Teaching with the Brain in Mind
Article by Christopher Taibbi, M. A. T.
Recent advances in the field of brain research and the technology associated with carrying out these studies have the potential to affect significant changes in the way instruction is typically delivered in the classroom. Indeed, as scientists involved in this research-professionals from pediatric neurologists to behavioral psychologists-delve ever deeper into the physiology and anatomy of the brain, some rather astounding and yet simple principles about how the brain learns best are uncovered. This article will highlight essential understandings with an eye to providing educators a sample of "best practices" so that learning objectives can be conveyed to students in brain-friendly ways.
The Brain's Structure
Understanding how the brain best learns and retains information is dependent upon understanding how it works to process the information that enters it. No two kinds of stimuli are the same. Exactly how the brain sorts and "makes sense" of that data, scientists are discovering, is a critical component in the learning process. For example, the temperature of a room, whether it is hot or cold, is information to which the brain and body must respond. To complicate this task is the fact that, at that very same moment, the teacher in that very room is sharing curricular content (say, for example, the names of the planets or solving simple subtraction problems) that needs to be processed independently. Such competitions for sensory processing are always at play. Fortunately, the brain has developed structures that assist in these complicated tasks. The following descriptions give examples of some of the key structures in the brain. Although it might appear as if their functions are clear-cut and quantifiable, they are not. The brain is the most complicated three-pound piece of hardware known to man, so that to convey its abilities and functions on paper with a few words is hardly even possible. What follows instead are the broad strokes that might be used to describe the general function of brain's processing centers.
- Frontal lobe: located behind what most of us consider to be our foreheads, this section of the brain is responsible for, among many other actions, our ability to use higher-level thinking skills. It is where calculations are processed, decisions are made, and critical thinking tasks are harnessed.
- Temporal lobes: located on either side of the head, just above the ears, these sections hold memory.
- Parietal lobes: running along the top of the head, on both the right and left sides, these structures provide the body feedback for pain, pressure, and touch.
- Occipital lobe: located at the back of the head, this section occupies some 20% of the brain's overall capacity and is responsible for vision and being able to visualize scenes never actually witnessed before. The occipital lobe, among others, is highly engaged when a child reads a story in which there are no pictures, only words to foster the imagination of the book's events.
- Amygdala: this tiny structure located in roughly the center of the brain is the seat of emotion. Interestingly, this part of the brain is highly active in adolescents as they enter puberty. It also has effects on the way memories are stored.
In the Classroom
How do we make these understandings practical to the classroom? A few questions first:
- Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001 when you heard the news that the Trade Centers in New York City and the Pentagon were attacked? Or even where you were for events that happened many years ago such as the Challenger disaster or the assassination of President Kennedy?
- Imagine this scenario: You are standing in, say, your bedroom when you think of an object you need in, perhaps, the basement. You go down there to get the item and find yourself suddenly standing there wondering, "What did I come down here for?" Frustrated, you march back up to the bedroom and suddenly, boom!, the item you needed comes back to mind!
- You are taking a test and get to a question that you are quite sure you know the answer to. As you think about it, you can even visualize where you had taken notes about that answer in your class notebook. It might have been on the right-hand side of the book, in the upper right-hand corner...
Experiences like these are common to nearly all individuals for one very simple reason: the brain likes, even craves, visual images. Central to all three examples above is that of visualization.
- You recall that you were in the office coffee room when you heard about September 11th, that you were in your kitchen at home when you heard the news about the space shuttle, and that you were sitting in your 4th grade classroom when you heard the news about President Kennedy;
- once back in your bedroom you were reminded of the item you needed in the basement because the visual cues of that bedroom-- the items that literally surrounded you when you initially thought of that much needed tool-brought the idea back to you;
- you need the information to answer the test question and what does your brain do to help? It gives you a picture of your class notebook!
Fostering visualization of curricular content by targeting and using the occipital lobe as the central point of processing the information is one of the strongest ways to help that material enter the brain, and stay there. To this end, the following suggestions might assist educators as they seek ways to differentiate instruction:
- Fill the space with visual stimulus. Make use of educational posters; put them up and refer to them; have students create posters, magazines, dioramas, models, Webpages, etc. to foster further understanding of the content.
- Use videos or television programs to show hard-to-reach places or hard-to-find examples of concepts. If you are studying the ocean, for example, but live in Kansas, you might consult the rich resources of National Geographic to help give students images of things they have never seen before.
- Create word walls. Write key vocabulary to a unit on sentence strips and tape them to the wall. Again, when you use the terms in oral discussion, refer to the words on the wall. Encourage students to add words as well.
- Be artistic. Whenever possible, try to express concepts in a visual manner. Graphic organizers, mind-mapping, and flow-charts are all brain-friendly ways to represent content. Pull out books to show pictures of your topic; ask kids to imagine or envision being there.
- Try teaching in a different location. Do you always stand at the front of the room at the overhead? Move about a bit! Try reorienting yourself so that material is taught from a unique place. Go outside to complete worksheets or have students turn around as you march to the back of the room to repeat important facts there. Make a point of being unique and unusual in where you teach or have students learn.
- Give lots of examples. Abstract concepts, like the notion of persistence, are hard to visualize. In these cases, give examples of what you mean to back up your concepts. What were examples in The Little Engine That Could where the main character showed persistence? How does a persistent person act?
It is true that the brain's structure and chemistry has remained fairly stable, unchanged over the centuries; but what is unique to us at this point in time is the depth to which we understand the nuances of this complex organ. We as teachers are at a pivotal point in time now wherein the apexes of both educational theory and brain research just might overlap. Making use of these understandings, that is actually "applying the science to the art", is what will, in the end, make our students able to take the next grand steps.
- Fogarty, Robin. Brain-Compatible Classrooms. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc., 2001.
- Jensen, Eric. Brain-Based Learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point Publications, 2000 (revised).
- Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001.
- Sprenger, Marilee. Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action. Alexandria, VA: 2001.
- Tomlinson, Carol Ann. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. ASCD: 2001.
About the Author
Christopher Taibbi was the Family Literacy Coordinator for the Ready To Learn program at Blue Ridge Public Television in Roanoke, VA. Prior to working for Blue Ridge Public Television, Chris taught in the Roanoke City Public Schools for 7 years and then began a private educational consulting business. Chris graduated with a B.A. in English and Anthropology from the College of William and Mary and a Masters in Teaching from Hollins University. Chris is married and has one son. In his spare time he enjoys running, grilling, and juggling.
Published: April 2004