A Secret Brain Based Principle in ActionWayne Jennings
Picture a large school learning lab of fifty middle school students working at dozens of tasks simultaneously. A group of seven returns from interviewing and video taping senior citizens in the nearby high rise about their past careers. They move to edit the tape and prepare a narrative report. Another group of three leaves to conduct a survey about how the school's students can be of service to the community.
One group works at producing a script for a skit that portrays types of abusive behaviors in families, schools and the community. Two students at a computer create graphs and charts for their presentation to parents about teenage eating habits. Six students are writing a newsletter describing the various cultures and backgrounds of the student body complete with maps and graphs. Another team has created a cut-through model to scale of the hills behind the school grounds.
Students don't even look up at their visitors. What's the secret of the deep engagement and self-discipline in this scene? The teachers use a simple but powerful technique for meaningful, emotionally satisfying and life-centered learning. It results in a highly productive and an utterly engrossing learning environment.
Your visit doesn't reveal what magic causes students to work at such an energetic and industrious pace. They all seem so smart, resourceful and capable. The method is so little used in schools that it seems a mysterious and hidden process.
The method is simple, my friends. These teachers ask students what questions they have about life. It's amazing but students have thousands of things they wonder about. Their questions become projects where students dig for information and find ways to organize and present their findings. Teachers and teacher aides become facilitators of learning by expediting research and orchestrating the multitude of activities.
Teaching content and skills in such a setting is contextualized, that is, provided in the context of need. Say, students are making mistakes with its and it's. A mini-lesson corrects this with only those students having this problem.
Teachers may observe students struggling with using a word processor. They may let the students figure it out on their own or they may ask a more knowledgeable student to help. If students misunderstand a concept, a teacher will provide just enough explanation just in time to help learning.
The core of the method involves student ownership and investment in the topic. If students choose topics, choose how they will process the topic and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding, the magic of deep engagement occurs. Under these conditions, we respect youth's ideas and interests, meaning, we respect their personhood.
It leads to many kinds of cross-disciplinary learnings in content and skills. A science of engaging students has existed for many centuries but few know about it because of the teaching paradigm. Teachers decide on content, devise lessons and teach them. Wouldn't any of us become restless and unmanageable if someone else constantly decided what and how we were to learn, -- particularly if it continued for twelve years?
Surprisingly, planning content with students results in most of the key learnings we want them to gain, even if topics come in a totally different order. Remembering content beyond the unit test follows when teachers have respected student curiosities through whatever twists and turns they lead.
We might note the unbelievable gaps in knowledge and skills among students from their participation in our present carefully planned, sequenced, articulated curriculum. This result after the hard work of dedicated teachers?
Brain based learning means practices that are congruent with the way the human brain handles information. To view our enormous brain as a vessel to fill is to fail to see that it is more like a sieve for information without personal meaning, no matter how urgently we state the importance of the information.
Brain based learning means understanding how the human brain works and working compatibly with its immense powers. It requires a great variety of stimulation and opportunities to process the input. It requires feedback to learn how it's doing. It requires a safe environment in which to tests its powers. Planning with students, giving students ample opportunities to investigate areas of interest and providing for the integration of what they learn on their terms produces phenomenal growth in learning.
Learning to plan with students is not easy or natural for teachers given their training and own experience in schools. However, it's very worth undergoing the difficult learning curve. Remember, that anything worth doing is worth doing badly -- at first.
All Contents Copyright © 2004 Wayne Jennings.