Archive for January, 2010

The rush is on to write and market books on teaching/learning reexamined in light of recent discoveries by neuroscientists. Often lost, among newer, less valuable work, is a book published in 2003 and written by Mariale Hardiman, a Johns Hopkins faculty member and a pioneer in the “neuroeducation” movement.

The book is called The Brain-targeted Teaching Model and it’s unlikely that anyone would bother to buy the book these days because Dr. Hardiman gives away the whole shtick on her web site: http://www.braintargetedteaching.org. The model points to six dimensions of learners’ neurophysiological responses to stimuli that must be “tuned” by teachers if the goal is maximum learning. A few examples of teacher-tuning taken from lesson plans on the web site are provided below: [Note: The B&B Blogger has replaced many of the obscure uses of neuroscience lexicon with everyday terms.]

1. Emotional climate. Neuroscientists (NSs) tell us that all data coming into the brain pass through an emotional center before they arrive at the thinking center. So, all data get an emotional spin along the way. Teachers, then, need to create positive, non-threatening emotional states for each lesson. One teacher uses deep breathing exercises prior to a lesson on oxygen. Another has children mix peanut butter and jelly just prior to a unit on chemical solutions.

2. Physical environment. NSs have shown that low-volume classical music has a negative impact on activation level (that is, it is inherently relaxing, a good thing). However, it also has a negative effect on focus and concentration (not a good thing, depending). So, teachers might use background music when kids are doing tasks that don’t require focus to help prepare them for the next (music-less) period in which concentration will be needed.

3. Learning design. NSs believe that the “natural” way we learn is by putting new things into the big content buckets we already have in our heads. So, Hardiman suggests that teachers move away from a linear presentation of information such as:

Big idea
Supporting idea
Supporting idea
Supporting idea

Big idea
Supporting idea

And, move toward a presentation of 3-4 big ideas/buckets and have kids sort each subsequently presented supporting idea into the correct bucket. A unit on the Civil Rights Era might have three buckets like: 1) Discrimination against African Americans, 2) Peaceful protests and Civil Rights leaders, and 3) the culture of the era. Supporting ideas or examples would include school desegregation (1), Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2) and how African Americans were portrayed in movies (3).

4. Teaching for mastery. Data that are no longer under active consideration (i.e., that are not in working memory) get pushed to long-term memory and if those data are never retrieved, they will be forgotten. For this dimension of learning, teachers need to find ways of getting kids to retrieve and visually lock-in previously learned material. An example provided involves an 8th grade class on Greek and Roman mythology. In the beginning of a several-week lesson, students learn the common characteristics of gods and goddesses. These are listed on a chart. Then at the end of each lesson about a specific god (let’s say, the god, “Bob”), they write under a picture of Bob his godly characteristics. Still later in the unit, students have to group/sort gods and goddesses by the characteristics they share.

5. Teaching for application. NSs believe that we are more likely to understand and remember a concept if we reconsider it in a different or higher-order way after the initial learning. An example from a unit on immigration asks kids to figure out why certain immigrant groups ended up in concentrations in different parts of the country. For example, kids might say that many Norwegians ended up in Minnesota because they were comfortable with the weather there. If that’s the case, the teacher might then ask why so many Somalis immigrated to the same area. Etc.

6. Evaluating learning. The title for this one is a little misleading. The insight from neuroscience is that people learn best by receiving frequent and timely feedback. So, teachers are simply encouraged to provide more individual feedback, more often. If the feedback is well done, a kid wouldn’t just get a B in reading and not know what judgments or scores went into that composite rating. The sooner we know we got something right (or wrong), the better.

Again, loads of more information about Brain-targeted Teaching can be found at http://www.braintargetedteaching.org. And, to close with an Amazon-type suggestion: If you like this stuff, you might also like the book, 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles, by Caine, Caine, McClintic and Klimek, 2008, Corwin Press.


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