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10 Brain Tips To Teach and Learn

My nat­ural rhythms are in cycle with the school cal­en­dar. Jan­u­ary 1st takes a back seat to my new year, which gets ush­ered in with the month of Sep­tem­ber when there is crisp­ness in the air that grad­u­ally shakes off the slower, more relaxed pace of summer.Conveniently, my career in teach­ing meshes with my nat­ural cycli­cal year. And as this year draws to a close, I am re-energized by the pace of sum­mer, know­ing that any­thing may pop in to my mind as I engage in activ­i­ties not directly related to school. But before that hap­pens, I’d like to reflect on this past year, in par­tic­u­lar as it was my first year of blog­ging about the brain.

My inter­est in the brain stems from want­ing to bet­ter under­stand both how to make school more palat­able for stu­dents, and pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment more mean­ing­ful for fac­ulty. To that end, I began my Neu­rons Fir­ing [1] blog in April, 2007, have been doing a lot of read­ing, and been attend­ing work­shops and con­fer­ences, includ­ing Learn­ing & the Brain [2].

If you agree that our brains are designed for learn­ing, then as edu­ca­tors it is incum­bent upon us to be look­ing for ways to max­i­mize the learn­ing process for each of our stu­dents, as well as for our­selves. Some of what fol­lows is sim­ply com­mon sense, but I’ve learned that all of it has a sci­en­tific basis in our brains.

1. Review and 2. Reflec­tion are two means for think­ing about what is being learned. Review can be done in the moments after a ques­tion is posed, a com­ment is made, a pas­sage is read, an activ­ity is done, or direc­tions are given, pro­vid­ing ample time to think about what has taken place, process the infor­ma­tion and respond accord­ingly. Review is also what should be done peri­od­i­cally over the course of the year, so that stu­dents have the oppor­tu­nity to revisit, relearn, clar­ify and con­sol­i­date their learn­ing to mem­ory. Mar­ilee Sprenger, based upon research by Jeb Schenck, notes that “spac­ing reviews through­out the learn­ing and increas­ing the time between them grad­u­ally allows long-term net­works to be strength­ened… the tim­ing between repeated reviews can sig­nif­i­cantly affect how much infor­ma­tion is retained.

Reflec­tion encom­passes not only a response to actual mate­r­ial but also think­ing about how one learns. It is 3. Metacog­ni­tion, and with each iter­a­tion you learn more about your­self as a learner. We empower our stu­dents and our­selves when we take the time for reflec­tion, because the more we under­stand about how we each learn, the bet­ter we can become at learn­ing. Accord­ing to Sprenger, “Metacog­ni­tion involves two phases. The first is knowl­edge about cog­ni­tion or think­ing about our think­ing. The sec­ond is mon­i­tor­ing and reg­u­lat­ing cog­ni­tive processes.

For me, blog­ging has been a con­tin­ual process of review and reflec­tion. In the course of over 170 posts to date, I con­tin­u­ally revisit top­ics, make con­nec­tions, and write about my own course of learn­ing. As teach­ers, ide­ally we should be review­ing and reflect­ing on lessons, course mate­ri­als, and inter­ac­tions with stu­dents, both as a means of improv­ing them as well as learn­ing from what worked or did not work.

4. Sleep is another way to con­sol­i­date learn­ing, which is one rea­son get­ting a full night of unin­ter­rupted sleep is impor­tant. Of course, doing so also helps us the next day to have more energy and patience, which then helps us with our atten­tion con­trol. In fact, cou­ple suf­fi­cient sleep with wak­ing up to a healthy break­fast, and you are pre­pared to tackle the day.

Proper 5. Nutri­tion keeps our sys­tems func­tion­ing closer to their peak by sta­bi­liz­ing var­i­ous lev­els of hor­mones and chem­i­cals. All of this holds equally true for stu­dents as well as teachers!

We all have our own life sto­ries, and being exposed to some­thing new tends to stick bet­ter if we have some­thing else to asso­ciate it with or if it is suf­fi­ciently unusual that it stands out on its own. Tak­ing advan­tage of stu­dent 6. Prior Knowl­edge prob­a­bly requires min­i­mal effort on the part of the teacher, but yields big returns by engag­ing stu­dent inter­est as stu­dents con­sider new infor­ma­tion as it per­tains to them and their expe­ri­ences. This, in turn, can 7. Engage Emo­tions, which is the largest hook into learn­ing. We all tend to remem­ber things that get our blood boil­ing for bet­ter or for worse. The parts of the brain engaged in emo­tions include the small yet mighty amyg­dala, the hip­pocam­pus and the hypothalamus.

Keep read­ing…

The amyg­dala deals with our emo­tions, helps process our mem­o­ries, and gets totally absorbed in man­ag­ing our response to fear and stress. Com­bined, these are big­gies, so the hip­pocam­pus and hypo­thal­a­mus chime in with some assis­tance. The hip­pocam­pus han­dles fac­tual infor­ma­tion, while the hypo­thal­a­mus mon­i­tors how your body is doing inter­nally and directs the pitu­itary gland to release hor­mones on the basis of func­tions such as body tem­per­a­ture, appetite, and sex­ual functioning.

8. Nov­elty is another big hook. As infor­ma­tion pre­sen­ta­tion blends between teach­ers or stays the same by one teacher, it becomes dif­fi­cult to see pat­terns and stu­dents may tune out the “same­ness”. But change it up a bit, intro­duce some­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent or in a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent man­ner, and all of a sud­den it is like a quick-pick-me-up in the mid­dle of a les­son, a “brain snack”. Stu­dents refo­cus their atten­tion, and it can even enliven your pre­sen­ta­tion and wake you up! One way to incor­po­rate nov­elty is to add some 9. Move­ment to reen­er­gize the body and brain cells. Move­ment can shake the sil­lies out or wake up slug­gish bod­ies and brains; it can be an anti­dote to the time of day or the cli­mate. Move­ment is also a close rel­a­tive of 10. Exer­cise, and it has been shown that exer­cise is espe­cially help­ful in keep­ing our adult brains healthy, so remem­ber to par­tic­i­pate in that move­ment with your stu­dents (and they will prob­a­bly con­sider your par­tic­i­pa­tion a bit novel!).

Nov­elty and move­ment can also effec­tively be used to assist kids with sharp­en­ing con­trol of their exec­u­tive func­tion, which is man­aged by the frontal lobes in the neo­cor­tex. Exec­u­tive func­tion is how we con­trol our atten­tion, cre­ate plans, and carry out those plans. Too often in school, kids are required to “sit still” and “quiet down”, yet these are the very basics of being a kid! Con­sider har­ness­ing that nat­ural kid energy to help stu­dents man­age their own func­tion­ing. Indeed, in a recent Newsweek arti­cle [3], Wray Her­bert notes that an exec­u­tive func­tion cur­ricu­lum has emerged to help stu­dents man­age “effort­ful con­trol and cog­ni­tive focus but also work­ing mem­ory and men­tal flex­i­bil­ity” the abil­ity to adjust to change, to think out­side the box. My next post will share some of the many resources I have found to be par­tic­u­larly use­ful, includ­ing the Learn­ing & the Brain con­fer­ence, which is a “must attend” if you can swing it!

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing [1] blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course” I’d love to take if it existed as a pro­gram”. She is the K-8 Com­puter Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­ogy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­nizer of Dig­i­tal Wave annual sum­mer pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain conferences.

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