Brain-informed teaching and learning

The Brain and Language Lab for Neuroimaging at DC’s Gallaudet University .

I get to do a whole variety of things at my work, and some of the most interesting is related to the science of learning – another phrase for brain-informed teaching and learning. Over the past year or so, we’ve visited some of the university sites that’re doing research in this field, such as the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. We’re blogging about it, I had the chance to do a SXSWEdu session with researcher David Yeager, and in November we will have a meeting here in DC about it, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers so that they can share ideas about this multi-faceted subject and come to common understandings and ways of working together. As we have talked with researchers, for example, we have discovered that the translation into practice is not always a focus; Hopkins is a place where they are persevering to make that happen.

So, what’s this all about, this science of learning? In short, it’s applying what we know about the human brain and its development to teaching and the classroom; it’s aligning where students are neuro-developmentally with instruction. Glenn Whitman, who directs the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD, said it rather nicely when I went out there for a visit. I forget the exact quote, but it was something like this: That a teacher has 20 brains in that classroom, not just 20 kids, and it doesn’t make sense for a teacher not to know what’s happening in those brains. Optimal learning can only happen with that understanding.

The Center For Transformative Teaching & Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.

But a lot of classroom instruction is not very brain-aligned. Here’s one example from Dr. Bruce Perry:

Learning requires attention. And attention is mediated by specific parts of the brain. Yet, neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within minutes…[and] neurons become “less responsive”…Only four to eight minutes of pure factual lecture can be tolerated before the brain seeks other stimuli, either internal (e.g., daydreaming) or external…If the teacher is not providing that novelty, the brain will go elsewhere. Continuous presentation of facts or concepts in isolation or in a nonstop series of anecdotes will all have the same fatiguing effect – and the child will not learn as much nor will she come to anticipate and enjoy learning.

Now, I was certainly guilty of this heaping on when I was teaching, and as we are discovering in our work at the Alliance, there are not many teacher training programs that connect pedagogy to neuro-development. All the more reason for shops like Glenn’s, that works with teachers to transform their practice to be more brain-informed.

I have just scratched the surface; there’s a great deal of information out there for further reading. For example, see Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed; in its beginning he discusses historically underserved children and the impact of their sometimes tumultuous home life on later school success:

Part of the evidence supporting this belief comes from neuroscience and pediatrics, where recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children. Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.

Or get on Twitter, punch in #neuromyth, and stop talking about “left brain” and “right brain” or “learning styles.” Just two examples of many neuromyths that continue to have legs. Or see Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, in which he praises the research around distraction – that effective studying is not closeting yourself in a room for eight hours straight, grinding through your Psych 101 textbook.

Distraction is one of those things everybody is worried about – certainly every parent, with the iPhones and people jumping on Facebook and so on. And of course if you’re spending your entire time tooling around on Facebook, you’re not studying, so that’s a problem…However, there’s a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you’ve run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go – walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is – and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem.

I know, I know: I feel like I’m at the blackboard again during my third period English class, just filling it with ideas, from me and my students. Too many much, as we say in our house, and certainly not very brain friendly. I am all over the place.

Well, I’ll end with this: We know more and more about how the brain works when it comes to learning. How do we ensure then that teaching and classrooms and schools align with what we are discovering?

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