The “Broad Sweep”
Brain-based education has evolved quite a bit over the last twenty years. Initially, it seemed focused on establishing a vocabulary with which to understand the new knowledge. As a result, many of us heard about (for the first time) axons, dendrites serotonin, dopamine, the hippocampus and the amygdala. Brain-based teaching is here to stay and now you can see why.
That was the “first generation” of brain basics, the generation that introduced a working platform for today’s generation. There was no harm in doing that, but knowing a few words from a neuroscience textbook certainly doesn’t make anyone a better teacher. Times have changed. The brain- based movement has moved from its infancy of new words and pretty brain scans. What was needed then was a stronger scientific vocabulary with which we can digest a new knowledge base.
Today’s knowledge base comes from a rapidly emerging set of brain-related disciplines. It wasn’t just highly regarded journals such as Nature, Science and the Journal of Neuroscience. Every people-related discipline involves the brain. As an example, psychiatry is now guided by the journal Biological Psychiatry and nutrition is better understood by educators in Nutritional Neuroscience. Sociology is guided by the journal of Social Neuroscience.
Some critics assert that sociology, physical fitness, psychiatry, nutrition, psychology, cognitive science are not “brain-based.” That’s absurd because if you removed the brain’s role from any of those disciplines, there is no discipline. There is no separation of brain, mind, body, feelings, social contacts or their respective environments. That assertion is all old school “turf-based” and outdated. If the research involves the brain in any way, it is “brain-based.” The brain is involved in everything we do. This is why any single discipline, even cognitive neuroscience, should be buttressed by other disciplines. While earlier writings did not reflect it, today we know that brain-based learning is cannot be founded on neuroscience; we have learned that it requires a multidisciplinary approach. The brain is involved in everything we do and it takes many approaches to understand it better
Application to School Issues
Many other students, who struggle in school, experience an environment in which the staff uses motivational strategies to improve academic performance and behavioral performance. The teachers are constantly trying new classroom strategies learned from books, trainings and conferences. The administrators are constantly inspiring, motivating and coaching their staff in endless ways to sharpen their collective “saw.” Unfortunately, this approach of trying to get better performance from students and staff can become overwhelming. This results in a dizzying and endless stream of programs, themes, missions, projects and, ultimately, burnout among many educators. But what if there was another way to go about this process. What if you could do less and get more? Let’s explore that possibility. It’s time to introduce you to brain-based teaching.
How Can the Brain Be Changed?
The concept of brain plasticity reminds us that your students are not stuck the way they are. While their success is dependent on their “academic operating systems”, those systems can be upgraded. We can increase mass in the student’s brain (Draganski and May, 2008) and boost the student’s production of new brain cells (Pereira, et al. 2007) and that’s highly correlated with learning, mood and memory. We can add mass through effective vocabulary instruction (Lee, et al. 2007). When we teach thinking and processing skills, and it alters the brain (Levy (2007). Playing certain computer-aided instructional programs can increase attention and improve working memory, in just several weeks, (Kerns et al. 1999 and Klingberg, et al. 2005), both of which are significant “upgrades” to the student’s operating system. Students are not stuck with poor attention span. Instead of demanding more attention in class, train students in how to build it.
There are many things that effective schools do well. Whatever you’ve done in the past that worked for students, in some way, it has successfully changed the brain in ways that can be measured on achievement tests. Indirectly, we change the student’s brains at school. When we teach students how to play an instrument, it changes brain mass (Gaser C, Schlaug G (2003). Many arts can improve attentional and cognitive skills (Gazzaniga, 2008). Playing chess can increase reading (Margulies, 1991) and math (Cage and Smith, 2000) vis a vis the pathways that increase attention, motivation, processing and sequencing skills. Students are not stuck with a poor attitude or weak skills. Any teacher, in any subject area, can build attitudes and skills.
Good schooling has often “upgraded” the student’s operating system. The “vehicle” for building the student’s capacity may be drama, sports, computer games, project learning or a simply fabulous teacher. In fact, every successful school intervention features a variation on the theme of “rebuild the operating system.” This system works on the principle of “fewest processes that matter most” to the learning process. But if you simply try to cram more content into the same brain, without “upgrading” the operating system, students will get bored, frustrated, and fail. This is great news for you. You can build the academic operating system with the right strategies.
1) Champion’s Mindset – This is the way of thinking that exudes confidence and willingness to try challenging tasks. STRATEGIES: Give students genuine affirmations often and support well-deserved student-to-student affirmations, too. Provide support for learning with tools, partners and confidence. Create short assignments and quick opportunities for quick successes that tell the learner, “You can do it!” Help strengthen their social status by providing appropriate opportunities for privileges with their peers. This attitude can be trained and it does change the brain (Duerden and Laverdure-Dupont 2008). Brain-based teaching works and now you can see why.
2) Hope – This is the feeling that long-term; it’s worth “staying at it.” It requires deferred gratification and only works when there is something to be hopeful for. Hope is the voice that says to you, “There are better days ahead.” It is fundamental for long-term effort. STRATEGIES: Strengthen teacher-to-student relationships so students know they have social support. Help set up situations where students can experience success. Provide quality role models or success. Teach imagination, positive goal setting and goal-getting. Help them learn to manage their time, create checklists to manage their lives. Teach how to make better choices and give practice in making choices. Ask them for their dreams and let them draw, sing, talk, write or rap about them. Students with learned helplessness have a complete lack of hope, as do many with learning delays. The skills of optimism are powerful and can be taught (Seligman 1998). A Brain-based teacher is successful and now you can see why.
3) Skill-building – To get lasting positive change, you’ll want to engage some skill- building because it is targeted towards the needs of the operating system. Skills build capacity that makes everything else work better. Paying attention, sequencing, processing and having a strong working memory nearly guarantee student success. These are not simple study skills; these are the capacity to focus, capture and discriminate information, process it, remember and represent it in a meaningful way. This bundled set of skills can be more than a great equalizer; it can be a critical piece of your school strategy for academic success with low-income students.
When you address academic problems, it will always come back to strengthening the student’s academic operating system. Stronger systems mean better performance. Each of those critical skills are not just valuable, they are also quite teachable. The challenge for educators is that some do not know the rules that regulate the learning of the process. After twenty years of applied cognitive science, researchers have developed a critical protocol for teaching and learning new skills for school. Brain-based teaching doesn’t complain that students don’t learn. In brain-based teaching, we simply build the needed skills; the brain is malleable!
Time on task is critical. Each day, because learning consumes resources (e.g. glucose, time) there are upper limits on how much change per day. Go right up to the maximum allowable time per day by the brain. On average, that time is about 5-90 minutes of intensive skill building in any area. Beyond that, there’s no evidence of gain. The brain just overloads and the change is dismissed. Any amount of time, less than five minutes, is treated by the brain as an aberration or novelty in the daily variety we all live within. No change will occur.
Second, students have to “buy into” the task. They’ll also need to keep buying into the task over time, again and again. Without this, the brain does not engage or store the learning. Third, students need a way to make mistakes. The trial and error process is fundamental to bring into the skill-building. Next, there must be continually increasing challenge to the task. If the task is too easy, the student gets no benefit. If the task is too hard, the student may give up. This suggests that you start easy and move fast with increasing difficulty.
Let’s translate this into your school time. To maximize change with skill-building, students will have to be in a pullout situation. Why? Unless one follows the “brain’s rules” for skill-building, precious time is wasted, students learn less and teachers get frustrated.
When teachers say, “My students aren’t learning,” ask them, “What was the protocol used for skill building?” They will realize that they had no protocol. The rules are simple. The learner must buy into the activity, perceive relevance, pay focused attention and get enough rest at night. The actual activity must be coherent, have built-in positive and negative feedback, last at least 5-90 minutes a day as well as for 3-5 days a week. If you don’t follow the rules, your results will be delayed or invisible. Brain-based teachers must follow the rules of the brain.
Brain-based education has evolved quite a bit over the last twenty years. Initially, it seemed focused on establishing a vocabulary with which to understand the new knowledge. The field of brain-based teaching helps us to be more purposeful and a bit more effective. “Can the Brain Be Changed?” The scientific evidence shows that it can be changed. Of particular interest is that studies show the academic operating system can be strengthened with positive attitudes and targeted skill-building.
Here’s what we know. Only a few things really matter: they are skills, effort, strategy and attitude. Those few things can be improved with targeted practice. In effective schools, we often see an illustration of the “whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.” When the “parts” include an effective student operating system, achievement goes up and students succeed. Brain-based teaching works, but only if you do, too.