Brain-Based Research Prompts Innovative Teaching Techniques in the Classroom

Educators explore nontraditional methods of teaching and receive positive results.

Educators explore nontraditional methods of teaching and receive positive results.

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 talking to a student

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.

Students monitoring a TV show

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.

A student working by lamplight

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 doing exercises

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.

This article originally published on 2/25/2003

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Comments (123)

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Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

Katherine, I would suggest

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Katherine, I would suggest you do some action research and see what works in your classroom. This might help you get started: http://db.tt/qk12XWBU
Good luck with it!

Quote:

This is a very interesting topic to me, especially considering what I have also heard about the connection between music and math. I have heard of a correlation between students learning to read music and their spacial reasoning and logic skills, but I wonder about a connection between student achievement in mathematics and listening to music.

There was a teacher at my school (a high school in Southern California) who played hip hop music while her English Language Learner students were trying to work on English tests. This sort of music seems to be an obvious distraction, but I wonder about the effect playing classical music in the background while students are testing in math. Has anyone found any research or had any experience to show that it would help or hinder the students' performance? I would like to do anything possible to raise scores, but with the prevalence of ADD I wonder if it is a distraction.

Working in groups

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I'm looking for some brain based research to help me understand how my students can work more efficiently in groups.

Amanda Ross (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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Wow! Key Largo School truly seems to be meeting the needs of all of their learners. I admire this schools' teachers for coming up with individual learning plans for each student. There were many wonderful ideas that I would like to experiment with in my own classroom. I teach first grade, and I think the brain excercises would be a great way to start each morning. Anything that promotes concentration is a winner in my book! The elementary school where I teach is also blessed with an abundance of technology. I am going to share the "Technology Night" idea with my principal. I think that would be a huge success at our school. The parents seemed to enjoy it as well.

Amanda Ross
Walden University M.S. Education Program

Sherri Cowans (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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Christina, I did not put my information at the end of the my reply. My reply was that the article was informative. This is the first I heard of "Brain Breaks", I have always used music in the classroom. Music can calm, relax, inspire and rejuvenate a classroom. I will be using "Brain Breaks". I agree with incorporating the five senses. I am now considering Aroma.

Sherri Cowans
Walden University
Kindergarten
Chicago

Sherri Cowans (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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Christina, I have always used music in my classroom. Depending on the music, the music can relax, calm, inspire and rejuvenate a classroom of students. I agree, using the five senses to enhance learning is one of the best ways to differinate instructions and reach all learners. I am now thinking about Aroma in the classroom.

Sherri Cowans (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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The article was informative, it is the first time I heard of "Brain Breaks". I have played music in my class starting the first day I started teaching. Jazz, classical and (line dance).
The music calms some students, relaxes the more active students and I find that it irritates some students. Considering the movements used to get the brain stimualated, I am sure to implement "brain breaks" I believe the students will love it.

Sherri Cowans
Walden University M.S. Education
Kindergarten

Sherri Cowans (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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The article was informative, this is the first I have heard of "Brain Breaks". I have used music in the classroom from the first day I started teaching. The music include classical, jazz and I use a CD that has all the music to the lastest slides (line dances) that my students parents are familiar with. The movements that are used to stimulate the brain, I am sure the younger students would love. I will introducing "Brain Breaks".

Sherri Cowans (not verified)

Brain Based Learning

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Christina, this is an eye opener. "Brain Breaks" I have used music in my class since I started teaching. I find that some students perform better, some are less active, some are calm and some it irritates, even at the kindergarten level, and it depends on the type of music. I will be discussing and implementing brain breaks in the classroom, I beleive the kindergarteners will enjoy the new techniques. As you stated bringing in the five senses in the classroom will enhance learning. Now I am thinking about aroma's.

Christina Emmons (not verified)

I am really interested in the

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I am really interested in the brain based learning. I had heard of brain gym while I was in school for my Bachelor's, but then hadn't heard much about it since. Now, my district is really big on Quantum Learning, which allows students "brain breaks" that sound similar to the brain gym. I think that it is very important to teach in a way to help the brain work better and remember more. I definitely want to incorporate music into my classroom. I always thought about that because I can remember the words to almost any song from the 80's, but not the presidents of the United States! That proves to me that music is powerful. I think that anytime you bring any of the five senses into the classroom, you enhance learning.

Christina Emmons
Walden University
Master of Science in Education

Kathrine Walden University (not verified)

Music in school

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This is a very interesting topic to me, especially considering what I have also heard about the connection between music and math. I have heard of a correlation between students learning to read music and their spacial reasoning and logic skills, but I wonder about a connection between student achievement in mathematics and listening to music.

There was a teacher at my school (a high school in Southern California) who played hip hop music while her English Language Learner students were trying to work on English tests. This sort of music seems to be an obvious distraction, but I wonder about the effect playing classical music in the background while students are testing in math. Has anyone found any research or had any experience to show that it would help or hinder the students' performance? I would like to do anything possible to raise scores, but with the prevalence of ADD I wonder if it is a distraction.

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