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Just Plain Good Teaching, Part Two: Engage the Body and the Brain

| Ben Johnson

This is the second part of a two-part entry. Read part one.

Sheltered instruction uses the phrase "comprehensible input" to describe how teachers can build the background knowledge students need to understand a lesson. Comprehensible input, simply stated, means that the teacher -- aware that students do not capture knowledge very well by passively listening -- provides contextual clues to the meaning of words he or she says by showing pictures, gesturing, pantomiming, pointing, playing music, writing the words, and doing anything else, including standing on her head, to get the students to understand fully.

The rule of three applies here: Use at least three sensory methods to get your point across, and the students will remember and understand at higher levels. An additional benefit is that students will be more likely to keep trying to understand because they see that you are trying to make sure they get it.

As a Spanish teacher, I learned that it increased my students' confidence if they could get to the point of instant recall of vocabulary before I asked them to actually use it; they participated more, and they felt more successful. I used an approach created by James J. Asher, an emeritus professor at San Jose State University, called Total Physical Response. It operates under the theory that, because your body is connected to your brain, you can learn better if you use more of your body than just your eyes and ears. Instead of simply saying a word and having the students repeat it, for example, I showed them the word through actions and had them do the actions, too.

The applications for this theory in a foreign language class are obvious, but a science or math teacher can do the same thing with a little preparation. For example, if you post algebraic theorems or scientific terms around the room, you can name a theorem or a term and have the students touch it. You can put a problem on the board and have the students point to the theorem that will be the first step in solving it.

Just having the students stand up or give a thumbs-up if they think they know the gene sequence is TPR. Have them stand next to the biome that matches, or have them come up with a pantomime to get the other students to guess the right phylum. A creative teacher can make the questions increasingly difficult by going up Bloom's Taxonomy. For example, ask students to point to the force that is most important when figuring out the trajectory of a rocket.

And what are the students who don't understand doing while the rest of the class is engaging in TPR? They're watching and mimicking the others until they get it on their own. Once all the students feel comfortable with the vocabulary, you can start using it in deeper learning conversations. When you say, "The hypotenuse is adjacent to the side," the students will understand what you are talking about, and you can get on to why it's an important thing to know about right triangles.

If you combine TPR with the "comprehensible input" sheltered instruction espouses, you end up with an incredible amount of JPGT that even special-needs students on both ends of the scale can use. A teacher intent on not leaving any student behind must first do some "just plain good teaching" before focusing on any particular student.

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Christine Packwood (not verified)

Just Plain Good Thinkin'

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As a new graduate student at Walden University, who is studying special education as her emphasis, I am encouraged by your blog about Just Plain Good Thinking. It has brought to the forefront some excellent ideas, which were briefly explored during undergraduate schooling and I have tried doing on my own in my classroom, but your concrete examples have inspired me to sharpen my skills in this area and try it with several of the studnet on my caseload who have langauge impairments. I agree it is the vocabulary and lack of background knowledge, which most often impedes student learning and causes lack of motivation. It is not that students do not want to learn the material, but they have nothing to assimilate or accommodate it with as Piaget references. It creates such a state of disequilibrium that it overcomes students and they become disoriented and "shut down." This has been a huge road block for me as a teacher and I have been struggling trying to find ways to break through it. I am excited to try it. Thank you for a quick refresher course and for some concrete examples.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Teachers experts on the Brain and Learning

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Cathy:

You are absolutely correct. Every teacher should be very familiar with how learning occurs in the brain, and the best ways to facilitate it. One thing that teachers forget is that students are different than when we went to school. Today's students are much more active physically and mentally than we were. Thank you for sharing and good luck in trimming away the non essentials!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Cathy L. Faulkner (not verified)

multimodal instruction

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Ben,
After recently reading an article discussing multimodal instruction and its benefits for enhancing memory (Wolfe, 2003), I have been mentally reviewing my yearly lessons and assessments to determine which ones fully allow for students to have experiences "distributed all over the cortex." I had been struggling with this article's statement that "where you were during the experience is stored in the parietal lobes" because I was thinking too narrow-mindedly. I kept thinking that my students would naturally be in my classroom at their desks. Your article helped to broaden my thinking and remind me to get my students up and moving around in the room. When teaching at a different district, I used to engage students' bodies on a weekly basis with a vocabulary exercise. I currently use the same vocabulary model, however, I have not used the same activity mainly because my class periods are approximately fifteen minutes shorter than they were at the previous district. I have been disappointed with my students in the vocabulary acquisition. Your information reminded me of why this may be occuring and is helping me to remember that if might be better to cut some of my content in order to access a better quality of what I do teach.

The article I referenced is Wolfe, P. (2003). "Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation?" Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. Retrieved 24 May 2007 from .

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

More Engagement

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Trent:

Sounds like you are keeping your students hopping (literally). That is the way to do it. You mentioned several times that your goal is to get the students to think. Yet if we only ask them "comprehension or knowledge level" questions, how are we going to get them to think better?

I stumbled across a simple method that might deepen your current practices. As a Spanish teacher I discovered that I needed students to be able to first repeat, then recognize, then identify, then respond, then differentiate and finally to evaluate. By the time I went up the entire ladder, the students had heard the words and phrases multiple times, had seen and heard them in context, and had practice in using the words in various situations. All of this is critical to acquiring knowledge and skills.

For example, first see if the students can point to the right answer, then give them the definition of the right answer to see if they can identify the match, then give them a situation they can respond with true, false or short answer, then provide choices, and finally, ask them to work out the answer by themselves and share it with a partner.

Also, you probably have figured out that Edutopia is full of good articles. Just type Engagement into the search box and you will find loads of stuff.

Good luck

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Trent Klepper (not verified)

This article is exactly what

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This article is exactly what I am looking for to keep my students engaged. I have them do the thumbs up and thumbs down for answers. But sometimes I will have them do something different like touch your head if the answer is ... It gets them to think before they answer a question. The school I teach at is a low income school and the students react when it comes to answering questions. I have been trying to get them to become better thinkers when they read, to aid in comprehension. Also, I want them to think for a few seconds before they answer, then they will talk to their neighbor about the answer. Then I will call on a few of them to tell what they talked about. Do you have any other suggestions to aid in engaging students or articles? This was a great article for me to reflect on what I do in the classroom.

Tracy (not verified)

I am very interested in

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I am very interested in learning more about this subject area. I would love to incorporate this into my classroom. I think anything that could help keep students active and interested in learning is beneficial. The bonus is that it can also help improve test scores.

Deana Bell (not verified)

I have used physical in many

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I have used physical in many math lessons. One in particular is to reinforce right, acute , and obtuse angles. Students use arm gestures or straws that bend to show comprehension. Another is a lesson showing 360 degree turns, 90 degree turns, and 180 degree turns. These truly are the lessons students remember.

Deana Bell (not verified)

I love the idea of getting

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I love the idea of getting the children physically involved to increase learning. I especially like the idea of rearranging desks to allow for the extra room you may need for a classroom that is filled with older children. I look forward to incorporating more movement into my lessons.

Laurie Wells (not verified)

Engage the Body and Brain

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I enjoyed reading this article on bring together Sheltered Instruction and Total Physcial Response. On each new subject, topic or standard, as teachers we try to explain the vocabulary and build on prior background knowledge. I am excited to bring in the Physcial activities to help engage my students. I like the fact that even the students who are not full grasping the standard can observe thier classmates. We can get out of our seats and break out of the same old routine.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

TPR Resources

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Heidi:

I did a google search and found a fellow by the name of Dr. James Asher who wrote a book about TPR (total physical response) http://www.tpr-world.com/, but there were hundreds of other sites related to that. Information is out there.

Another thing about this is that there is no right way to do it and who says you have to come up with all the physical responses? Let the students come up with some. You want to give them some direction because you want to make sure that their action has some contextual clue to what the meaning is. If you are teaching punctuation, they could come up with ways to act out a period or a comma; draw the comma in the air with their heads or sit down when their is a period or jump with an exclamation point. The key is that the body is connected to the brain, and what the body learns, so does the brain.

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Ben Johnson Administrator, author and educator