Book Review By: Chris Hull, High School ELA
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
Reflecting on my own teaching, as critical as it is, is nevertheless overwhelming at times. What seems to me to make teaching so challenging and rewarding is the sheer number of variables involved. Science generally attempts to limit and isolate variables; teaching is awash in them. They cannot be limited, and are rarely subject to isolation in the day-to-day pursuit. For this reason, though education is greatly informed and improved by research, teaching is more of an art. I define an art as any activity that engages, in real time, an infinity of variables. By this definition, life qualifies as well!
So, how to better navigate this ‘infinity of variables’? How to improve relationships, increase scores, promote critical thinking and problem solving when each student is herself an absolute unique individual with an ever-shifting array of motivations, impulses, desires, agendas, and schemas? Any distillation of knowledge or practice is welcome. What truly works when attempting to inspire, instruct and lead to lifelong learning this varied assembly of students under our care?
It seems to me that I can reduce this overwhelming complexity by considering the common denominator of the brain itself: how it operates, responds, remembers, and learns. Recent neuroscience has already debunked the myth that intelligence is fixed for life. This insight alone can change your approach to teaching. I wish some of my teachers had known this. Or, the idea that the brain is static--that its structure and functions are fixed and unchangeable after a certain age, is another notion that can inspire and bring hope to teachers of even the most intractable students. This is the reason I selected brain-based learning and research for my independent study.
Traditional wisdom in education held that the operant-conditioning model was the most effective for teaching the human animal. You can lead a horse to water through a complex system of rewards and punishments; if the horse fails to drink, then the fault is with the horse. Beyond operant-conditioning, the more complex system of behaviorism, while accounting for the greater complexity of the human being, still regards students as subjects to be steered to the desired end using external stimuli. The approach of the brain-based teacher, and of author Eric Jensen, is to figure out how to make the horse want to drink. It’s no longer about leading, pushing, pulling, or coercing. It’s about subtle persuasion rooted in a thorough knowledge of how the brain operates--and learns. The book by Jensen, entitled Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching, is the source and basis for my review of this practice in general, and in my own teaching.
I will avoid delving into the complexities of brain functions and activities. My purpose was to find practical applications for the classroom that derived from recent research into brain functioning. One example, though, of how the brain receives new input, is instructive. Consider, for example, any basic classroom content as the source of new learning, where overt, explicit instruction in new content or ideas is the purpose. Any new knowledge must first be filtered through the thalamus, which acts as a kind of switchboard for new information. This information will then be directed to the appropriate brain structure (e.g. Visual information to the occipital lobe), and then finally will be routed to the frontal lobe. This is assuming there is nothing threatening or untoward about the new information. And, if it makes it to the frontal lobe, the center for higher-order thinking and logic, it will basically be held in short-term memory for a mere 5-20 seconds. It will never continue on the requisite course for long-term memory and knowledge unless it is in some way novel, relevant, non-trivial, and compelling. Five to twenty seconds! Most new knowledge. And then gone. Unless the teacher repeats meaningfully each new piece of knowledge, galvanizes its input with movement, music, interaction, or some other compelling, emotionally-rooted activity, that new knowledge is gone. Also, if the brain isn’t given time and space to internally process new knowledge, time and space which to the traditional teacher would definitely seem unstructured, chaotic, and wasted, the new knowledge will--again--be lost. And, if that new knowledge is, as mentioned earlier, tinged with threat or menace in any way, it will never even arrive initially in the frontal lobe. Upon reading this, I reflected on the many students I’ve had who experience learning itself as a threat for any number of reasons. For these students, who fear they can’t learn, or that they are stupid, we see a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy where no learning happens precisely because of this fear-based inhibition to learning new things which shuts down frontal-lobe processing.
Which leads to some other considerations in brain-based research. A classroom environment must be safe, welcoming, and devoid of threat to facilitate learning. An interesting example is seen in the use of fluorescent lighting. This lighting source, with its subtle flickering and low-grade hum, actually has been found to increase the stress hormone cortisol in people. This stress response, according to the research, will inhibit optimal brain functioning needed for learning. Ideally, natural light, with a distant view of green vegetation is best for a classroom, but in the absence of this option, I have installed a variety of lamps and lights of different intensities, and allow for students to move to a lighting source they prefer. While I use the overheads at times, I do not use them constantly, depending on the activity in class.
Other factors emerging from brain-based research include the finding that the brain moves through a roughly 90 minute cycle over and over throughout the day, and this cycle is characterized by high-to-low levels of focus and arousal. The artificial school schedule, where students must enforce attention continually for 7-8 hours a day, is obviously going to conflict with this cycle. Jensen notes that teachers can maximize attention and brain arousal within these cycles through a number of strategies:
This book by Jensen provides and explains all the research on how the brain works, but more importantly for me, it supplies practical tools for the classroom which align with new discoveries in neuroscience and how human beings learn. I have not yet been able to entirely transform my teaching according to this science, but I have implemented some of the simple exercises to maximize engagement, optimize emotional states, and nurture the mind-body connection. And I have noted impressive results and received positive feedback from many students when I have tried these new approaches.
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