The Neuroscience of Call and Response


In my last post, I talked about using call and response to deepen learning.

Whether you use call and response for academic review or to encourage thinking, you’ll use it more effectively if it doesn’t seem mysterious or magical.

Knowing the neuroscience behind call and response can help you understand how to use this learning technique with more creativity and flexibility. Nerdy as it sounds, the science behind cultural responsiveness is important. It gives us insight into how various cultures wire the brain for learning.

Why does a technique like call and response work for children of color? Its effectiveness has to do with the fact that their cultural roots are deeply connected to the primary ways learning took place in an oral culture. Our forefathers and foremothers didn’t refer to “brain-based learning,” but they understood the need to make sure children remembered what they were told. Early immigrants had limited access to education in their native and adopted countries. During slavery and even after emancipation, laws and customs in the United States made it illegal or difficult for some people to learn to read. Many marginalized racial groups had to rely on oral traditions for everyday learning.

Over thousands of years, most indigenous oral cultures perfected these methods to preserve their traditions. These methods are still deeply ingrained in the way many children of color learn at home, even if most adults aren’t always conscious of the technique as anything other than “the way we did it when I was a kid.”

Let’s break down the neuroscience to better understand how and why call and response works. It draws on three aspects of the learning process: attention activation, firing and wiring and mirror neurons.

Attention Activation

Learning begins with attention. We cannot learn, remember or understand anything to which we don’t first give our attention. The teacher’s “call” triggers the students’ reticular activating system (RAS).

Alerted that something is about to happen, the brain becomes curious. Students begin to pay attention in a different way. The RAS controls, among other things, ability to become mentally alert and focused.  Located in our older, emotional brain, the RAS doesn’t respond well to verbal commands or other words. It is especially stimulated by novelty (something new, surprising or puzzling), physical sensation and high personal relevance. In that order. That’s why simply telling a student to pay attention doesn’t result in attentive behavior. It’s necessary to entice the brain with something that makes it curious or emotional. Performing call and response in a lively, positive, energetic way activates the RAS and helps generate mental energy and focus.

Activating the RAS is critical in a culture in which information and traditions are transmitted orally.

The take-away here is to turn on students’ attention by ritualizing the activation process. Introduce a round of call and response with a flip of the light switch, a specific number of hand claps, a chime, a train whistle or another physical signal to activate students’ RAS and let them know it’s time to pay attention.

Firing and Wiring Together

Remembering is the next critical part of the learning process. Remembering may seem effortless, but this capability is more complicated and fragile than we imagine. Call and response helps strengthen ability to retrieve important information already learned.

Every time a student engages in call and response, the information reviewed is driven deeper into long-term memory and becomes easier to retrieve at will. When processing information, brain cells called neurons communicate with each other through a cascade of electrochemical reactions referred to as firing. If you focus and concentrate on something sufficiently, the brain will fire neurons in new patterns. This neural pathway is the beginning of a new memory.

Connecting call and response with rhythm or chanting helps neurons fire and wire together.  The rhythm becomes permanently associated with and connected to what is being remembered, making the information easier to retrieve. That’s the reason we remember the “ABC Song” or all those “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes. The music or catchy jingle is wired with information the creators want us to learn and remember.

Mirror Neurons

We are social creatures, hardwired for connecting. That’s the wisdom underlying call and response as a communal learning activity. But that’s not all there is to it. The human brain contains mirror neurons, special cells that fire at the sight or sound of a relevant or emotionally charged action.

Mirror neurons seem to be an extension of the theory that people learn most effectively in a social context.

You might think that call and response provides kids who don’t know the material a chance to hide in the crowd. But the concept of mirror neurons makes it easy to reframe call and response as an opportunity for those students to learn from their peers in the moment. The brain is firing and wiring as they hear others give correct responses.

When planning units and daily lessons, ask yourself how you are making the most of your students’ RAS system and mirror neurons. Remember that getting students actively involved in their cultures’ learning traditions helps develop strong neural pathways that become the framework for deep background knowledge and understanding.

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published at on April 1, 2013 and posted here with permission.

Hammond, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is an educator and writer passionate about teaching and learning. She’s worked as a research analyst, a high school and college writing instructor, a literacy consultant and, for the past 13 years, a professional developer.


It works! I wonder if it's

Submitted by Marc Mostransky on 17 April 2013 - 5:13am.

It works! I wonder if it's needed now more than ever with students increased screen time. If students are just sitting there, is it even easier to zone out because they are so used to being entertained and interactive with video games, phones and televisions? In 8th grade I still start class some days with the young K-3 method of "clap, clap, clapclapclap." To which they imitate the response.

The following parenthetical

Submitted by Alvin Holst on 16 April 2013 - 1:15pm.

The following parenthetical inclusions below are from the piece by Zaretta Hammond. This awareness is critical to learning for all students as it reflects awareness of the human potential and the cultural history of all people. The earliest learning occurs in the right hemisphere and the midbrain where there is emotional awareness. Any child knows fear and eventually learns shame before age six. The typical course of study is left hemisphere and does not address these shifts in brain or neuron function. I very much agree with this approach, however many teachers use guilt and terror to motivate students which is also a common practice of many parents. Learning takes place in the present moment and guilt is from the past and terror is of the future, thus the student is distracted from the intended lesson of reading, writing and computation. The lack of concern for this learning charateristic leads to ignoring it or worse abusing the very nature of how one learns. The consequences are abudundantly evident in the violence and incarceration of our youth today. This is not only a hideous cost to one's life as a student but economically to society.

(We are social creatures, hardwired for connecting. That’s the wisdom underlying call and response as a communal learning activity. But that’s not all there is to it. The human brain contains mirror neurons, special cells that fire at the sight or sound of a relevant or emotionally charged action.

Mirror neurons seem to be an extension of the theory that people learn most effectively in a social context.)