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

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am getting my masters in reading and literacy at Walden. I agree early exposure is the key to success. Many of my students in first grade have had very little exposure to any type of literature and ready support. I had no idea the Brain Gym was free. I will most definitaly look into the strategies and begin applying them immediatly. I am very interested in this brain research topic. I have an autistic child of my own who I always am researching different ways to help. As far as my students, My classroom is full of diverse learners, more so than any other year. There are several that have trouble taking tests, cannot sit still, etc. I feel that trying th Brain Gym techniques will give me some insight as to why they behave like they do.

I would love to correspond with you again.

Jennifer Watson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be interesting. Incorporating technology and the internet into classroom lessons makes for a better learning experience. It makes the lessons more interesting and it is helpful using it as a resource to explain or answer questions. I am a visual learner, so being able to see the porcess of a flower opening would be a greater learning experience than just reading about it. I would like to hear of anyone's experiences with brain gym or different uses of technology in the classroom.

Jennifer Watson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be very interesting. It corresponding with a couple of articles that I am currently reading on brain research. I think that incorporating technology and the internet are great assets to the learning environment. I am a visual learner and being able to see a flower open via a video on the internet would help me to learn better than to just read about it. Everyone has different learning styles and I believe more information is retained when they are incorporated into the lesson. I am interested in anyone's experience with using Brain Gym or successes they have had in their classrooms using different kinds of technology.

D. Stanley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently researching brain based research and the articles for my class also mention teaching technology to classes. The use of web, video, and other technology as well as student choice sounds like a great way to improve their learning.

Luann J's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading about creating an atmosphere more conducive to thinking and creating, I have been playing some soft music in my class during our writing sessions. I also turned off the overhead fluorescent lighting. My teaching partner came in during this time and, without knowing why I was doing this, remarked how focused my students were. She said they appeared so much more engrossed in their writing than hers were earlier that day. I told her about what I had read, and how I was trying it out. She plans on trying it herself. These ideas have started me thinking about adjusting more things in my room to match the students needs and learning styles. I have been trying to constantly think of how to incorporate computer components to my activities, and the kids are excited, wondering what I have planned for the "next" activity.

bone builder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am happy to hear that there are created more and more techniques to help children develop their skills in different domains. Anyway, I also have the hope that there will be given more and more prizes for those who are really talented and have very good results.

Martha Stullenbarger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I taught in a school whose main focus centered around this. The walls were all white with one being all windows. The light reflecting off the walls gave so much natural light no other light was needed thus enhancing learning. Decorations were limited to the necessary and then only to be what you were studying at the time and nothing was to be on the walls themselves. The decor was done in opposite colors of the color wheel and list were to written in alternating blue and green. The classroom was to have a homey feel; plants, lamps, groupings, reading areas with chairs, and a place to "chill out" if need be. This was all to enhance learning. I LOVED being in my classroom and so did the students. It felt safe. A good website I have used to incorporate tech. is . It has great lessons for your students to work independently or even whole class if you have a projector.

Craig Thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Numerous aspects affect the brain and education. I find this article complimentary to my research on the brain. Several factors such as technology, the brain gym concept, and altering colors affect the brain in the classroom. We need to do what the research says in order to have the best education for children. Music is also an altering factor that the brain relies on. If anyone else has information about the brain that they are incorporating into their classroom, it would be greatly appreciated if you would share it.

Robin Dibble's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading the Key Largo article and your comment, I want to learn more about what brain research has been done that is pertinent to the upper high school student. My school has very little in the way of technology, except for one computer lab, though my students are, of course, very adept at using current technology. I'm also interested in your mention of music as an altering factor. Can you direct me to any articles on that topic?

I'm interested in the research you are doing. What aspect of the brain are you looking at and how do you think it might apply to learning?

Ian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The program at this school seems pretty impressive. I teach math and science at the middle school level. My school has a mobile laptop lab that has been wonderful for my teaching. Recently, I had my students create Power Point presentations on different renewable energy resources. I let them have free reign with designing the slides and who they were to work with. I was amazed at how different groups who may have had different types of intelligences produced diverse, yet effective presentations. For example, one group of kids who displayed more of an interpersonal type of intelligence created a narrative for their presentation. Another more logic-leaning group included efficiency graphs and excellent diagrams in their presentation.

As we get closer to testing, I plan on letting kids diagnose their own weaknesses in math. There are numerous computer resources that will let kids work at their own pace on what they need. I've seen many computer-based programs fail before, so I hope I can make my program effective.

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