Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Integrating Brain Science and Pedagogy

The foundation of the industry called education involves the essential and sometimes illusive process/outcome called “learning.” Though we can learn all kinds of things from skiing to sewing, geometry to public speaking, the bulk of or K-16 system focuses on the highly cerebral academic subjects of English, Math, social studies and science. Astonishingly, the history of education in America shows a marked lack of interest and awareness of advances in brain science. As an aid to rectify this situation, John Medina’s book Brain Rules is a good starting point.

Physical activity improves cognitive function (while you’re doing it!)
Stress effects brain function.
We are powerful and natural explorers.
The eyes serve as the dominant input to our brains—stimulate vision
Short-term memory becomes long term with repetition.
The human brain evolved to survive… tap into the survival instinct (teamwork, problem-solving, dual representation)
We are multi-sensory creatures—stimulate multiple senses
Long term memory is cumulative and complex (elaborate encoding sticks).
Every brain is wired differently.
Sleep is essential to good brain function.
Male and Female Brains are different.
Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things.

In read Brain Rules in the fall which got me thinking about lots of systematic changes within the education industry that would be revolutionary, but also would take a long time to implement, and this got me frustrated. So I turned my attention local, to my own classroom, to look for ways to apply Medina’s brain rules to improving the educational outcomes in my classroom. Here are few examples of things I’ve tried, or will soon, with outcomes yet to be determined as I don’t have a reliable way to measure the impact. Nevertheless…

Short and Long Term Memory: I had started this before I read the book, but my class is designed to spiral. Every lesson asks for recall of information learned in previous lessons; lessons frequently compare new information to old information; and eventually the course will end with cumulative assignments. However, I’ve added some things: I frequently repeat information that is critical throughout the lesson; I now make sure to end more lessons with a “summary” piece—all important information is reemphasized; and I try every few days to recap the previous few days.

Senses, especially vision: Again, I did this before, but Medina’s work made clear its importance—every lesson has to have a visual component—some pictures, diagrams, written words (not just spoken), etc. To get multi-sensory, for a little why I tried spraying air freshener in the room so students would recall learning every time they smelled it… but that hasn’t really kept up. I think I should start again though—some studies suggest it could increase performance 15% if they smell the same things during testing.

Physical Activity: I kick myself everyday that I don’t get the students out of their seats at least once during the class period. When they’re moving, they’re awake, and that translates to more alertness, and better performance. I get them up to write on the board, work in new groups that a mixed among people from around the room, etc. If only I could get them doing jumping jacks and chanting history instead of counting… maybe I can? 

Check out Medina's website for more ideas: