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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

Deborah Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently looking at articles about brain-based learning in my masters program. It is great to see how technology was being used in the curriculum at Key Largo. No matter what the current situation for technology is in any system, educators need to take into consideration individual student learning styles and hands on activities when planning lessons. If anyone has further research that gives teachers strategies to use in the classroom, please let me know.

Julia Bateman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article very interesting, as it relates to the reading I am doing for my Master's program. Another article I have read about brain research states how important it is to have good clinical studies on an idea before using it school wide. I'm happy to see these schools have such success with what they are doing. I would also like more information on the brain gym. I currently teach preschool and the movement is a great attention getter. Plus if it can work their motor skills while increasing their language, concentration, and memory skills then I'm all for it!

Michelle Roush's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also pursuing my master's;I am learning about brain research and how it relates to education. It is so important to take into account the different learning styles that every student works best in. As Kottler,Zehm, and Kottler (2005) describes that there are four learning styles, including sensory modalities, global or analytic information processing, field independent or field dependent and impulsive or reflective. After viewing this video, it looks like this school is providing all of these different learning styles so that students can learn in the most effective settings.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Michelle Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too found this article very interesting. I am studying brain research in my Walden Masters Degree program and it is an area I had little background knowledge in. Each article I read provides me with more important information that will affect my students' learning in my classroom - in a very positive way! I am looking forward to viewing future posts.

Michelle Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with you! I teach first grade and have very low "non readers" this year, along with some pretty "squirmy" 6 year olds. I am looking forward to incorportating ideas in my classroom. Can you tell me any ideas that you have tried so far that have worked?

Michelle Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to know if anyone has tried any ideas in a first grade classroom. If so, can you share insights/ideas? Thanks!

Jamie Oliver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is wonderful and exciting how this school takes such an active role in thier students learning. Being from upper East Tennessee in a P-8 school with around 800 students and around 80% are free or reduced.

We are in a poor area with no industry. I would love to know how to help each child to acheive and leave this area. I know that sounds bad, but for our students to have something and be somebody they need to leave our area.

Dana Bice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find the brain gym concept to be very interesting. I would love to know more. Exactly, what kinds of exercies are the students doing for long division and the 6+1 Writing Traits?

Lindsey Shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this article highlights a school that uses technology to its fullest potential! It is wonderful to have 3 students to 1 computer in the classroom. This classroom sets up an environment that puts live and interactive education at their fingertips. However, this program is successful because the district has taken the time to train their teachers in how to use the technology. I have read a few articles recently that mention the practices of Brain Gym. I would like to try a few of these activities out on my kindergartners. I think it could help them stay focused and regroup when we lose our focus! If anyone has tried the exercises with success please let me know.

Lindsey Shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of using specific body parts to help learn a concept sounds interesting. I know the student will retain more of the information taught if they are actually up doing, interacting or conducting part of the lesson. I have shown my kindergartners how to form letters with their bodies and to visualize the letter by tracing it in their palm. As stated in this article, visualizing is key to retaining information taught!

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