Brain-Based Research Prompts Innovative Teaching Techniques in the Classroom | Edutopia
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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

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love how this school has taken a strong approach to using technology to broaden student learning. The 3-1 computer ration is very impressive. I teach in a P-4 school, and I know that our computer access is limited. We have two labs, which are primarily just used during library time once a week, and one computer in each room, mostly used by the teacher. We are starting to implement smartboards, and you can already see a difference in student engagement. I admire this school and hope mine continues will follow close behind.

Em's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Times, they are a-changing and teachers must change, too. While these methods worked fine for us, we are now in a technology-based age where computers/media are the norm. I just hope that text messaging doesn't make its way into the classroom (with the teacher facilitating). Our society is getting less and less personl! But if it does, my son will love it. He will finally get his cell phone!

Traci Hart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very informative article, I am working on brain based research for my master's class, but we are also discussing the idea within my school. We have several teachers who want to implement this into their classroom next year. We are not sure what grades will participate, do some grades benefit more than others or could we start a class in each grade? I teach at an elementary school Pre-k thru fifth grade. This article is full of ideas about reaching all learners thru different styles. I am also interested in more information about Brain Gym if someone has time to post a website, book, or article.

Melissa 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am absolutely astounded at the 3:1 computer ratio. I thought that my school had more than enough computer resources. I have 2 computers in my classroom for students to use and we have computers on wheels (3 carts of laptops that are wireless). I must say I love the British Museum website. It is really useful, I used it several times last year when I taught ancient civilizations. I see many benefits to utilizing the computer in my social studies classes. It assists me in making history come to life.

I am interested to learn about the difference the lighting, music, etc makes on student learning.

Walden University Student

Shannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have heard about brain-based research and learning and the impact on education. I like the Brain Gym exercises that are mentioned in order to promote student concentration, memory, organization, language, and other skills. During class, when I notice students getting restless, I usually tell them to stand up and stretch or go get a sip of water. I plan to incorporate some of the Brain Gym movements into my classes in the next school year.

Shannon Clemens
JCMS, Millen, GA
6th - 8th Grade REM Math
Master's in Ed. student
Walden University

Tia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The part I like most is the one about the technology. These students today really do have the world at their fingertips. I mean, anything they want to know about, they can google. The can blog like we do and talk to other students about the things that they are going through or looking for and get thoughts and advice from people they wouldn't normally have access to. Even my 2nd grade students are really technologically inclined. I think it's wonderful, on one hand, but on the other hand, soemtimes they can find out way more than they could possibly need to know.

Taeja K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently using some Brain Gym activities and think they are phenomenal. (The link to their website is embedded in the posting, you can find more information about it at ) I am a behavior therapist and work one-on-one with children on the autism spectrum. I also have a BA in Psychology & Secondary Education Credential in Social Science.

During our 'Exercise Time,' one student and I regularly do Brain Gym exercises. Daily, we do the cross crawl - it can be done many ways, but the basic idea is to move opposite arm and leg in unison, for example, tap left hand to right knee and vice versa while skipping. We also do 'the elephant' which is making a figure 8 in the air with your 'trunk'/arm while trying to hold your head against your arm, done with both left and right arms. This exercise routine (about 15-20 minutes) seems to help him be able to sit for table work more easily and be less silly and fidgety.

I think the program would be beneficial for any elementary age student. The child I work with is nearly 7. He is autistic. Some of the exercises are more difficult than others, especially for a child with special needs.

Taeja Kluge
Palmdale, CA
Sr. Behavior Therapist
Pacific Child & Family Associates

Debbie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Brain Gym concept has great potential in the classroom. I have worked in Special ed. and Brain Gym sounds like it can be integrated multiple times throughout the day as needed. I am always looking for ways to help my students refocus and get back on track. Brain Gym seems to be hitting on something many of us have missed for years.
I have read a couple articles on brain research and how the brain actually works. The research has produced many secrets to learning, and Brain Gym may be a powerful tool to use to help our students. I will be investigating more about Brain gym and how I can incorporate it in my class.

Walden University Student

Avis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree. I plan to incorporate brain breaks into my daily schedule. My students are young so I am thinking that I will incorporate a different exercise each week until we have learned them all! I think my students will love the regularly timed breaks because their attention spans can only go so far!

Avis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I attended a siminar last school year and one of the main topics dealt with the use of music in the classroom. The presenter talked about the many different functions that music can have from "mood music" to "signal music." Reading information about using music to improve the classroom environment really interests me in trying music as a technique. I can't wait to utilize this information this school year!

Avis Robinson
Walden University
MS in Education

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