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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

Sara Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too found the brain gym concept interesting. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. If students need to move in order to learn, this is a great way to incorporate these actions into the classroom. I believe that kinesthetic learners would especially benefit from the movements. Towards the end of the article, it is mentioned that soft lighting has replaced harsh flourescent lighting and soft relaxing music has been found to be beneficial in the classroom. In surveys taken by students in my classroom at the beginning of the year students answered questions about learning preferences and classroom setting. Many students mentioned the bright lights giving them headaches. Some students also mentioned that they would enjoy being able to listen to music quietly. I use a Mimio board often and this requires turning some of the lights off in my classroom. When we are finished, the students ask to keep the lights off. Students still have plenty of light to work by and they are more comfortable. I will definitely continue to pay careful attention to the learning environment and what I can change to meet the learning needs of my students.

Sheryl Wesley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the brain gym concept is interesting. Some of the teachers on my team have gone to lamps instead of the overhead lights and I myself have been playing music quietly and the students seem to really enjoy it and respond positively to it. I think that environment definitely plays a role in how the students perform. I too, am going to pay closer attention to their learning environment.

Lesia Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have heard of brain research for many years now. My first experience was studying feral children with language aquisition. I found this article to be fitting. If the brain is not used, then it will deteriorate. For a language arts teacher adding movement to learning is very unorthodox and unconventional. Fortunately, the pendulum is changing. Movement and learning should coincide with one another.

Luann J's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been interested in learning more about how the brain works, and how I might use that information to better design my instruction and activities to match the way the brain learns best. I found this article interesting,and noticed it was first published in 2003. I wanted to see how this school was doing in making AYP 5 years after this article. At the website http://schoolgrades.fldoe.org/default.asp I discovered they did make AYP for the 2007-2008, and received a A for their school grade. Lots of exposure and accessibility to technology and Brain Gym has a good track record.

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The graduate course that I am taking is requiring me to read some articles on brain-based research related to learning as well. I am very interested in this topic and very curious about the results of the research. I have an autistic child of my own with some moderate brain damage who will reap the positive benefits of this type of teaching and learning, as will my other students. I would love to hear some more specific programs and activities related to this type of research.

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am curious..what is the Kagan Structures? I would appreciate any insight you have on this. Thanks!

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a low income school also. Most of the students work their brain by staying up late and playing violent video games. I would love to be able to challenge and exercise their little minds in ways I haven't been able to before. Any information on grants or scholarships for Title I schools as well as more info on the Brain Gym would be helpful.

Kelley Felice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also interested in the brain gym activities. I play soft music in my classroom as well.

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My assignment this week at Walden is to look at brain-based research as well. I have an autistic child of my own and would be very interested in where you obtained your first bit of information on the Brain Gym. I would like to follow up on that. I am with you as well in wanting to see some statistics that confirm these results. Any information would be helpful. After all, I am my child's own best advocate.

Liz Ulm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can see how my students would benefit from this type of calming atmosphere as would my own autistic child.

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