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Teachers tap into brain science to boost learning

July 1, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Research on the brain and how we think and act is influencing the way some teachers teach. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters goes into a classroom where the instructor uses different methods to engage different parts of the students’ brains, then checks with a neuroscientist about whether that strategy actually works.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: neuroscience and education.

Thousands of teachers around the country are learning about an alternative teaching program that aims to use scientific discoveries about the brain to improve the way children learn in the classroom.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Philadelphia.

JASSELLE CIRINO, Teacher, Francis Scott Key Elementary: When I say class, you…

CLASS: You stop what you’re doing. Look at the teacher.

JOHN TULENKO: Today is Wacky Wednesday in Jasselle Cirino’s third grade classroom, which explains the blue wig.

JASSELLE CIRINO: So I want you to teach your neighbor.

JOHN TULENKO: But the rest of what you’re about to see is what her classroom looks like every day.

JASSELLE CIRINO: I want giant gestures.

JOHN TULENKO: She uses a set of techniques some call whole brain teaching.

JASSELLE CIRINO: A lot of times in traditional teaching, you’re just lecturing, and you’re talking and talking. And what we like to say, whole brainers, we like to say that the more you talk, the more students you lose. And so we use different methods to engage multiple parts of the brain. And that way, you get 100 percent engagement.

JOHN TULENKO: These days, scientists can look further into the brain than ever, pinpointing the neurons and circuits that control how we think and act. All that’s sparking a movement that’s changing the way some teachers teach.

Are there parts of the brain that you’re aiming at?

JASSELLE CIRINO: Yes, the hippocampus, the motor cortex, the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s boss, so something like class, it turns on the prefrontal cortex, which makes the brain’s decisions.

So it says, hey, pay attention. I’m about to tell you something. So, once I have their attention, I teach the material usually through mirrors.

This deals with the mirror neurons in your brain. And so what I say, they repeat. To learn anything, you have to repeat something. You have to repeat something that’s modeled to you. That’s where it starts.

JOHN TULENKO: A lot of times in your class, I saw you gesture, and then you asked your students to gesture.

JASSELLE CIRINO: Right. That’s for engaging their motor cortex. When you act things out while you’re reading, you comprehend more. And we use brainees. These are gestures that are tied to writing skills.

JOHN TULENKO: Can you give me some examples?

JASSELLE CIRINO: Sure. For example is an example. But or however. If, then, so more of like a cause and effect. Adjective. A noun is a person, place or thing, compare, contrast, simile, metaphor, I mean, the list goes on and on.

JOHN TULENKO: I saw you a bunch of times where you would stop, and then you would say to the group, teach.

JASSELLE CIRINO: Teach.

JOHN TULENKO: What’s going on there?

JASSELLE CIRINO: So I have taught them the lesson, but now they need to teach that main point to each other. They’re getting another repetition of the material, but, this time, a lot of times it’s in their own words. And they’re learning how to put things in their own words.

You’re writing while you’re doing it. You’re gesturing, so you’re remembering it in different parts of the brain. You’re not just listening. You’re also speaking. You need to be doing all of these things at once in order to engage the whole brain.

JOHN TULENKO: We wanted to know if science actually backed up any of this. So we brought a video of Jasselle’s class to Daphna Shohamy, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.

DAPHNA SHOHAMY, Columbia University: I buy it. It makes great sense to me.

I mean, the brain is really in many ways wired for actions. Right? It’s — it’s really not wired to sit passively and absorb any information. But I think where — you know, where I wouldn’t fully agree is the idea that more activity is always good. More brain activity in more places doesn’t equal more learning or a better memory.

JOHN TULENKO: OK. How can children learn better?

DAPHNA SHOHAMY: Right, right. Yes, it’s the million-dollar question. I think we have some answers.

The brain learns when things are surprising and interesting.

JASSELLE CIRINO: What is going on here?

DAPHNA SHOHAMY: So if I give you a $20 bill, now, all of a sudden, you will sort of have a burst of activity in your dopamine neurons. They fire.

But if I do that regularly, like every five minutes, I give you $20, your dopamine neurons will stop firing. So what these neurons are doing is they’re signaling how unexpected an event was in the world. They’re not signaling how good or bad it was. They’re signaling how unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad it was.

So keeping things a little bit noisy and a little bit different is actually really beneficial for learning in many different ways.

JASSELLE CIRINO: Hold your horses.

JOHN TULENKO: Neuroscience says there’s something else important going on here.

JASSELLE CIRINO: When you’re learning things, just even in life, you connect it with a type of feeling. And so the main emotion we want you to feel in a whole brain classroom is fun.

Seriously?

DAPHNA SHOHAMY: Our brain was evolved to survive. We need to remember things that were of emotional and social significance. That’s probably much more important than remembering any bit of information that was communicated to us within a lecture.

JASSELLE CIRINO: We’re done being blah. It’s time to get fuzzy.

CLASS: Fuzzy!

JOHN TULENKO: Here are a few other things neuroscientists think the rest of us ought to know about the brain, that stress damages neurons and impairs learning. Brain training games claim to be effective, but, in fact, the jury’s still out.

What does help is regular physical exercise. Staying active keeps the brain developing and delays cognitive decline as we get older.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I’m John Tulenko reporting for the NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for results, a study on the effect of whole brain teaching in one California elementary school found test scores in math and language arts rose by an average of 11 percent.

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