|The primary purpose of the brain is to survive, and in order to survive, a brain needs opportunities for continual growth. Using stimulus and learning as basic drives, the brain naturally seeks out what stimulates it, what is meaningful to it, what provides flexibility, emotion, choice, and an absence of threat.
Classroom teachers can work with how the brain takes in and stores information by providing what the brain needs to survive. One of the ways the brain survives is by keeping itself nurtured and growing. Learning provides the brain with the ability to keep changing and growing—which is known as neural plasticity. As the brain learns, dendrites grow and the brain actually changes shape.
The brain also needs nurturing—good nutrition and water. It learns best in a safe environment, with novelty and choice. The brain needs learning and knowledge to survive, so one of its primary functions is to seek learning. Teachers are in an ideal position to satisfy the cravings of our students’ brains.
“Every human being is driven to search for meaning. . . . It’s never too late to begin enriching the brain; the magic dendrite trees can branch and grow, enlarging the cortex, throughout life.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Research shows that the brain is malleable or plastic, continuing to grow new connections in response to normal development processes and experiences (Huttenlocher, 2002).
Research shows that our brains are composed of about one hundred billion brain cells organized into millions of neural networks (Jensen, 2000).
TIPS: Create Enriching Environments That Enhance Student Learning
When we hear the word “enriching” relative to a school environment, most of us think of additional activities or lessons that improve student understanding or enhance what students are learning. Brain researcher Marian Diamond has extensively researched the value of offering enriching environments to learners. Her research finds that in four days, dendritic growth as a result of an enriching environment occurs, and in four days, dendritic death due to lack of stimulation occurs. By continually creating enriching environments for our students, we ensure that students are learning and using their brains to the best of their abilities.
There are many ways that you can enrich the learning environment for your students.
Create an Environment of Emotional Support
Support student comments when they are appropriate. Rather than stopping after a comment like “That’s right,” add a little more: “That’s right. The characters in the story are good at taking turns, just like you and Valerie did on the swings earlier today.” Support can also come in written form: “This essay shows much improvement, with well-developed paragraphs and a clear thesis statement” validates student work more than “Great job.” A little extra goes a long way.
When students are comfortable and supported in their learning environments, the dendrites in their brains can expand and take in more information.
Offer Choice and Challenge
Rather than being told to complete essay questions one, two, and three, ask students to choose three of five questions. They can choose the ones that are most appealing or meaningful to them.
Student brains are also in constant search of challenge. Challenges need to be manageable and fair, yet complex enough that the brain has to stretch a little. Appropriate challenge is comparable to starting up an exercise routine. It is important to start off slowly, with gradual stretches. Each time the routine becomes a bit easier, and the body can take on a little more. Manageable challenges keep our brains stimulated.
Students who consistently read the aqua (easier) reading booklets may appreciate moving up to the maroon (more complex) booklets. The challenge may take a little extra time, and the result of getting through the harder material will be rewarding.
Offer choice and challenge by telling students they can either read two aqua (easier) booklets or one green (advanced) booklet. They can choose the challenge that feels most appropriate.
Stimulate the Senses
If the lesson plan calls for teaching about the Civil War, bring in books with pictures of the uniforms. Consider bringing in a movie so students can see and hear what they need to learn. If possible, take your students to a local museum where they can see the costumes and weapons. Have students act out part of the war, where they have to learn about their historical figures and dress the part. Other students might like to research popular cuisine of the time, and bring in samples for classmates to try.
Finding ways to stimulate the senses doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive when each student has a role in the learning. In fact, taking an active learning role is a fantastic way to enrich the brain.
Offer Opportunities for Students to Actively Process and Participate
Brains need opportunities to process and participate. Once information is taken in, our brains want to know what to do with it—how to apply it. These opportunities can come in the form of a worksheet, study guide, large or small group discussion, field trip, reflection journal, and so on. Ideally, there should be multiple opportunities for students to process and apply what they have learned.
You can offer choice by letting students select whether they would prefer to write a journal entry processing what they have learned, do a pair-and-share with a classmate, create a graphic organizer, highlight their notes, or whatever method works best for their brains to process what they have learned.