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  blog in April, 2007, have been doing a lot of reading, and been attending workshops and conferences, including Learning & the Brain .
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.
“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 , 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 Bartels writes the Neurons Firing  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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