Creating Enriching Environments

February 26, 2007 at 10:05 am (children, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, teachers)

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.”
— Marian Diamond

Research shows that it takes information, imagination, motivation, and effort to create an enriched environment (Diamond & Hopson, 1998).

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
Students need safe and supportive learning environments. When students feel mentally or physically uncomfortable, their brains focus on those conditions rather than on learning. You can foster an environment of positive emotional support by continually offering opportunities for students to get to know one another, and by getting to know each of your students.

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
Our brains appreciate having choices. When we have options, our brains immediately step up to the task of weighing them and selecting the one(s) that appeal to us the most. Before we can consciously start thinking about it, our brains automatically seek out what is most appealing and meaningful to us.

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
Learning research is always buzzing with the importance of stimulating the sense when teaching. Auditory is the easiest sense to stimulate, and it is often our habit to tell students what they need to learn. To avoid the “in one ear and out the other” syndrome, use additional techniques besides lecture to 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
So much to cover, and so little time. However, covering content doesn’t always allow students to uncover more learning, or to discover new applications. Traditional educators would lecture to their students, and expect the information to be retained, at least until an exam. We now know that the brain doesn’t function to its best ability with these methods.

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.


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