Brain-Compatible Instruction (page 2)
Educators' efforts to solve the mystery about how students think and learn has in the past been hampered by one critical element: an inability to study the human brain in the process of thinking. With the advent of technologies for direct observation of brain function, the brain slowly is giving up its secrets, and the ramifications for educators is enormous. Consider the following information gleaned from the research on brain function and schooling.
- Students who utilize flash cards for learning will do better if the card is round. A circle is the most recognizable shape. Circular cards allow students to focus better because the round shape is less distracting than squares or rectangles (Barron, 2000).
- Movement is the only experience that unites all brain levels and integrates the right and left hemispheres of young students. Movement increases heart rate and circulation. It provides students with a spatial reference in the classroom, which improves memory. Movement promotes the release of noradrenaline and dopamine. These energizers keep students alert and enhance attention (Barron, 2000; Jensen, 1998).
- Thematic instruction improves learning by helping students to identify patterns and build on prior knowledge. Integrating curriculum areas such as the study of rain forests by combining mathematics, music, biology, and geography into a unit helps students learn more effectively than teaching each of these subjects in isolation (Wagmeister & Shifrin, 2000).
- Abstract ideas are developed by connecting concepts to students' personal experiences. This helps students link new information into preexisting neural patterns. For example, a teacher introduced a lesson on ratios by having students make juice from cans of concentrate (i.e., three cans of water for each can of juice) (Westwater & Wolfe, 2000).
- Analogies, similes, and metaphors enhance learning by linking abstract concepts and visualizations. For example, the terms million, billion, and trillion have no referent in direct experience. Creating visual analogies makes the numbers comprehensible. For example, a 4-inch stack of tightly bound 1,000 dollar bills would equal a million dollars. A stack that was a city block long would equal $1 billion (Westwater & Wolfe, 2000).
- The brain is not wired for long attention spans. Attention is focused in short bursts. Initially, attention lasts for about 18 seconds. The optimum sustained attention span is roughly equivalent in minutes to the age of the student. A 1st grader's attention span is 6 minutes. 6th grader's 12 minutes, and high school seniors 17 minutes. Individual lessons should include a variety of components, for example, teacher presentation could be followed by student discussion, seat work, group project, and feedback (Jensen. 1998).
The brain consists of approximately 100 billion neurons. That's a big number that is difficult to grasp. Sylwester explained, "There are about 100,000 hairs on the average human head, so that all of the hair in a population of a million people would be about as many neurons as you have in your brain" (Figgis, 1995). However, individual neurons are not the site of most brain activity. It is the connections that develop between neurons (500 trillion by age 10) that powers human thought. Think of individual computers running software on neurons so small that 70,000 could be contained on the head of a pin (Kotulak, 1996). Now connect all of these computers via the Internet and you have an idea of the exponential brain power produced by neural networks. These neural networks are cultivated by experience. As students mature, patterns develop that link neural networks residing in different locales within the brain. It is this chunking or binding of neurons that we refer to as thought. The cultivating and pruning of these pathways goes throughout life. Sylwester compared the neural landscape to a jungle "where different kinds of neurons and neuronal pathways competed randomly to survive, the way that particular trees or insects do. The message, then, is: for schools to match these messy minds of ours there should be more open-ended work for kids, more conversation, more liveliness—indeed more passion" (Figgis, 1995, 2).
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