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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

Renee Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too enjoyed reading about Key Largo's brain-based activites that they have implemented. I am a Walden University graduate student and this week part of our focus is on this subject along with connecting to other teacher's through various forms of technology to get new ideas. I first saw the Brain Gym used in 2004 by a Physical Therapist who was working with a child who was classified as having autism. They started off the day doing these before she went to her classroom and they she and her aide went and lead the rest of the class in the same activities to get everyone going and ready for the day. I agree it prepared them mentally for the day. I know that they also did these before doing any test or quiz because of the effect it had on their learning and behavior. I would love to see some statistics that confirm these results. Does your school have any information on this? if so, I would greatly appreciate it.

Joyce Seelig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This school sounds amazing! Technology is being used everyday in the classroom. I often wonder what it would be like to just have enough computers for every student in the classroom? I would love to spend a day in a Key Largo class to actually have a first hand experience of the learning which goes on here. I would also like to see how this all works. When do the teachers have the time to research lessons for each student? I am also anxious to gather more information on the Brain Gyn Link. This all sounds so interesting to me. I have never heard of this before.

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am a student at Walden University and am wondering what program you are studying? I am enrolled in the MS in Literacy in the Content Areas (Grades 6-12)I am 7th-8th Math/Special Education teacher and can see how brain-compatible instruction would benefit all children. I think that with you being an elementary teacher the sooner you can implement this instruction the better. Early exposure is key to student success, no matter what it is in regard to. I think that even since your district does not have the money to go the full extent that Key Largo did there are still many things you can do. For instance, the Brain Gym is one thing that you could start teaching your students that is free. Also, I have seen many books out there that pertain to right/left brain and how boys learn is different compared to girls might help you differientate your activities and lessons. As a fellow Walden student I am wondering what insights you have gained from this topic and would appreciate if you would share some information with me.

Alison G's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are teachers at my school that use Brain Gym in their classrooms. The kids love it! They have a book of all the activities to do. They have posted them around for the students to do at appropriate times of the day. Hope that helps!

Adrienne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Working with a middle school population, I definitely want to check out the Brain Gym. Does anyone have experience working with the Brain Gym?

Stephanie Hardy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was very interesting and it peeked an interest I have in studying more about brain research.
The school in Key Largo sounds fascinating and I applaud their principal for being such a risk taker. I would like to find out more about the 21 elements used in determining learning styles, so I could use them for my own students.
However, I found the Brain Gym exercises to be most interesting aspect in the article. I looked on their website and I am going to show this to my principal to see if we could order a book and try it out. I'm anxious to see if it really can make a difference for my slower readers.

Victor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never been so excited as to how the brain works and it's capabilities and functions. After reading this article it has sparked an interest in me to look into it and widen my knowledge about it. I really liked the brain gym research, as a sixth grade teacher I believe that my students would benefit from this as well as enjoy it. This article gave me a different perspective as to how we mold and exercise our brains every day. Now I can say I go to the gym every day... the brain gym that is!

Mariel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video was filmed when I was in 5th grade and I am now in 11th, I had the wonderful oppurtunity to have Ms. Kurth as a teacher and it was the best thing I ever did! Brain Gym helped me tremendously and she taught us so much not only academicaly but about life and how to live it!

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Key Largo School is a model of excellence in learning. They have taken risks to find ways to make education a powerful and life changing experience for their students. Students face a lifetime ahead of them of being problem solvers and team players and Key Largo is helping to develop their skills in these areas. By providing a learning environment that is safe, Key Largo's students have learned to be risk takers too. Bravo Key Largo! It is refreshing to see schools that do not have test preparation as their primary goal and yet still receive those high scores. My district is still a believer in test preparation and probably will continue to be as long as scores climb. However, I know that my students are not learning how to learn. They are learning how to be good test takers. Your article has inspired me to take the risks necessary to use brain-based learning in my classroom. Thank you for the inspirational message.

Coral James's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was rejuvinated by this article and the positive effects brain-based learning can have on students. The one statement that stood out to me was in regard to the principal "standing by a program, not matter how unusual, if it produces kids who more able and eager to learn". Our division is currently engrossed in this topic of a brain-based classroom. However, only a handful of teachers have really embraced it fully. Personally I have seen huge gains, especially in my low-end students abilities and self-confidence. Our division has brought both Laurie Kagan and Marcia Tate to Division-wide professional development days to speak to and teach us the benefits of brain-based learning. I don't believe this is a fad. So much of the research I have read, and then implemented in my classroom has been successful. I have used many of the Kagan classroom strategies. I am extrememly interested in Brain Gym and am going to order the book for our school. As educators I think we need to be more aware of how all students learn and create meaningful lessons for life. In going back to the principal's statement I refered to at the beginning; educators need to be confident with the choices of strategies they make for students when they know through research and practical classroom experience that what they're doing is working.

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