Teaching Opinion

Response: Taking Advantage Of Neural Networks In The Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 31, 2012 13 min read
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(This is the third of a multi-part series on “brain-based learning.” You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The question asked two weeks ago was:

What are the best ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching?

I’ve seen the phrase “brain-based learning” used often, and sometimes in ways that do not seem particularly helpful. However, it is short enough to fit in a blog post headline....

This post is the third in a four-part series on this topic. Last week’s post included responses from three neuroscientists associated with BrainFacts.org. Earlier this week, educators Wendi Pillars and Wendy Ostroff shared their ideas. Today, Dr. David Dockterman, Renate N. Caine, Ph.D., and Kevin D. Washburn, (Ed.D) are contributing their thoughts on the topic. I’ll be featuring another guest and reader opinions in the final post next week. In addition, I’ve brought together my favorite useful related resources here.

Response From Dr. David Dockterman

Dr. David Dockterman is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Chief Architect, Learning Sciences at Scholastic Education. A former classroom teacher, he helped launch Tom Snyder Productions, an educational software pioneer, in the early 1980’s. David has designed dozens of award-winning instructional technology programs, including FASTT Math Next Generation:

As a high school teacher fresh out of college in the late ‘70s, I imagined the brain as a filing cabinet. My job was to help my students fill up their mental file folders with knowledge. While we still have much to learn about how the brain works, I at least know that a filing cabinet is an inept metaphor for what we now understand about cognitive function. Bits of knowledge don’t exist in isolated “files” in our brain. The brain is a tangled, interconnected, mess of neural networks inside our skulls.

But don’t fear. We’re learning more every day about how to untangle the mess, and about strategies that help learners build connections and boost academic performance.

Here are a couple do’s and a couple don’ts:

Don’t focus on a single perceived “learning style” for each student. No research supports the notion that some students are innately visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners (read what neuroscientist Daniel Willingham has to say). Meaning and memory are boosted by connecting representations of knowledge.

So do feed the network by providing not just multiple paths into content but by offering specific instruction to help students see how those representations are connected. In math that can mean consciously using language (“three groups of four”) that reinforces the meaning of symbols (3x4) with matching spatial images:

Don’t take for granted that your students’ reference points are the same as yours. I didn’t get my parents’ references to The Great Depression, and they didn’t get mine to Marvel comic book heroes. Background knowledge matters. Lack of it can be a big obstacle, for instance, to reading comprehension. Students need to connect the new to something already in their cognitive webs. A story set at the beach can confound students who’ve never seen one.

So do provide the reference experiences and knowledge that students need to incorporate the content you’re teaching. Anchored instruction, for example, provides content-rich background knowledge in virtual form so that students in middle America can, for example, see the beach before reading about it.

Research suggests that our brains are networks of neural networks. Those cross-wired networks give humans special capabilities. Let’s consciously take advantage of them in our instruction.

Response From Renate N. Caine, Ph.D.Dr. Caine is the executive director of The Natural Learning Research Institute, a non profit organization located in Idyllwild, California. She has worked with educators in the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, England and Germany. Dr. Caine is Professor Emeritus of Education, an internationally sought-after speaker and educator, and was an award winning high school teacher. Books authored by the Caines include Natural Learning for a Connected World, Education, Technology, and the Human Brain, Strengthening and Enriching your Professional Learning Community, and 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action. Dr. Caine can be reached at renate@naturallearninginstitute.org:

Why are Strategies not Enough?

I have been asked to comment on a few of the best ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns and how this might help teachers select appropriate strategies.

My response can be dealt with at two levels. One is to spell out a range of strategies. The other is more complex but much more effective in the long run.

This more complex answer became clear to us after developing the 12 Principles of Brain/Mind Learning we spelled out in the 1991 ASCD publication “Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain.” We realized that regardless of how many strategies teachers used, even more important is the need for educators to develop a new view of how learning and teaching function in a brain compatible (based, focused, etc.) school and classroom. Strategies emerge out of shifting our deeply held beliefs about learning and teaching in general.

The principles suggested that three overarching elements are essential for great teaching. The first of these three elements was “Relaxed Alertness” which later we defined as the optimal emotional environment for learning, both for individuals and the classroom as a whole. This came from a new understanding of how sensitive human beings are to threat and helplessness, and how critical intrinsic motivation and challenge, provided by personal choice, decision making and application of meaning, are to learning.

The second element we called “Immersion in Complex Experience.” This emerged once we understood that the human brain naturally solves problems posed by experience, and that the whole body, brain and mind participate. That is why today we define “learning” as “Making sense of experience, and developing new capacities to act in and on the world.”

The third element is the “Active Processing of Experience.” An example of processing can be found in the Socratic method. Ultimately, however, active processing refers to the continuous interaction between learner and teacher using non-judgmental but rigorous questioning and challenging of thinking, decision making and emergent understandings. It takes for granted a more dynamic, ongoing and developmental perspective of what it means to learn.

The deeper problem

Education is caught up in what the biologist Dawkins called a “meme.” A meme is an idea that will not go away. That pervasive idea is that teaching is “delivered” by the teacher from a plan, and that the better students can memorize, summarize, or “learn” the material to be covered, the more successful the teaching. Many of the most popular strategies teachers apply assume that the human brain is relatively passive in learning and therefore the teacher has to spell out the correct way to do things (and so they search for “strategies” that work in this old context). The brain is actually made for dynamic, interactive environments that challenge students to apply and engage with new ideas and experiences. And in the right context there is a natural drive to get better. Just think of how video games function - there is a problem the player cares about, this motivates him/her to pursue a course of action, pursue a goal and practice, practice, practice in order to master a new skill.

The way to get beyond the meme, in my view, is to understand and apply the three elements identified above so that genuine problems are dealt with in appropriately dynamic and interesting contexts.

My coauthor and I call this “Natural Learning” in our newest book “Natural Learning for a Connected World; Education,Technology and the Human Brain.” This kind of teaching is found in sophisticated project based learning and it is also very compatible with the new science standards still being finalized. This is also very compatible with the CA teaching standards and the incorporation of technology into the classroom. Technology allows students to pursue their own most urgent questions and ideas to share with fellow students. The teacher and curriculum provide the parameters for focusing student ideas. Think of teaching about the Civil War. According to the three elements the teacher would begin by engaging students in what we call a “multisensory immersive (real life) experience.” This can be an actual visit to a site where conflict took place, an intriguing artifact, re-enactment, personal diary written by a soldier or a provocative video that incorporates these elements. Students can generate their own questions such as “Did women serve in the war?” or “How did they handle the dead bodies?” “What roles did slaves play in the war and did they serve as soldiers?”

Teachers and students can group these questions and students can chose to investigate the most meaningful questions to them alone or in pairs or groups.

Information is shared as the teacher challenges everyone to place the information into “time lines” or connect their variously researched areas to create a comprehensive picture of the war, including the causes.

Students need freedom, respect and agreements to engage in this sort of independent learning. Hence “Relaxed Alertness” is absolutely critical and plays a part in helping students and teacher to communicate and listen to new ideas and discoveries.

Both the multisensory experience and the active search for information and critical events, and sharing and discussion of ideas are active, and ongoing. Hence, “Immersion in Complex Experience.”

And finally, the teacher is continually making certain that facts are correct, conclusions are well thought out, information is accurate, and skills (writing, documentation, historical research) are mastered. Hence the standards become actualized through student dynamic interaction and teacher guidance. Hence “Active Processing”.

We call this way of teaching and learning the Guided Experience Approach.

Response From Kevin D. Washburn, (Ed.D.)

Kevin D. Washburn, (Ed.D.), is Executive Director of Clerestory Learning, Cofounder/Co-owner of Make Way for Books, author of the Architecture of Learning instructional design model and its training program, the Writer’s Stylus instructional writing program, and co-author of an instructional reading program used by schools across the country. He is the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain, and is a member of the International Mind, Brain & Education Society, and the Learning & the Brain Society. His experience as a teacher in elementary through graduate level classrooms combines with his penchant for reading and research in educational and scientific areas to uncover important implications for learning. His blog is The WINDOW. This is an excerpt from one of his posts:

How can we educators convert breakthroughs in understanding the brain into tools and tactics for teaching?

Choose carefully. Not every finding neuroscientists uncover has value for teachers. I often sit in researchers’ presentations and think, “Okay, so that particular region of the brain ‘lights up’ when you have someone in the fMRI and flash a photo of such-and-such before their eyes. If it’s relevant for learning, how do I generate that neural activity in the classroom?”

Sometimes the interpretation of what is relevant gets misapplied by well-intentioned teachers. A few years ago, many educators thought the brain’s need for hydration meant that students should have never-empty water bottles at their desks. While this may help with hydration, it definitely increases use of restroom passes. The “solution” may create more problems than it solves. Additionally, this is a surface-level response to a below the surface challenge. Does the brain need water? Absolutely. Is constant sipping the best approach? Probably not. Learning is influenced less by water bottles than it is by effective teaching.

Having to discern what is and is not relevant for the classroom is both freeing and frustrating. It suggests that I do not need to be aware of every study and its findings because most will lack classroom relevance. However, to find the useful among the merely interesting, I have to 1) search for findings that may have relevance, 2) be sure I do not ignore research just because an application is not immediately obvious, and 3) identify sources that help me sort through the research avalanche.

I find focusing more on neurocognitive research and less on purely neuroscientific research is helpful. Neuroscience is often, but not always, focused on brain “geography,” finding the neural islands that come alive when specific stimuli are streamed through the senses. Neurocognitive research focuses more on the interaction of cognitive processes, such as decision-making, and neurobiology. It takes its cues from neuroscience and psychology. As a result, neurocognitive research is more likely to examine learning and its supporting cognitive capacities, and findings from its studies are more likely to have classroom relevance.

Begin small but be consistent. Rather than creating the ideal, “brain-friendly” classroom all at once, find a significant fact or principle and apply it in everything you teach.

For example, several years ago David Sousa alerted us to the brain’s need for “downtime,” a period of reflection following intense input of new material. I began planning “processing pauses” in everything I taught. These immediately influenced my students’ learning. They were recalling more, understanding more, and able to apply more of the material than they had before. Applying this principle to my teaching became natural and consistent. Now planning “downtime” is simply part of “how I teach,” even when I do not have it included in my lesson plan.

Consistently applying one principle at a time provides experience without overwhelming you, and such successes form a foundation for applying additional findings from research.

Find a framework. Whether it’s an instructional design model based on neurocognitive research (e.g., Architecture of Learning), or another research-based teaching framework, having a referential organizational scheme guides educational applications of neuroscientific findings. For example, I have attended the Learning and the Brain Conferences as often as possible for several years. When I adopted the Architecture of Learning as a reliable model for designing teaching, I suddenly had a “place” for using the often-detailed findings presented by the conference’s presenters.

At one of these conferences, a presenter explained the brain’s inclination for metaphor and how the mind uses this cognitive tool to both construct and communicate understanding. With an instructional framework in mind, I was able to identify immediately where such thinking would be optimally effective in learning (and thus, in teaching). As a result of having a “place” for the research finding, I’ve been able to apply it much more consistently than I would have if I had just made a note about metaphor being a good activity to include in my teaching.

Thanks to Doctors Dockterman, Caine, and Washburn for taking the time to contribute their responses!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including those comments in a post next week.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.