external image FF_70_brain1_f.jpg

Resources that support Debbie Kranzusch's September 22, 2008, presentation Brain Research: Classroom Connections.

Greenleaf Learning

Neurons Firing Blog

Learning and the Brain
Rewiring the Brain: Using Brain Plasticity Research to Enhance Learning, Treatment & Teaching

SharpBrains: Brain Fitness Revolution
Learning and the Brain: Resources for Educators

Albuquerque Academy

Brain Research: Classroom Connections
Below is Debbie Kranzusch's text of her presentation.

Story: How the Coyote Got His Cunning

Well, the “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks..” expression was proven wrong when quite a few of us began working with University of Chicago’s Everyday Math. You can teach an old dog and the young ones new tricks, important tricks...... and when it comes to educating young people today, we need to know all about how they think rather than just how they behave. This summer, one of the neatest educators I’ve ever met told us in a seminar something very important about education. Dr. Jeb Schenck said, “Our job is really to teach to the student’s brain instead of merely conveying information and principles, because in the long run , it’s in the brain, where the action, the learning, takes place.” He told a rather large group of educators from all over the U.S. and Canada that there’s a lot out there now about learning and how the brain works, but most of this important information has not reached practicing teachers.

Jeb Schenck is a high school biology teacher, a college professor, an excellent educational presenter, a mountain climber, photographer, a father of two children with learning challenges, and a husband whose wife has had brain tumor surgery and has relearned many of the basic movements and bodily processes. Jeb Schenck was one of many excellent presenters at Albuquerque Academy in July; his stories about working with students were compelling, and he used many of his techniques in the workshops he led. Dr. Schenck was a runner up to Christa McCauliffe in the Teacher in Space program. We all agreed that his mission to inform and educate those of us who work with children today is a crucially important one.

As far as the brain goes, there was tons of very technical information provided at this workshop. Today, I’m going to try to hit the highlights and relate that information to the classroom, learning, and children.

First, basically, ”once you stop growing and learning, you start dying.” This statement was repeated several times in Albuquerque. The brain is much more than a three-and-a-half pound lump of matter between our ears; it’s probably the most complex “thing” ever studied. Here are some of the current thoughts on the brain:
  • Our decisions, interpretations, and thinking are influenced by combinations of emotions and feelings. The biochemistry of emotion is required for learning. Dopamine produces actual synapse change in the brain. Understanding brain emotion systems helps us understand motivation as well. Emotions are built from chemicals. Kids are quickly changed by threat and depression; they may mask it, but the chemicals are there.
  • There are several different periods of growth in the brain, not just early on as once believed. “Opportunities to learn” reach into adulthood; some studies suggest that the human brain can grow new cortex neurons that will foster memory. There are copies of charts from Dr. Schenck’s book that list brain growth stages. (See Debbie for the charts.)
  • The brain has a right and left side. The old notion that humans are right-or left-brained is old news and incorrect. Researchers say that when both sides of the brain work together, memory is improved. Logic, emotional processing, decision making, creativity are enhanced when teachers provide classroom experiences that involve using both sides of the brain.
  • The new buzz word is “PLASTICITY”; it’s the ability of neurons to recognize and take on new or different functions in the brain. Some portions of the brain have plasticity; others do not. What do we need to know about plasticity? The experts say that instead of teaching and assessing in only one way, students could better demonstrate their knowledge and skills if they had several procedures to retrieve information and several ways to demonstrate the knowledge or skill.
  • Whatever we learn about the best ways our students learn, it is very important that we pass that information on to other teachers. Share things you’ve done with your students that have worked.
  • As far as memory goes, students only remember things that have meaning to them. Help students create memories. Information has to first be noticed to begin the process, so make sure your students have your attention. The more the brain anticipates the task, the more it remembers. Create a state where teasers are used . AND, it’s okay to say, “Look up here, all eyes on me” or “This is very important; write this down.”
  • Simple things like writing notes on the board in color, putting a box around something that is especially important, or using a party noisemaker to cue important information will help.
  • Providing information in smaller amounts helps: pausing to allow students to take notes helps; walking around the room helps; correcting misinterpretations helps. They told us that moving on and ignoring that some of the students seem to be lost means that they will not remember or learn and will eventually give up.
  • Always have the students’ full attention before giving instructions; reduce distractions in your class before doing so. Ask students to repeat instructions.
  • A welcoming environment is easier to learn in; consider using music in your classroom; try to make it comfortable, not sterile.
  • Know that emotions affect learning and memory. Students who think they may be made fun of or bullied don’t store information. Emotions effect reasoning and decision making. Students who have issues at home or at school have issues with long term memory. ALL learning and thinking involves emotions.
  • MOVEMENT ENHANCES MEMORY. Students should move around before tests and important assignments. It doesn’t take long and it’s worth it.
  • Students remember things that have personal meaning to them. Have students explain why something makes sense and show to whom it would be important. (This is why students who have too much parental influence have trouble with this; the mental pictures should be theirs, not Mom’s or Dad’s!)
  • Vary what’s going in your classroom every 15 minutes; this is not just for young children or for adolescents. Use games that reinforce material and create excitement. You may be surprised that simple things are appreciated by your students. Remember that students love novelty, intensity, and emotional-personal significance.
  • EVERYTHING COUNTS. Small actions and kindness on your part and do wonders for your students. Be alert to what you do and create a learning environment that reaches out to the students.

So, basically, with traditional teaching we present information and skills. We give them some practice and then assess them. We hope they will “spit back” that information even though we have ignored what form of memory was used or created.

With cognitive brain-based teaching, we INTENTIONALLY create specific types of memories, made of skill and practice and personal meaning for the students. Memories can be found and linked in new ways.

We know that if working memory is overloaded, students won’t learn. This is why cramming for tests is ineffective. This is why college students who binge drink after exams often do not have important long term memories of what they were studying. The binge drinking effectively “pruned” the information they studied. Neurons that fire together wire together.

We know that students who are sleep-deprived or have nutrition issues don’t store information in long term memory as readily as those who get 7-8 hours of sleep at night and have a relatively healthy diet. (and some physical activity) We know that kids who spend too much time online aren’t socially and physically interacting with each other and may be sleep-deprived.

**WORKING MEMORY OVERLOAD (descriptive airplane paragraph)

Read until you can’t recall every detail in order.

Most high school students can get to about 1 to 1 1/2 sentences before they begin to lose details. College kids range from about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 before the details start to be compressed. The brain’s working memory is overwhelmed. Imagine how you’d do on a followup assignment.

Teachers who know something about the brain will present 3-5 concepts at a time and give students time to process. They review often, allow students to ask and answer question while reading, not at the end, and they remember that again, students need to be physically active when learning is taking place. They know that the brain releases dopamine, which aids in learning.

The brain conscious teachers know that the mind cannot recall a memory that isn’t there. So, they will do whatever they can to help students build stronger memories through innovative class activities, environment, and understanding. They will make sure their students have linked the content personally, that they are physically involved, and that the students actually USE the material to solve problems. These teachers know that you don’t remember what you can’t say. So, they engage their students and have them explain things to their peers.

SO we can deliver knowledge.
We can help our students create meaning.
Learning is making retrievable memories.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to travel to New Mexico this summer; I can’t tell you what it has meant to me as an educator. Thanks for being here today.