Sunday, September 24, 2006

School: a home for the mind

  Posted by Picasa ‘The school as a home for the mind’, is a favourite metaphor of Art Costa and many schools 'infuse’ his ‘intelligent behaviors’ into their programmes. Making our school environments ‘brain friendly’ would seem an obvious thing to do as currently far too many students are literally ‘turned off’ by the experience.

The truth is that we now know enough about how the brain ‘works’ to begin ‘Teaching with the Brain in Mind’ (Title of a book by Eric Jenson). As Rowan Gibson says, ‘The future is here; it is just that it is unevenly spread’.

Studying the brain, and how it works, would make an interesting study for children at any age. They would come up with, if asked, lots of interesting questions to research. Jenson’s book would make great start. Humans are the only animal that actually ‘grows’ its brain through experience. About 30 to 60 % of our brains are provided by hereditary (depending on the traits you’re considering) but that leaves plenty to work on and, just as the Hippocratic Oath says doctors should do their patients ‘no harm’, at least we should ‘do no damage’

The question we need to ask is whatever happened to those students who entered school so eager to learn? Lack of engagement is becoming a crisis in our schools, particularly in years 9 and 10, but for many children, the seeds of disenchantment are sown much earlier.

We need to enter into a dialogue with such students to see what is turning them off schooling? Shadowing a student around a school day might provide an answer!

Research tells us that learning is a chemical process, the brain continually chooses what to attend to, and by doing this, strengthens some neural connections and deletes others. Recent brain research suggests that present day students brains are heavily influenced by their multimedia based culture; diffrent from our adult 'book influenced' linear brains.

Today’s students are ‘programmed’ to seek out novelty and change yet many walk into secondary schools that have changed little in structure since the turn of the last century. Rather than worrying about ‘student disengagement’ teachers ought to be taking advantage of today’s stimulus hungry students.

Our students crave choices and there are many ways to provide this: choice about content to be covered, questions to study, whom to work with, processes to follow, what outcomes they will produce and how they will be assessed. Most of these ideas are common practice in junior classes.

Students have become accustomed to change but all too often they still enter classrooms with desks in straight lines where they have to sit still to receive ‘knowledge’ from the teacher. Teachers can easily alter the learning environment by providing the choices mentioned above and most all by changing who does most of the talking and by proving a range of ways of researching, using information technology, and a variety of ways for students to express their ideas. Such changes should be balanced with predictable structures because learning only takes place when people feel safe enough to take learning risks. Once again the above are ideas known by many junior teachers.

The human brain is drawn to challenges but for students to be engaged students need to have the experiential background and possess most of the skills required to succeed. And most importantly they must feel they can succeed. Students enjoy working in groups, sharing their expertise, and appreciate teachers who provide support and ‘just in time’ instruction to ensure their success. The most ‘attractive’ challenges are projects that arise, or relate to, students lives; problem that involves their need to think their way through to possible solutions.

Eric Jenson notes that ‘our whole brain is self referencing. It decides what to do based on what has just been done....almost everything in your students' world outside of school provides immediate and specific feedback.’ Most New Zealand primary teachers will be well aware of the concepts of specific and frequent ‘feedback and feed-forward’ combined with regular reflection about what has been achieved so far. This provides the ‘brain’ with the affective gratification it requires and lets students know you care about their learning.

The ‘brain’ is attracted to relevance of two sorts. The first is a connection with each student’s life experiences and the second occurs when the new learning connects with prior knowledge. Teachers who keep these ideas in mind will help their students see purpose in their learning.

Engagement is what it is all about. Students need to be engaged physically, emotionally and verbally. Learning is not just a sedentary occupation and too much sitting around causes a decrease in oxygen and blood to the brain. Our brains thrive on physical movement, acting, singing, debating, experimenting, discussing, building, drawing, demonstrating and teaching others. All these activities activate students’ senses and engage their minds.

And, if we can help students achieve results that surpass their expectations, then they will the gain pride and satisfaction to encourage them to continue their learning journey - to ‘grow their minds’.

Students need lots of opportunities to 'voice' their ideas to make sense of the world. Activities that capture students’ attention and emotions ensure retention of learning. Teachers who understand how the brain works and who love and share their passion for learning will engage their students; learning is at best infectious.

Most successful school activities contain most of the above and most have been known by creative teachers for decades. It has always been the way humans have learnt when they are provided with the appropriate conditions.

The future is here, as Gibson wrote, it is just that it is unevenly spread.

Creating brain friendly learning is not brain surgery!


Anonymous said...

You would think the one thing educators would be expert in is how to create 'brain friendly learning environments'. As you infer most secondary schools are anything but! Too many student are harmed by their antiquated practices.

Anonymous said...

Brain friendly environments look very much like the best of student centred teaching. John Dewey would recognize most of it?

Anonymous said...

What amazing potential all students are born with 'seeded' in their brains. What a shame that so little is realized. A case of compulsory mis-education!

Bruce said...

It is depressing to know we know so much and change so little. Ironic that schools are about learning but they fail to learn! Visit your local secondary school and walk down a corridor and peer into the classrooms -a step back into your ( or your parents)past. Living museums of antiquated practices.