Teaching Tips: Ten Brain Compatible Instruction Tactics
1. A safe, comfortable environment. Research on learning has demonstrated that the brain serves as a filter on several levels. First, the brain selectively focuses on sounds, sights, and other stimuli that threaten our safety, often to the exclusion of other stimuli. A second priority is information resulting in emotional responses, and only as a last priority does the brain process information for new learning tasks.
2. Comfortable furniture. As a part of structuring a comfortable learning environment, many teachers bring “house furniture” into the classroom, by setting up readings areas with a sofa, and perhaps several comfortable chairs. Lamps are also used in brain compatible classrooms for more “home-like” lighting. A moments reflection on the hardness of the wooden desks in most of our nation?s classrooms (In which students must sit in for up to 5 hours each day) makes this a critical concern for many teachers. How would any adult like to sit in those wooden desks for 5 or 6 hours each day for an entire year?
3. Water and fruits. Research has shown that the brain requires certain fuels (oxygen, glucose, and water), to be performing at peak efficiency. Up to 1/4 of the blood pumped in our bodies with each heartbeat is headed for the brain and central nervous system, and fluids are critical this even blood flow. Further, water is essential for the movement of neuron signals through the brain (Sousa, 2001; pp. 23). Finally, we now know that fruits are an excellent source of glucose for the brain, and research has shown that eating a moderate amount of fruit can boost performance and accuracy of word memory. Thus, in brain compatible classrooms, individual water bottles are usually present on the desks for students to take a sip whenever they need too (i.e. water is not a once an hour privilege in the brain compatible class), and many teachers offer light fruits as snacks.
4. Frequent Student Responses. Students will learn much more when work output is regularly expected from them. Students must be required to do assignments, either in the form of class work or homework on material that is presented. The frequency of work expected from the students will be a major determinant of how much information students retain. Also the required work output doesn’t?t have to be an entire page of problems?more frequent output of only a few problems each time will be much more useful in the learning process for students with learning disabilities. More frequent, and shorter assignments also gives the teacher additional opportunities to check the students? understanding of the concepts covered.
5. Learning With Bodily Movements. Have you ever wondered why motor skills such as swimming or riding a bike are usually remembered forever, whereas the skills involved in speaking a foreign language are quickly forgotten if not constantly practiced? The emerging research on the human brain has addressed this question concerning motor learning vs. higher order cognitive learning, and two findings have emerged. First, learning of motor skills takes place in a different area within the brain– a more fundamental level?than learning of languages. Second, the brain considers motor skills more essential to survival. This suggests that, whenever possible, teachers should pair factual memory tasks with physical movements. For example, various spelling works may be taught by moving the arms and legs to the shape of the letters in the word (you may recall the recent popular music example of this in the song “YMCA!”). Most memory tasks can, in some fashion be represented by physical movement and this will greatly enhance retention for students with learning disabilities, as well as most other students, even in the upper grades and secondary school.
6. Learning with Visual Stimuli. Teachers should use color enhancements, size, and shape enhancements in development of work sheets or material posted in the classroom, because the human brain and central nervous system are specifically attuned to seek out novelty and differences in stimuli. Thus, highlighting the topic sentence of the paragraph in a different color for students with learning disabilities can be of benefit for them in describing the topic of the paragraph. However, in order to make this an effective learning tool, the teacher and the student (or the class) should specifically discuss why certain aspects of the material are colored differently, and the importance of those colored items.
7. Using chanting, rhymes, and music. Because music and rhythms are processed in a different area of the brain from language, pairing facts to be learned to a musical melody, or a rhythmic chant can enhance learning. Most adults, upon reflection, can remember the song that we used to memorize the ABCs –the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star–and many of us used that same song for other memory tasks?the periodic table, or mathfacts.
8. Wait Time. Students have learned that teachers will often call on the first one or two students who raise their hand after the teacher has asked a question in class. Thus, all students with learning disabilities have to do is remain “invisible” for a few seconds (i.e. not raise their hand, and not look towards the teacher), and the teacher will usually call on someone else! On average, teachers will wait only 1 or 2 seconds before calling on someone for an answer, and this period of time between the question and when an answer is called for is defined as “wait time.” However, students process information at different rates, and the brain research has demonstrated the importance of waiting for a few seconds (perhaps 7 to 10 seconds) after asking a question, prior to calling on someone for the answer. This increased wait time gives students who process information more slowly and deliberately, a period of time to consider their answer.
9. Student Choices. Robert Sylwester, a leader in brain based instruction, emphasized the use of choices for students. In short, if we want our students to make reasonable, and informed choices when they are not in the context of the school, we must offer choices, and coach students in making informed choices, within the context of the classroom. Such choices may involve the options for demonstrating competence or understanding of a set of facts, or other choices among assignments on a particular topic.
10. Using students to teach others. Teachers should get in the habit of presenting some information (the brain research suggests presenting new information at the beginning of the period for between 10 and 20 minutes, and frequently pausing during that presentation and have students reflect on the new information together. You should present information for 2 to 3 minutes, get to a stopping point, and then say something like:
“Turn to your learning buddy beside you, and take turns explaining the 4 points I just made. Let me know if you uncover any disagreements in what each of you heard.”
The teacher should then move around the room for one to two minutes, listening to the discussions between the students, and checking that the students do have a correct understanding of the information just presented. This instructional procedure will result in much higher retention than merely presenting new information for 10 to 20 minutes.