Breakthroughs in Learning from Brain Based Schools
The mental model of school most of carry in our heads comes from our experiences in schools of past decades. These schools used forms of instruction based on dated principles of learning. Today, research on the brain suggests a much more active learning environment. Knowledge about the brain's functioning helps us achieve deeper and more permanent learning results with fewer casualties.
Leslie Hart's Human Brain and Human Learning provides a compelling platform for developing practical suggestions for teachers. While information from the fields of learning styles and multiple intelligences contribute many excellent suggestions, Hart's work needs revisiting because it establishes a foundation for devising brain based learning.
Hart argues that educators need to understand how the brain functions in order to design successful and effective instruction:
Suppose I asked you to design a glove, giving you all resources you may need. You know the shape of the hand, so your glove will emerge, we can feel confident, with provisions for one thumb and four fingers, a palm, wrist, and flexibility to permit finger movement. You will know that the hand's fingers bend forward, but not back, and that the thumb swings in from the side. Because you know the shape of the hand, and its general functions, you can hope to design something that will fit and work on actual human hands.
If next you are asked to design instruction to fit the body brain partnership, you see immediately that you cannot hope to do that job unless you know the "shape" of the brain, its main functions, and how it collaborates with the body. Without good, hard, realistic knowledge, a design group might labor a thousand years and get nowhereBindeed, in over two thousand years of teaching, a vast amount of effort has produced but fragments of knowledge useful to understanding how humans learn!
From Hart and others, we have gleaned four basic principles about the brain's functioning for brain based education. These can be applied at all levels of education.
1. Safe, non-threatening environment. Tension, anxiety and fear override the great thinking brain in all of us a process Hart referred to as downshifting. Goleman and others have written on the impact of emotion and how it short-circuits thinking. The child must not be humiliated, demeaned or shamed. There are many ways of assuring the learner's comfort:
Paying attention to the learner. We can greet the child on entrance and wish the child well at exit. When a child returns from an absence, say, AGlad to see you back. We missed you. We were worried about you.
A strong advisor program with frequent personal contact and concern for the learner's welfare. This accomplishes much more than the traditional home room period or the 300-1 counselor-student relationship. The advisor takes an interest in the learner How are things going?Band has the power to modify the program to better meet the learner's needs. The advisor checks on the student every day and is available for consultation.
Teachers ask about the student's interests and adjust subject matter to accommodate burning questions. This conveys that students are important and their needs matter. The opposite position, of ignoring student interests and treating student brains as vessels to fill, demeans learners and results in all kinds of resistance, resignation and apprehension particularly at secondary school levels.
Setting a humane environment with attention to color, plants, decor and work conditions. We all respond positively to attractive, convivial surroundings with interesting posters and comfortable furniture. The brain opens more to new information if not threatened.
Helping fellow learners to know each other. A warm, supportive room of friends puts people at ease. Students working together on committees or teams come to understand each other and appreciate differences. Set contexts of courtesy and respect. Use put-ups instead of put-downs. Applaud achievement.
Modify grading practices and systems to avoid sorting students into winners and losers. If you can't abolish the standard report card, at least provide a more complete picture of the student through samples of their work, portfolios, narrative reports, checklists and conferences.
2. Rich, stimulating environment. Deprived of stimulation the brain doesn't develop and atrophies. Hart suggested that in the average classroom where little different happens from day to day that excites the child, the brain is starved for input. We must immerse the student in new material, real events and projects and use the world as the classroom. Hart describes this process as building patterns in the brain. There are many ways to increase input to the brain:
Increase the number of field trips and study of the community. Schools will reallocate more for this area as they recognize its vital importance for learning. Even with limited budgets, teachers can make walking tours and study the community within a short distance of the school. The brain thrives on reality and complexity. Go places: airports, depots, colleges and vocational schools, farms, plants and factories.
Call upon the boundless resources of the community. Parents and other community members are a goldmine of information. Many schools ask of parents what they can share in such areas as travel experiences, places they have lived, careers, hobbies, health issues, politics, homemaking skills, gardening. After cataloguing, staff have an enormous, free resource to draw from. Several school use this resource as Asparks,@ that is, people share their interests and perhaps it will spark an interest in some of the students. These schools don't worry if the spark fits the curriculum. The brain handles diverse information with ease.
Offer a greater range of clubs and exploratory activities within the school day. Do this even in or especially in the elementary years. This exposes children to interest areas, augments vocabulary and may lead to talent development.
Capitalize on the inherent differences within the student body. All schools have diverse populations. Rather than ignoring it or treating diverse cultures as a problem, prize and benefit from differences and cultural contributions. Consider multi-age grouping and cross-age experiences. Recognize different learning styles, personality types and multiple intelligences.
Obvious as it is, use many approaches to learning. Draw upon manipulatives, displays, posters, visual media, experiments, models, sound, demonstrations, newspapers, periodicals, and technology.
3. Active, meaningful learning. The brain impels students to try their skills and to be competent at many tasks. Hart describes this process as building programs in the brain. Students must be active in school. The disjuncture between the energy of students and the passivity demanded by most schooling creates tremendous conflict. Students are like fast race cars gunning their engines at the starting gate but the flag never falls. There are many ways schools can boost active learning:
Arrange exchanges with other schools. The exchange might be the school across town or in the next county or on another continent. It could be a virtual visit on the Internet. Exchanges require students to write letters, research destinations, prepare presentations and questions and subject themselves to extraordinary experiences.
Use project based learning. Many conventional topics can be reformatted into challenges and searches for information to answer important questions. This is all the more powerful if students have shared in preparing the questions based on their curiosity. Energy and motivation soars under conditions of participatory classroom democracy. James Beane picks up on the best thinking of the core curriculum pioneers in proposing that persistent questions by youth about themselves and society furnish an effective curriculum basis for general education.
Create teams to investigate topics. When students learn to work well together to solve problems or to propose answers to issues, their brains are more fully engaged in complex tasks. This better prepares students for the world of work and citizenship. Much has been written on the power of cooperative learning groups for increased learning and social growth. We still see too little of committees, task forces, teams and work groups in classrooms.
Give every student a responsibility that contributes to the well being of the school. One elementary school of 500 students gave each one a job. For example, each three foot section of the library had the name of the student at the top who maintained those books in order. Another student who had habitually been tardy was given the job of raising the flag every morning. He was never late again. Students can handle complex assignments and rise to the occasion as they do in the real world now.
Active learning takes many forms: students teaching or tutoring others, internships, work experiences, cross-age activities, tour guides, video productions, mentoring experiences, producing newsletters for the school, drama productions, hyperstudio presentations, contests, solving school and community problems, participation in governance and Foxfire type projects. Teachers using these approaches report greater enthusiasm, energy and creativity with learners. That's because the brain is fully engaged and learning from complexity.
4. Accurate, timely feedback. The three year old who says, AMom, Jamie hitted me, receives feedback from Mom when she says simply, AYou mean Jamie hit you. The child's brain had noted the ed ending on verbs extracted the pattern and incorrectly applied it to an irregular verb even she had never heard Ahitted. A tiny amount of feedback or correction and the brain provides the correct form in the future. How much more effective than a lesson on past tense for the three year old. We most assuredly need timely and pin-pointed feedback to help the brain develop more accurate patterns and programs. There are many ways of doing this beyond report cards used to convey student growth.
Coaching at its best conveys the idea of gentle suggestions for improvement. People respond to kindly comments meant to help them understand the impact of their actions.
Self-assessment and peer assessment provide feedback. Assessing results requires a high level of thinking and reflection in the natural state of interest about how well something turned out.
Work samples and portfolios show what students have accomplished. Collected over time, student work can be compared to indicate progress.
Personal conferences with students provide one-on-one guidance. Conducted with utmost care and concern, teachers give students opportunities to reflect on their progress. Conferences built into the day's activities contribute to the student's sense of importance and growth.
Personal learning plans individualize education. Personal learning plans enable goal setting and provide a framework that guides students toward routes for accomplishing goals. They organize opportunities to review progress periodically.
Teachers can make their objectives explicit. Students who clearly understand what is to be learned can better gauge their progress and adjust what needs to be worked on.
Software programs give instant feedback in a non-threatening manner. Programs tailored to student needs can be endlessly patient with the student and allow for great differences in learning speed.
Celebrations reinforce learning and reinforce what was prized. Take time for fun and to recognize achievement. Special events arouse the emotions which energize student interest and excitement about content and skills.
No one questions that the brain is the seat of learning, emotions and personal competence. We need only to better understand the brain's functioning to grasp the learning prizes that have eluded so many students in school. The brain is the organ for learning and as Frank Smith pointed out:
We underrate our brain and our intelligence....reluctance to learn cannot be attributed to the brain. Learning is the brain's primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to the done. We are all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.
Remember Winston Churchill's comment, AI love learning; I just hate being taught.@ The name of the new game is learning, brain based learning. We can look forward to many, including startling, breakthroughs in learning as knowledge of the brain unfolds.
Newsletter supported by ASCD: Brain Based Education/Learning Styles from Joan Caulfield at Rockhurst College, 1100 Rockhurst Rd., Kansas City, MO 64110, 816-501-4585 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Beane, James A. Democratic Schools. Alexandria: ASCD, 1995.
Caine, Renate Nummela and Geoffrey Caine. Unleashing the Power of Perceptual Change: The Potential of Brain Based Teaching. Alexandria: ASCD, 1997
Hart, Leslie A. Human Brain and Human Learning. Kent, WA: Books for Educators, 1998.
Goleman, Daniel P. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997.
Jensen, Eric P. Introduction To Brain Compatible Learning. San Diego: Brain Store, 1997.
Kotulak, Ronald. Inside the Brain : Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works. Kansas City, MO: Andrews & McMeel, 1997.
Smith, Frank. Insult to Intelligence:The Bureaucrat Invasion of Our Classrooms. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988.
Sylwester, Robert. A Celebration of Neurons : An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain. Alexandria: ASCD, 1995.
Videotape series: The Brain and Learning. Alexandria: ASCD, 1998.
Wayne B. Jennings is director of The Institute for Learning and Teaching and is facilitator of the Brain Based Education/Learning Styles ASCD Network.
All Contents Copyright © 2004 Wayne Jennings.