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Teaching Opinion

Response: Working Smarter, Not Harder, With Neuroscience in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 27, 2012 8 min read
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(This is the second of a multi-part series on “brain-based learning.” You can see Part One 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 second in a four-part series on this topic. Last week’s post included responses from three neuroscientists associated with BrainFacts.org. Today, educators Wendi Pillars and Wendy Ostroff will be sharing their ideas. Several other guests will be contributing their thoughts on the topic, and I’ll be featuring reader opinions in the final post. In addition,I’ve brought together my favorite useful related resources here.

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars is a National Board certified teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network who has taught ESL/EFL for 15 years, both stateside and overseas. She has been researching and deciphering educational neuroscience one thought at a time in the quest to bridge the science and its classroom applications. Running is her ultimate cognitive processing tool. She is the author of two previous articles in Education Week Teacher, Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning and What Teachers Need to Know About Action Research. You can reach her on Twitter at @wendi322:

I was at my wit’s end in reaching some of my students who were struggling. I knew I had to work smarter, not harder. Rather than haphazardly trying one strategy after another, I resolved to better understand what was happening in my students’ “inner spaces.” Which led me to neuroscience.

And although neuroscience is not a panacea, here are a few of my takeaways:

• I now focus my planning much more on learners’ needs rather than what I “have to teach.” I look for ways to establish the relevance of a lesson to previous and future learning, and make sure the lesson is truly worthwhile. If we make Civil War gingerbread in class, students need to know why and how it links to what they’ve learned.

• I have slowed down. A lot. Once the kids get used to longer wait times for responses to questions, they realize they are accountable for answering. I also try to extend my wait time after their responses. This typically extends their responses further, and peers’ subsequent questions and comments are related to the first student’s thoughts. Big-time gains for 2nd and 3rd graders.

• I encourage students to ask more questions by allowing more time for inquiry. I also post question stems to model various levels of thinking next to different amounts of “classroom bucks"; they have to ask questions from each level to sweeten their proverbial pot. I ask fewer spontaneous questions, instead asking specific (planned!) questions at strategic points in lessons. Anticipation of what they may be thinking at any given point presents a whole new level in planning.

• My evaluation of student responses has changed because--and this is especially true with language learners--even an apparently incorrect or off-base response can give me valuable information about their cognitive processes and previous knowledge. This helps me enhance the relevance of my instruction and also build stronger emotional connections.

• I teach students about their brains. Part of the brain-based learning means that as I learn about how the brain works, so too, should my students. They should be guided to identify their emotions, what motivates or stresses them, why something “sticks” more than usual. This cedes ownership to them so they can understand how--and have more power--to reduce their own stress and maximize their intellect with new tools for social and emotional competence.

• It’s a great topic for action research. I use my findings as a mutual learning opportunity and as a lens through which to study classroom processes, student actions, and student reactions. The whys and hows. I look behind student responses for renewed insight, and have deepened my awareness of learning as a living process that directly affects people’s lives.

• There are plenty of other examples, but my most important reflection is that this is all about the learner. “My lessons”, the “state’s curriculum”, etc., are useless without the context of the learner, and their neural pathways being strengthened. Cognitive neuroscience, with all of its findings, has nearly carved in stone the fact that all learners are indeed different (the new “normal”, perhaps)--a very obvious, but necessary fact outside the confines of labels and data.

Learning more about neuroscience has changed my perspective on the profession: as teachers, we really are brain-changers--and we can be more effective when we take advantage of recent discoveries.

Neurological evidence confirms what many teachers already do know about learning--the brain’s penchant for patterns, repetition, novelty, emotional connections, etc. But data has debunked several misguided myths: critical periods in educational development, left brain vs right brain, multiple intelligences, the idea that we use just 10% of our brains.

Findings have also shed light on nutritional needs of the brain, the necessity of sleep, and common developmental disorders. It’s a wide-ranging field that illuminates the complexity of the mind. If you’ve ever been concerned with puzzles of the whole child, I’d encourage you to jump in and read. The basics are accessible and will lend concerted perspective to the hows and whys of your practice.

Be cautious, of course, as some assertions you encounter won’t be sound. Reflect deeply on your own practice, use common sense, and honor the individual learners in your classroom--these strategies will help you sort out what to do with what you read.

Response From Wendy L. Ostroff

Wendy Ostroff’s expertise in cognitive psychology, child development, and metacognition stems from her research experience as a scientist in the Infant Perception Laboratory at Virginia Tech; as a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; and as a Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University. She has been developing curriculum on children’s learning for the past 15 years in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University; in the Department of Education and Child Study at Smith College; and, most recently, as Associate Professor in the program for the Advancement of Learning at Curry College. She is the author of Understanding How Young Children Learn: Bringing the Science of Child Development to the Classroom:

Here are the top four ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching:

1. Get moving

Movement gives the brain the opportunity to ‘do the information’ rather than to just see or hear it. Children who move around as part of their lessons show increased stimulation of the frontal lobes, less impulsiveness, and increased ability for executive control. Likewise, highly physically fit children show much greater success on attention tasks requiring executive control, and much better performance on mathematics and reading achievement tests.

2. Hook into emotions

Emotions are processed on brain super pathways and cue corresponding bodily responses, such as a release of adrenaline, increase in heart rate and sensory alertness. In the same way, when a classroom event is emotional or interesting, small amounts of adrenaline are released, strengthening the quality of neural signaling in the brain. An emotional hook to a learning experience can speed up the learning process. Furthermore, children vividly remember those classroom activities that sparked their motivation or grabbed their attention.

3. Make space for open-ended and creative play

Neurological research shows us that cognition develops primarily through play. Play prepares the brain to handle the unexpected and promotes neural development in the brain areas involved in socioemotional functioning. As an illustration, rodents in environments with running wheels and play structures show greater brain development and intelligence than those without opportunities to play. In one study, juvenile animals raised with an adult who they could not play with, showed deficits in cognitive and social functioning. If they were allowed to play with a peer for just one hour per day, though, no deficits occurred.

4. Work together

Collaboration in groups or pairs is especially beneficial for learning because our brains have overlapping neural circuits for actions that are performed and actions that are perceived. In this way, we can learn skills just as complex by being actively present, rather than needing to directly experience everything ourselves. With so-called mirror neurons, the observation of someone else’s action directly maps onto our brain’s motor representation of that action. When students learn together, they gain the knowledge that comes with not just their experience/perspective, but also that of every other student in the group.

Thanks to Wendi and Wendy 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Three of this series in a few days....

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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.