read on.

We are all familiar with emotions. Often we refer to them as happy, sad, fearful, angry, frustrated, and even surprised. Emotional “tags” are NOT commentaries of “the kids love this” or “they really enjoy that.” Subtle differences between how kids react and that which powerfully impacts learning are pivotal. Surface emotions often evolve to complacency, rejection, fear, or disenfranchisement without a sense of meaning or purpose is missing.

“Emotional Tags” for Learning
YOUR student has topics and interests personally “tagged” as meaningful to them. Everyone has them. Emotional tags refer to high interest meaning-based material that instills emotional connections for the learner. Connecting with constructive emotions shifts disposition more effectively than punitive alternatives.
Emotions are real and “earned.” When harnessed, these “tags” bolster attention. Untethered, they resist or block processing. Social-emotional programs seldom address an individual’s personal tags or dominant emotions. Individuals benefit from personal meaning in conjunction with learning more than being coached about feelings.

Dominant Emotions
YOUR student also has “dominant” emotions about subjects, situations and even school in general. Dominant does not mean strong or dominating. Dominant is the aggregate of circumstances over time. Experiences create a backdrop that influences perceptions, cues interest, and the likeliness of certain responses. Early in schooling students establish dominant emotions with respect to risk taking or engagement in learning activities. Juxtaposed with peers each develops mindsets regarding their role at school. Some withdraw from participating, fearing negative attention. Unproductive emotions can prevail. Attendance, grades, and homework often become battlegrounds.

Neurobiologist Dr. Patrick Levitt states, “Emotion IS learning… period!” The mental conclusion of not important suggests little meaning is indicated (Levitt 2010). That which has only minimal impact on personal meaning for learners can, by definition, have no significant emotional basis for retention. For too many, the dominant emotion that accompanies learning is not helpful.

Neuro-Move #5: Social Interaction
“The brain is directly and powerfully shaped by interactions with others.”

Unpacking Social Interaction
The power of interaction cannot be overstated and directly impact motivation. My wife drives 20 minutes to exercise classes three times weekly. I asked about her commitment to drive, attend, ache and perspire. “I need the exercise,” she replied. I countered, “Then why not do routines at home and skip driving time and fees?” She said, “It’s not the same.” Driving, physical strain, ability, condition, economics, and daily disposition are insufficient variables in deterring motivation to be alongside others. Membership and the presence of others matters. The collective experience of people having a common purpose, supporting one another actively, openly, or even unwittingly… is fundamental.
What if…
…Competent interactions were explicitly taught throughout all levels of education? Three aspects are:
1). Connecting with Purpose: We all need to understand the purpose of our interaction, what we are working toward, and why it matters. Educator’s are instrumental in assuring this is known for each student.
2). Organizing Thinking: The competent expression of our thinking requires learning how to organize thoughts. Learners must be taught how to participate as they prepare for exchanges. Explicit instruction with ways to organize and prepare ideas is fundamental.
3). Collaborative Interaction: The capacity to collaborate productively with others is imperative, not innate. Educators know how important it is to establish a respectful community. Decision making, managing emotions, positive relationships, and competent social exchanges are more important than content.

Impact differences? Social Health? Social interactive neglect fallout?
Social deficits were compounded in many settings through school closures. Screen-based activities and fragmented instructional options became the default. Computer apps attempted to generate quasi-social interfacing. Now abundantly clear, 2D is not the same as 3D, face-to-face exchanges.

Moving toward tomorrow
Context: Units of study need to begin by framing the arena (context) in which the learner will explore big ideas, the essential concepts, ideas, and content. This represents the starting point for clarification, choice of direction, emphasis, and purposeful engagement.
Classification: Consider how students will apply the natural tendency of comparing/contrasting things.
Dual Coding: Central representations provide connections to meaning and purpose. Consciously accessing internal and external images through visual and verbal coding helps learners relate to transferable big ideas, improving recall.
Emotion: Knowing each student’s dominant emotions toward learning is critical to both engagement and motivation. Personal, constructive emotional tags have an impact on behavior, attention, and learning.

Social Interactions: Ensure there is an opportunity within each unit for each student to interact and express their ideas purposefully within their own personalized context of experience.

If active minds-on processing generates more learning, these neuro-moves are requisite. It would be unfortunate for anyone to not connect to their work. Too often students do work largely to achieve a grade or score. This is not learning behavior. We need to foster more personalized efforts, if learning is the goal. See and the DNA of Learning Blueprint for expanded examples and more depth.

About the Authors:
Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from teacher to superintendent. As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes. Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt.

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, special education director, curriculum director and assistant superintendent, teaching at undergraduate and graduate levels. As an educational consultant she has worked countrywide with school leaders in leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement. She guided project work with Brown University.














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Greenleaf, Robert and Millen, Elaine. (2023) When Teaching Mirrors Learning: The DNA of Learning Blueprint.
Greenleaf, Robert and Wells-Papanek, Doris. (2005). Memory, recall, the brain & learning. Greenleaf-Papanek Publications.
Levitt, Patrick (2010). Lecture at R.I. Hospital. W.M. Keck Provost Professor of Neurogenetics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Willingham, Daniel, et. al. (2015). The science of learning. Deans for Impact Coalition.