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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

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

Damaris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently obtaining my Master's degree from Walden University (an on-line degree program). One of the topics in this semester's course is brain-based learning. I found this article both intriguing and exciting. I am envious of schools that have the freedom and flexibility to take risk-taking to the next level. Many schools (mine included) are overly concerned with test scores that they forget to teach life skills. It is refreshing to see schools succeeding by tailoring learning to the individual student's needs and not teaching to the test.

Lorie Wall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Through this article, I am aware of ow much more I can use technology in the classroom and encourge other around me to do the same. It is obvious that the Florida school is probably more advanced the most schools with integrating technology into their classrooms, but I believe it gives other schools a level of excellence to strive for when integrating technology into their schools!

Andria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Get the parents on board! I think many educators can see that brain-based learning works or at least be willing to learn more about it. It is the parents who need to be educated in what it is and why it is great for their children. If we could get away from paper/pencil work and assessments based on letter grades type expectations that parents have, that would be a great start. I have to continuously explain to parents how important the process is and not as much the end product. The students are also so accustomed to focusing on the answer, I struggle to get them to think about how they got to the answer. I would love to teach at this school. It sounds like the whole community is on board, which is definitely a risk-taking venture.

Andria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is using brain-based learning something that is suggested by administration at the school level? county level? It seems like if the whole school took on this belief system, it would be easier to get parents to be open to it.

Andria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school also seems to be too focused on the "test". I would love to break away from the structure and really get into our topics that we teach.

csm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The flexibility given to the teachers at this school must be outrageous. I would not know where to begin, but would welcome the opportunity to give it my best shot. My current school system I fear has lost touch of the big picture. We seem to move from benchmark to benchmark going through the motions. I don't feel fault can be placed on adminitrators or educators it is just something that has happened over time. We fear the worst and in reality the worst is the failure or burnout of our students. This school system has gone beyond risk taking they are doing some amazing stuff my third graders love it all.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article reminds me of a book called Movement Based Learning by Celilia Kestner. My team used some of her strategies last year to give our 6th graders a mental break as well as a chance to refocus. We saw calmer students who were more focused. I had forgotten about the book until now and am going to try some of the strategies again this year.

Carrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! Key Largo is an amazing school! I like the way the younger students work collaboratively with the older students on experiments and technology based projects. What a great way to build background knowledge and introduce technology to the younger students. I would love to see how the teachers at Key Largo keep all of their students' learning preferences/differences straight. I have questions! What is the typical class size at Key Largo? What is their school profile - ELL students, Special Education students, etc.? Is Key Largo as innovative with struggling readers? What interventions do they have in place for their struggling readers, specifically at the first grade level? How often do teachers participate in technology based professional development?

Charles Schmidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was very interesting to learn there are schools in Florida involved in brain based learning. Key Largo must of had some forward looking teachers and administrators to have come this far. You all set a great example for what could come to pass with the right direction, resources, and leadership. Did you have a grant writing committee already established, or did you start one with intent to get awarded with the Bell South grant money? You must of had the foundations in place to take advantage of the funds the grant gave you. What was the process like in deciding how the money was spent? Keep up the good work!

Cami's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am encouraged by the fact that this school not only read about the latest brain-based research, but they did something about it! It is frustrating to sit in staff meetings and hear about how children should be taught, and then feel as though I am supposed to teach to the test (even at the kindergarten level!). Principal St. James mentioned that she wants to teach students "how to learn rather than how to pass a test," and in doing so, the students are also scoring well on standardized tests! This is a wonderful example for teachers/districts who are afraid to follow the indications of brain-based research and instead focus solely on test scores.

Where do these students go for high school, since this is a preK-8 facility? I know it is frustrating when I teach my students things (such as Sign Language) that are not used by their future teachers. When there is no follow-up, I feel as though I have wasted my time on what I believe to be important skills.

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