Integrating Brain-Based Learning in the Classroom

classroom strategies

A good way to work with these guidelines is to write each concept on an index card and then list some of the specific, practical strategies you can do to make it happen. Consider introducing one new concept a week; then be rigorous in your implementation. Remember, you’ll still be integrating the concepts from the previous weeks, too; but after a while, your new approach will be automatic.

Pre-Exposure and Priming

Make sure that learners are pre-exposed to the content and context of the new topic at least one week in advance of starting it. This helps establish some background and relevance in the subject and expedites future learning. Post a summary or mind map of the proceeding unit on the bulletin board a couple weeks prior to starting it. Instead of calling students’ attention to it, let them notice and ask you about it.

Sufficient Time for Learning

Time is an essential ingredient and is always a factor in the learning equation. The urge to cover more and more content often results in incomplete learning. Provide sufficient time for learning to begin with. Make sure you plan time for review and reflection as well. These are requirements for authentic learning.

Low or No Threat

Interact daily with each learner. Provide frequent, nonjudgmental feedback. Be sure to activate prior learning so that learners draw connections between new subjects and past learning. Manage states without making threats; redirect learners as the need arises. Remember, it’s not what you teach, but how they best learn. Keep the focus on learning.

Prep for Final Performance

If you expect learners to take a test to demonstrate their learning, it is your responsibility to prepare them for success on it. We are doing a disservice to learners if they are set up to fail. Every time a student fails or experiences a poor performance, we are reinforcing that self-image. Ensure that learners rehearse for their final performance and that their preparation includes a stress condition similar to that which they’ll likely experience at test time. Do not give pop (or surprise) quizzes. Rather, provide ungraded pretests so that learners can discover their strengths and weaknesses before their test scores are final.

High Engagement

Make this statement your mantra: “Involve, don’t tell.” Get students on the bicycle rather than telling them how to ride it. The bulk of your lesson planning activities ought to engage learners physically and socially so that they are continually interacting and taking action.

Positive Emotional Engagement

Teach learners to manage their own learning states. How students feel is critical to the decision to learn, the quality of learning, and the ability to recall the learning. Reduce negative states by changing activities frequently, providing choice, attending to physical needs (e.g., moving, stretching, providing drinking water, downtime), and keeping the stakes and challenge level high. Be supportive, and provide frequent opportunities for feedback.

Learner Choice

There is a fine line between too little and too much choice, and the balance is related to various factors such as trust, rapport, and past experiences. When you provide a brain-friendly learning environment, learners feel empowered. When they feel empowered, it isn’t necessary for them to have a choice in everything because they will trust that you have their best interest at heart. The key element here is perception: if learners perceive that they have power in the relationship, they will demand less of it. We all need to feel that we have some control over our destiny, whether we’re 5 or 50 years old.

Moderate to High Challenge

Create enough challenge that what you are asking students to do is worth doing. Any activity can be made more challenging by adjusting any of the following factors: (1) time (increase or decrease the amount of time you give for an activity), (2) standards (raise or lower the final product standards), (3) resources (increase or decrease the availability of resources for doing the task), and (4) circumstances (learners have to do the task silently, or by themselves, or in the dark, or with three partners, or for public performance).

Strong Peer Support

Students will be willing to take on more challenge if they know they can count on peer support. Encouraging positive peer affiliation is an ongoing process that is supported by frequent group assignments and team efforts. Use formal and informal groupings, use frequent pairs activities, encourage socializing at appropriate times, and emphasize cooperating learning. Assist learners in setting up outside study groups and/or paired homework assignments. The old model of learners competing against each other for the best grades ought to be replaced with learners helping each other achieve the best learning results for the greatest number of people.

Mastery Goals

Students, for the most part, do what is expected of them. Set high standards, provide benchmarks, and acknowledge learners for reaching them. Share and post your goals for the class as well as learner goals.

Sufficient Nonlearning Time

The brain is not good at nonstop learning. In fact, not learning is necessary for the brain to process and transfer learning from short- to long-term memory. So make sure your students have sufficient reflection time. Downtime can take the form of journal time, recess, break time, listening to music, lunchtime, or activities such as a walk with a partner.

Balancing Novelty and Predictability

The optimal learning environment provides a balance of novelty/surprise and predictability/ ritual. Constant novelty is too stressful for students, while constant predictability is too boring. Too much of one or the other usually results in behavior problems. The best balance is high amounts of novelty and predictability.

Safe for Taking Risks

Ensure that the culture in your classroom is one that supports emotional safety. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for teasing, humiliation, put-downs, or name calling. Get learner buy-in by discussing the need for a safe learning environment. Ask learners how it feels to be humiliated or laughed at. Conduct role-plays emphasizing appropriate responses when someone puts another person down. And ask the class to determine what the consequences ought to be for breaking a ground rule. Post a sign to remind learners of their agreements. Always model appropriate responses for such things as incorrect answers: “Good try, Michael; you’re using your brain. Do you want to give it another shot? Would someone else like to give it a shot?”

Moderate Stress

A little stress is good; too much is bad. Again, it is the balance that is important here. Stress levels influence learner states. Monitor the tension in your class, and manage it accordingly. If it’s too high, it’s time for humor, movement, games, or quiet time; if it’s too low, it’s time to raise the stakes or challenge level.

Alternating Low to High Energy

As mentioned earlier in this book, circadian rhythms are a biological mechanism that moves our energy from low to high and back again along a regular timeline. This roller coaster of energy levels is easier to deal with when you recognize it as a natural aspect of our lives. We are influenced by hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal cycles. Acknowledge the influence that these cycles have on learners, and work to accommodate their natural ups and downs. This is another reason that providing choice is so important.

Multimodal Input

Engage as many modalities as possible by providing learners with options and choices. Ensure that learning activities offer auditory, visual, and kinesthetic components. Provide visual aids, guest speakers, partner learning, cross-age tutoring, independent time, computer assistance, audiobooks, and field trips. Remember the importance of the three Vs and the three Cs: variety, variety, variety, and choice, choice, choice!

Frequent Feedback

All of the previous goals are supported by frequent feedback. Ensure that every student gets some kind of feedback every 30 minutes or so each school day. This does not mean you personally have to provide that feedback. Rather, set up mechanisms whereby learners receive feedback from their peers, teaching assistants, and self-reviews, as well as feedback based on grades and your own verbal feedback.

Celebrate the Learning

It’s easy after all these demands on your time to forget to celebrate the learning, but this is a critical step for optimal learning. Like the athletic team that celebrates its hard work after each win, learners need to feel acknowledged for their efforts. Celebration also adds an element of fun to the process and engages learners’ emotions. From something as casual as a simple high-five to a more elaborate student-planned party, be sure to close each learning session with some kind of a celebration or acknowledgment.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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