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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

Kendra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am reading about Brain-based research for a grad school class. I have found the information that I have read quite informing and the article above added to it. Now I want to learn more about brain-based research and how to use it effectively in my classroom. I know that there are standards I have to teach my fourth graders, but wouldn't the learning experience be more effective if the students were learning in their own style? If anybody has any websites or information that will help my teach according to my students' learning styles, please respond.

Lanette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am fascinated by the whole idea of brain research. Many educators know the modes of learning...But Brain Gym? The film presented showed so much learning taking place, and in such diverse ways. The principal at Key Largo and her teachers have made wonderful strides in incorporating technology for their students. I was taken with her comment that: "These Children are preparing for jobs that haven't even been invented yet" (St. James,F.) I was also impressed by the 11th grader, who posted about the wonderful time they had as a fifth grader. These ideas have merit, and need to be focused on more and more in my district and school.

Kristy Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This school year our reading specialist incorporated brain gym into some of our classrooms. She selected one class per grade level; I was fortunate enough to be chosen. I can say from experience how it has impacted my students in a positive way. In the beginning, my students were quite hesitant to warm up to the program. Once I began taking part in the daily routine, my students quickly started to come around and put effort and concentration each day. Eventually, my students became so confident in what they were doing, they began leading and we followed. After having brain gym in my classroom for a full school year, I will not be without it in the future. It not only helps their brain, but it allows the students to take ownership in their learning process. After my 6th graders completed their final round of testing this past month, my students' scores grew signifantly greater than the other 6th grade classroom. I can't say that brain gym was the sole reason for their success, however, I can say that it played a part in increasing self-esteem and improving their learning abilities.

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the statement about "students being prepared for jobs that haven't been invented yet" was something to consider. Our school holds an invention convention for the 4th graders, and that make me wonder if this activity would inspire future inventors or scientists. I also though it was interesting about how much cooperation was taught during their activities. The article mentions that learning in the classroom was then transfered to outside the classroom, which is another goal for us as educators. Have you had any experience with Brain Gym? What did you think of the web site? Just wondered about your reaction to this.

Amie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this area of research interesting. People learn differently and for me, I learn most through doing. This article brings the participation of doing through technology and multi-media and provides a strong case for multi-modality teaching.

Marion Gobert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the article featuring the Key Largo school. The middle school in which I teach is starting a math/science technology lab next fall. In addition, the math department attended a 2 day training by Kagan Professional Development. We intend to begin using the Kagan Structures next fall also. I would like to hear more about your experience with Kagan Structures. A book and workshop that may interest you is Unlock the Einstein Inside by Dr. Ken Gibson.

Marion Gobert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed your story. I am interested in finding out more about Brain Gym and trying this in my classes. Thank you for sharing.

Tina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember brain research topics during my undergrad work but little that connected brain functions and development to learning. I am interested in learning about the connection between how the brain works in relationship to a student's learning. This article is very interesting and shows how technology enhances learning based on brain research. The Key Largo School is a very "modern, up to date" place of learning that received a grant to further the students learning experience. I began thinking about other grants available and plan to look into it for my school. If anyone is aware of other grants (New York State), I would love to hear about them. Brain Gym and the book How People Learn are great resources that I plan to invest my time and money to learn more about this process. This is my first blog session (ever) and I learned a great deal. Thanks to all!

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly believe it is essential for teachers to understand the role a child's brain plays in their ability to grasp and understand content being taught. If we understand how the brain works in acquiring new information, I think we will be able to present material in such a way that will allow the brain to best receive and retain the information. I have recently been reading articles on brain development and how the brain can constantly be molded to attain new information. I would like to continue to find articles on brain research and how to best present knowledge to my students in a way that will be most beneficial to them. I honestly feel that the more opportunities a student has to perform a task or is presented with information the better their brain will be at retaining and recallig that information.

Tara Jeffries's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always been excited about brain research for years. After reading the article and watching the video I can't wait to buy How People Learn and do some research on Brain Gym. I am always looking for new ways to get my kids excited, and turned in. If anyone out there knows of further research that provides teachers with strategies to use in classroom, I would love to hear from you. I just started my masters and I am looking forward to finding out as much information as possible.

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