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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Brain-Based Research Prompts Innovative Teaching Techniques in the Classroom

Educators explore nontraditional methods of teaching and receive positive results.
By Diane Curtis
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VIDEO: Using Tech to Understand How the Brain Learns

Running Time: 10 min.

Craftsmen in ancient Egypt used many different kinds of tools to do their work.

Instructions: Look at the tools and read the cards that describe them. Match the tools with the craftsmen by clicking on the empty boxes. If you change your mind, just click on the box again to return the card to the pile.

When you have put a card in each empty box, the computer will work out how many you got right. Keep trying until you get them all right.

In Suzan Hale's third-grade class at Florida's Key Largo School, students have a variety of ways to learn about ancient Egypt: They can go the traditional textbook route. They can use encyclopedias and other research material at the library. They can check out a video.

Or they can do what feels like second nature to so many of them: They can head for the computer and take advantage of intriguing, meticulously researched interactive sites like one from the British Museum, where the activity described above was located.

The World at Their Fingertips

Technology, whether it is a computer, video or telecommunications equipment, or a global-positioning-system (GPS) device, is embraced at Key Largo, a preK-8 school of 1,200 students where all classrooms are wired and where the student-to-networked-computer ratio is 3 to 1. As Principal Frankie St. James says, technology provides "a classroom without walls or limitations for pursuing information."

Principal Frankie St. James visits classrooms at Key Largo School every day.

Credit: Edutopia

Key Largo received a two-year, $250,000 BellSouth Power to Learn grant in part because of its leadership in using technology and spending the time and money to train teachers to incorporate it into their instruction. The Power to Learn part of the grant refers to adherence to conclusions outlined in the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. First published in 1999 and written by a committee of scholars established by the National Research Council, How People Learn details research on learning and comments on the implications of such research on what is taught and how.

Based on brain research, technology provides opportunities to use such important science of learning principles as pre-existing knowledge, active learning, mental models, transfer, and learning for understanding.

A list of disconnected facts doesn't lead to deep understanding or to easy transfer of knowledge from one situation to another, according to the book. However, knowledge that is organized and connected around important concepts and mastery, which includes being able to visualize a concept, does lead to transfer and deeper, longer understanding.

Doing and Visualizing

"Because many new technologies are interactive, it is now easier to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive feedback, and continually refine their understanding and build new knowledge," according to How People Learn. The new technologies can also help people visualize difficult-to-understand concepts.

A television news show is one example of widespread technology at Key Largo.

Credit: Edutopia

Take the kindergarten classroom of teacher Kathy Caputo, who headed for the computer when she wanted her kindergarten students to understand how a flower opens, and she takes daily advantage of the myriad ways information is presented on the Internet.

The online video clips she shows her students ensure that students have a visual image of a concept. It also allows them to start from the same place so that misconceptions that can impede the learning process are addressed before moving on. To set the stage for a book set in a snowy climate -- something few of her Floridian students had experienced -- Caputo had her class try to see their breath in a refrigerator, brought in a pair of mittens, and, again, headed for the Internet.

The importance of being able to transfer knowledge from one context to another accompanies the belief stated in How People Learn and held strongly at Key Largo -- that it is "better to 'broadly educate' people than simply 'train' them to perform particular tasks."

From GPS to Probes

Technology is everywhere at Key Largo. In one class, middle school students are using digital cameras, probeware, and a GPS device in collaboration with younger students at a different school for a study of the Keys. They share information via videoconferencing and post their findings on the Monroe County Community Atlas Web page.

Controlling the environment at Key Largo, such as replacing fluorescent lighting with soft lighting, is made to fit the student, not the other way around.

Credit: Edutopia

Other students film school and community activities, including law enforcement, the fire department, the ambulance corps, hospital staff, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees for a feature aired on the Monroe County educational television station. There is a daily television and radio show at the school via closed circuit, and seventh graders produce public service announcements for a local radio station.

Students in fourth grade without access to computers at home are offered older computers that connect to school software and the Internet through Key Largo's server. Sixth graders are being issued laptop computers. Younger students use a software program that lets them work at their own pace. And Microsoft PowerPoint presentations are almost as commonplace as written assignments.

Technology is just one way Key Largo fits school to the child, not the child to school.

Taking Risks

Principal Frankie St. James is not afraid to stand by a program, no matter how unusual, if it produces kids who are more able and eager to learn, whether it's an adopt-a-pet program for all third graders (choices include a boa constrictor), a daily television news show, or a cooking-themed class for children in grades 4-5.

A student in Jeanne Kurth's eighth-grade class performs a series of movements called Brain Gym designed to improve concentration, organization, and other learning skills.

Credit: Edutopia

Eighth-grade teacher Jeanne Kurth has found one of the strangest-looking exercises: Brain Gym, also one of the most beneficial. Students do a series of 26 movements, such as placing two fingers on the chin while moving their eyes up and down, or rubbing both cheeks, to promote concentration, memory, organization, language, and other skills.

Kurth, like some other teachers at Key Largo, checks for a range of student dispositions before creating individual learning plans. Does the student work better in groups, or alone? Does she remember more if the information is told to her, if she sees it in writing, or if she is given a project and allowed to discern the knowledge through hands-on work? Is he easily distracted, or do noise and activity propel him to work harder?

As a result of those answers, harsh fluorescent lighting has been replaced with the soft glow of 60-watt bulbs in real table lamps. CD sounds of a rushing stream serve as background music. Eating (healthy) food in class is encouraged."Part of the brain research tells us that children have different learning styles, and that if we want them to do the very best they can in life -- in school -- then we as educators need to tend to what their learning styles are," says St. James.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (123)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Avis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What other articles have you found meaningful information in to use in the classroom?

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be very interesting. I enjoyed reading about the many creative and innovative methods of learning to access different areas of the brain.

When I play classical music in my class I find that my students seem to relax and are in a better position to concentrate. They are less distracted and more focused than without any music playing in the background. I have recently read an article that mentioned the link between music and math. Although I have been aware of this connection, reading this and other current articles have prompted me to investigate further into the actual correlation.

I also found the Brain Gym exercises very interesting. I would like to learn more about Brain Gym and incorporate this into my classroom to enhance concentration, memory, language and organization.

Walden University Student

Dawn Bloom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary teacher, we too often think of music as being one of those specials classes that we take the children to daily. This is not the case, as research shows.
I have found that music creates an environment condusive to learning and relaxation. I play music as students enter the classroom in the morning and again while we are completing our daily work, be it in a group or individual. The students often ask who the composer is or the group (I play either classical or new age such as, Enya, one of my personal favorites). This leads us to further discussion and the students are always eager to discuss their musical tastes and their opinion of the music that we listened to for the day. This allows me to have a more personal connection with them and it allows me to see if the music distracts anyone or if perhaps they just did not care for it. I then tailor the classroom so that everyone is included in the musical selections. I find that a classroom where students can relax is a classroom where they can learn.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Dawn. I, as well as many other teachers often think of music as a 45 minute block where we take the students once a week. I like how you incorporate music into your classroom but also take the time to explain what and with whom the kids are listening to while working, entering the room or during a specific lesson. This may turn students on to different kinds of music or various artists. Not only does the music help students focus but it may also open a whole new for the students to explore.

Walden University Student

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be very interesting. I want to try some of the Brain Gym activities in my classroom this fall. I have used the classical music and the students found this to be very relaxing.

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I took a course in college that sounds very similar to your seminar. The entire course was about the connection of the brain to music and the benefits of using music in the classroom. I have a CD in my classroom that I use for "mood music", ect... I truly believe that playing music in my classroom helps the students to learn!

Walden University
MS in Education

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Isn't it amazing!! The kids do have the world at their fingertips! It is our job as teachers to bring this world into the classroom. Also, to monitor it!! I am on the technology committee at our school and have been pushing the use of more technology! This article gives me even more reasons!

Walden University

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had experience using Brain Gym with my fifth grade classes in the past. It definately calms the students down and helps them to refocus. At first they think it is squirrely but then they seem to get used to it and enjoy it. Although I have used Brain Gym and like it, I still have mixed feelings about it. I guess I am just not sold yet on that it improves memory and language.
I did like how this article discusses using technology so that students can visualize a concept. That visualization may help some students build a deeper understainding of the concept and recall the information they have learned. It is amazing what can be found on the web and I need to remember to utilize it more often.

Walden University Student

Lauren Kreifus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this topic to be very interesting. I think that I, as a young student, would have benefited from the visual presentation of how a flower opens or any other concept that we wouldn't normally be able to readily see in the classroom. I hope to use some of this technology in my classroom.
I'm very intrigued by the Brain Gym program. I think that this could be very useful being that I teach double periods and I think it may be helpful bringing the kids back to task.
Great info!
Walden University

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so jealous of the Key Largo School! I wish my school had half of those technology resources. I do believe that they are engaged in a number of programs to benefit their students. They are not only differentiating instruction, but they are integrating technology instruction into the curriculum which is vital to our student's future education and development. There is an unlimited amount of information and resources available to our learners through the internet. When the school is unable to provide this valuable resource, unfortunately, the students start a step behind. Having said that, research now provides us with results that show the necessity of challenging the brain through programs such as Brain Gym, soothing music and stress free lighting. What a great plan!

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