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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

Bobbi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also pulled this article for a discussion and application assignment at Walden. In the video, St. James stated that today's kindergarteners will by vying for jobs that "haven't even been invented." As a kindergarten teacher, I feel a responsibility to learn how to integrate technology into my classroom to a greater extent. To accomplish this, I clearly need to seek further educational opportunities for myself.

Christina Buttermore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked this article. I am currently working on my masters and we are looking at brain research. I do believe the ideas found in this article will help students to do more computer projects in order to help gain a deeper knowledge about a certain topic. I teach 2nd grade at a title one school and the majority of my students are ELL. They need the visuals in order to help them understand. I think it would be help their understanding of the topics being presented.

Laurie, Staff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Staff comment:

Ms. Buttermore:

Take a look at another Edutopia.org article, Lost in Translation: Reaching Out to English-Language Learners which has a sidebar of suggested resources to help guide your way in teaching ELL students.

Trent Klepper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having the technology today to show students a concept is fantastic. Many students at my school never have the opportunity have many personal experiences. Using the internet as a way to give students a visual concept is perfect. We have talked some at our school about brain research and using the senses when teaching a new concept. This article is perfect for what is being presented in schools today.

Bryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students who are more focused sounds great to me, can you briefly describe a strategy from this book?

Ann Anthony's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article, along with some others I have read about Brain-Based Learning, truly explores some non-traditional methods of teaching. Gone are the silent classroooms with students sitting in rows where the teacher talks and the students learn. Today we are faced with so many new challenges to incorporate into the classroom that we have to explore alternative ways to deliver our lessons. I really like the ideas given in this article and agree with Jeanne Kurth that children have different learning styles and we need to found out what they are if we want our students to the best they can.

Craig Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you 100%! So many students at low income schools do not have any opportunities at home to use the internet. Other students, who are fortunate enough to have the internet, have not been shown how to use the computer in any more of a light than as a social tool. Showing all students another side to the internet is an important tool that they will be able to utalize the rest of their lives. It also makes them more active and responsible for gaining knowledge.

Kayla McCoy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! I am amazed at the student-to-networked-computer ratio (3 to 1). This school is very fortunate to have such technology to work with. Not all districts are that fortunate. I teach third grade at a small city school and I try to incorporate technology as much as I can. Sometimes it is difficult because we only have five computers in the classroom that are very slow at times, so I try to implement other strategies that are geared toward visual learners. I agree that technology does bring visualization for students who learn best in that way. It does give that hands-on approach to students which seems to be what most young children need. According to brain-based research, using technology in the classroom is a way to reach the many needs of all the students who all learn in a different way.

Kayla McCoy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Craig,
I had a professor during my undergraduate studies who really encouraged Brain Gym in the classroom. She taught us a few of the exercises, but I have not tried them with my third grade students yet. I have read some articles in which Brain Gym proves to be very beneficial in the learning process. I would really like to try this with my students to see for myself. I find it very interesting how the brain works and what we can do as educators to enhance the learning process through brain-based research.

Barbara Austin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is proving to be a great way to get students involved in their own learning. I really enjoyed the videos. We are currently working with teachers as instructional facilitators and trying to incorporated components like this in their existing lessons.

I think all students will benefit from this type of experience.

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