Posts

Creating Brainiacs

phot by Lisa Krantz/Express-News

photo: Lisa Krantz/Express-News

Eric Jensen led a workshop on brain-based learning for Harlendale Independent School District teachers and administrators at the Boggess Center in July. Jensen spoke about techniques aimed at children from impoverished backgrounds, including helping them cope with stress, learn appropriate emotional responses and increase cognitive stimulation.

Creating brainiacs

During the summer, about 200 educators in the Harlandale Independent School District experienced brain-based learning firsthand as they joined in a fast-paced scavenger hunt all while becoming acquainted with neuroscience research and teaching techniques from expert Eric Jensen.

Between activities meant to engage workshop participants, Jensen spoke about using brain-based techniques with students from impoverished backgrounds. Research has shown that socioeconomic status is associated with childhood achievement. He emphasized helping students cope with stress, learn appropriate emotional responses and increase cognitive stimulation.

What these teachers may not have realized was the basis for these strategies stretches back to experiments half a century ago.

Leslie Owen Wilson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point School of Education, said brain-based learning can trace its origins to the Split Brain Experiments of the 1960s, in which scientists discovered that the two brain hemispheres had different functions. But, neuroscience research has been slow to diffuse into classroom settings, said Wilson, who is based in Austin and is teaching an online course on the topic this fall.

“Generally, teachers teach the way that they were taught,” said Wilson, who added that an administrator who adopts brain-friendly policies can ease the transition.

For students to retain learning, they must practice, talk about and act upon the information, Wilson said.

“A lot of kids physically have to do something in order to ingrain the learning at a permanent level,” Wilson said. “That takes a great deal of time and teaching artistry and, you know, it’s not on the test.”

Using new techniques

Melva Matkin said that when she became principal of Esparza Accelerated Elementary School in the Northside Independent School District more than 20 years ago, most students were functioning below grade level on standardized tests.

“We knew something had to change,” she said.

Matkin’s formula for creating an “enriched” learning environment included asking teachers to stay current on cognitive research and to use students’ emotional states to optimize learning and behavior management.

For instance, students might hear classical music playing during lunch. Matkin has observed that classical music calms students. The few times someone has slipped the wrong CD into the player, she’s seen the kids get really revved up.

She has also advised teachers to cater to students’ multiple intelligences. This translates to students building a diorama of the Alamo for history class — an activity that would appeal to their spatial intelligence — rather than just reading about the Alamo.

In North East Independent School District, the push toward brain-based learning is coming, in part, from the physical education and health department. There Rachel Naylor, assistant director for physical education, health and athletics, said teachers began incorporating brain breaks into classes last year.

“It could be anything from standing up, stretching, breathing and sitting back down, to going outside for a walk,” Naylor said.

Strategies that work movement into the school day boost blood flow to the brain and can create a domino effect that affects learning, quality of life and, potentially, test scores, Naylor said. A preliminary NEISD analysis from the 2008-09 school year found that obese middle school students had lower passing rates on both the reading and math portions of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills tests than students with a healthy weight.

Overcoming challenges

Rather than lecturing to quiet lackluster learners, teachers may have to adapt to a classroom cacophony — a potential side effect of having engaged students — according to local educators who have made the switch.

But aside from managing energized students, there are other impediments to using brain-based learning techniques.

For instance, educators must first understand the scientific research to translate it into classroom practices, Wilson said.

Another downside is the amount of time it takes to teach using these tactics.

“If I zip through a textbook or indulge in round-robin reading, I can say I covered that material, but I can’t with any certainty say a child learned it,” Wilson said.

Alvarez said he found time management to be an issue when he took students outside to practice graphing, an activity that took twice as long as expected.

“There’s no other way, sometimes, to get through a lesson besides notes and lecture because there are time constraints,” Alvarez said.

Matkin acknowledges that brain-based learning is not a quick fix.

Though the success of these initiatives can be difficult to measure comparatively, Matkin pointed out that Esparza, a school of about 750 students, received an exemplary rating in the 2010 Texas accountability ratings.

Brain-based learning is “a philosophy and approach to education that’s kid-friendly and it’s, frankly, teacher-friendly,” the principal said. “It is not an easy way to teach, but it is a fun way to teach.”

Read the full article at San Antonio Express-News:

Teaching Strategies: The Use of Social and Emotional Activities


Valentines, Feelings and Affect: The Use of Social and Emotional Activities

Here’s how they work together: The emotions research always starts with the classics. An older, brilliant study done was done by emotions pioneer Paul Ekman. You may know the Fox TV series “Lie to Me” is based on his skill set and life’s work. Ekman found that when we artificially generated certain facial expressions, it induced the corresponding ‘genuine’ feelings (Levenson, et al. 1990). Act a certain way, and the emotions will follow.

But this door goes both ways. This means, getting kids emotionally aroused can enhance their physical effort (Schmidt, et al, 2009). And when we enhance both, like combine the emotions of social contact with shaking hands, we remember the event better (Nielson and Jensen, 1994). Emotions and physiology are fully linked.

Translated, when we arouse emotions in our kids, they are more likely to get off their ‘you know what’ and start engaging more. Even when seated, emotional responses enhance our memory of the details of the event. But wait; it gets better. If you can focus on engaging the class leaders (the ones that others follow), you have a good chance of bringing on board the rest of the students. Why? Have you ever noticed that when one person yawns, others around often yawn? Actually, some research suggests that emotions are contagious (Wild, et al.2001).

Now, when you put all this together (mind, body, emotions, class leaders and peer pressure), you can get classroom miracles. How?

There’s a whole new field developing. It’s called cultural neuroscience. It’s the field of how cultures change our brain. Your school creates a culture. A classroom will have a culture whether you orchestrate it or not. Many teachers actively shape their culture, while those that struggle complain about their class culture.

Successful schools consciously shape their cultures while the schools that struggle complain about “how the kids are these days.” A great primer on this field was Wexler’s book Brain and Culture (2006).

Recent studies show that when you use rituals well, you can shape behaviors. In fact, rituals can activate students to do things that require personal sacrifice (wow) because of the peer-power and social effects. This allows teachers to erase problems with task activation, socializing and discipline. The bottom line is that anthropology is now being influenced by neuroscience. Well, you know I love the research, so here it is on our emotional, social and physical states, and the brain’s activation for functionality and organizing dynamics.

REFERENCES Brown RA, Seligman R. Anthropology and cultural neuroscience: creating productive intersections in parallel fields. Prog Brain Res. 2009;178:31-42. Cahill L, Haier RJ, Fallon J, Alkire MT, Tang C, Keator D, Wu J, McGaugh JL. (1996) Amygdala activity at encoding correlated with long-term, free recall of emotional information. Proc Natl Acad Science U S A. Jul 23;93(15):8016-2. Levenson, RW, Ekman P, Friesen WV. (1990) Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology. Jul;27(4):363-84. Nielson KA, Jensen RA. (1994) Beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist antihypertensive medications impair arousal-induced modulation of working memory in elderly humans. Behav Neural Biol. 1994 Nov;62(3):190-200. Phan, KL, Wagner T., Taylor, SF, Liberzon, I (2002) Functional neuroanatomy of emotion: A meta-analysis of emotion activation studies in PET and fMRI. Neuroimage 16: 331-348. Schmidt L, Cléry-Melin ML, Lafargue G, Valabrègue R, Fossati P, Dubois B, Pessiglione M. (2009) Get aroused and be stronger: emotional facilitation of physical effort in the human brain. J Neurosci. Jul 29;29(30):9450-7. Wild B, Erb M, Bartels M. (2001) Are emotions contagious? Evoked emotions while viewing emotionally expressive faces: quality, quantity, time course and gender differences. Psychiatry Res. Jun 1;102(2):109-24. Wiltermuth SS, Heath C. (2009)Synchrony and cooperation. Psychol Sci. Jan;20(1):1-5.

Creative Commons License photo credit: krystal.pritchett