Brain Target 1: Emotional Climate
What Do We Know? Neuroscientists have recently described the intricate interactions between the emotional and cognitive brain systems. Research has shown that the brain’s limbic system, located just above the brain stem at the base of the brain, is responsible for our emotional responses. Neuroscientists tell us that information that comes to the brain is processed first in this emotional center before being processed in the cognitive or “thinking” center, located in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum. If information processing is short-circuited to the emotional center before the thinking center, long-term memory and deep learning is significantly impaired. Therefore, the effects of stress and threat on learning have clear implications for educators.
What’s the Impact on Learning? While we may be unable to control all the factors of stress in the lives of our students, the adept teacher can minimize threat-causing practices within the classroom. At the same time, the teacher should maximize strategies that promote positive emotion. Research has shown that while threats impede learning, positive emotional experiences, during which the brain produces certain chemicals or neurotransmitters, can contribute to long-term memory.
What Can Teachers Do? Brain-Targeted Teaching™ encourages teachers to deliberately plan for positive emotional connections within the framework of a specific unit of study, referred to as a learning unit. Such connections include specific activities that will connect the students emotionally to the content. The infusion of the visual and performing arts is an effective way to tap into children’s emotional response systems to enhance learning and should be included within the activities of every learning unit.
How does Roots and Branches Address Brain Target One? Responsive Classroom holds that Social and academic learning are inextricably connected, and each is equally important. There is a set of social skills that children need to be successful academically and socially These skills form the simple acronym CARES – cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control – and should be taught in an integrated fashion throughout the school day. From acquisition of these social skills, we see the emergence of independent learners who “own” not only their learning, but the environment in which they learn. These skills are the foundation for classroom and playground rules. This forms the basis for statements you hear from even our youngest students, when they say: “He didn’t make a good choice”; “I didn’t like that”; or “You hurt my feelings.” All staff are charged with the mission of getting to know the children as well as they know the content they teach. The more known children feel at school, the more likely it is that they will succeed. Teachers come to know children individually, culturally, and developmentally by taking the time to observe and interact with students and by understanding the stages of child development.
In addition to Responsive Classroom, Roots & Branches Schools believes in infusing visual and performing arts into activities and a way to encourage student’s emotional responses.
Brain Target 2: Physical Environment
What Do We Know? While Brain-Target One focuses on establishing a positive emotional climate, Brain-Target Two fosters the careful planning of the physical learning environment. We know that our eyes register about 36,000 visual images per hour, with about ninety percent of the brain’s sensory input coming from visual stimuli. With this vast visual capacity, the active brain constantly scans the environment seeking stimuli. Researchers tell us that the brain’s visual attending mechanism is strongly influenced by novelty in the environment. Studies compared the effects of bland, unchanging environments with classrooms that provided students with stimulation through frequently adjusting and changing classroom displays. Findings revealed that children were off task more often in settings that lacked novelty.
What’s the Impact on Learning? Sound, lighting, and scent also appear to have an effect on learning. Soft background music can help to relax students and provide a comfortable learning environment. However, while performing tasks that demand high levels of concentration, a quiet setting appears to be most effective. In studying the effects of lighting, researchers have shown increases in achievement of students who were taught in classrooms with the most natural and full spectrum lighting compared to dark classrooms or those with cool-white fluorescent lights (Kosik & Heschong, 2000). Scent can also be used to enhance memory, as olfactory input moves directly to the limbic system or emotional center. This accounts for the vivid recollection that an encounter with a familiar scent may invoke.
What Can Teachers Do? Brain-Targeted Teaching™ encourages teachers carefully plan the physical learning environment by deliberately planning for novelty, order, and beauty within each learning unit.
How does Roots and Branches Address Brain Target 2? Influenced by the philosophy of Reggio Emelia, classrooms at Roots & Branches are thoughtfully designed to minimize clutter and to provide a calm, nature-filled learning environment for our children. Student work is showcased on the walls and commercially produced work is kept to a minimum. In classrooms at Roots & Branches you will notice background music during quiet time and changes in lighting depending on the task. Teachers carefully plan where materials are kept in the rooms as to maximize the chances of maintaining order.
Brain Target 3: Learning Design
What Do We Know? Brain-Target Three encourages teachers to design the learning experience in a way that is compatible with the brain’s natural learning systems. While it may seem natural for teachers to write lesson plans that present information to students in sequential order until all of the content has been covered, this approach may in fact impede learning. Neuroscientists tell us that the brain categorizes new stimuli into concepts that are either familiar or novel, then combines these concepts to create new patterns of thinking and understanding-a concept referred to as patterning. The brain filters new information through the lens of prior experience and prior knowledge in order to create new meaning. New information, then, becomes integrated into a holistic pattern of cognition.
What’s the Impact on Learning? Imagine completing a jig-saw puzzle without ever having seen the overall image that the puzzle displays. Without giving students “big picture concepts” of the content that they will learn in a unit of study, students are often learning disconnected bits of information that too often never come together into an overarching concept or pattern. Lack of conceptual understanding typically results in loss of retention of the disjointed facts and details.
What Can Teachers Do? Brain-Targeted Teaching™ encourages teachers to use content standards and curriculum guidelines to design overarching goals and concepts, then to display these learning goals in non-linguistic representations such as concept maps or graphic organizers. Activities are then designed to allow students to understand how the objectives they will learn during the unit relate to the big picture concept. As they continue through the content, students are referred back to the concept map to reinforce the relevance of each learning activity.
How does Roots and Branches Address Brain Target 3? Teachers have regular opportunities to co-plan so that learning units are designed thoughtfully and with the outcomes in mind from the beginning.
Brain Target 4: Teaching for Mastery
What Do We Know? The next stage of Brain-Targeted Teaching™ is to engage students in activities that will enable them to demonstrate mastery of skills, content, and concepts. Brain-Target Four promotes mastery of learning goals and objectives by planning multiple activities to activate the brain’s memory systems.
In teaching for mastery, teachers must provide students with learning activities to create and sustain new engrams, or memory patterns. Cognitive scientists have identified three types of memory systems: short-term, working, and long-term memory. Short-term and working memory systems provide a form of temporary storage; short term memory allows us to retain information for a few seconds or minutes, while working memory serves as a “desk top” for retrieval of information when it is in immediate use. Once the brain determines that the information in our working memories is no longer needed, it is partially or totally forgotten. Unfortunately, too often what is presented in our classrooms is designed for students’ working memories-students learn information so they can retrieve it on a test or quiz then quickly forget much of it as they move on to the next topic.
Clearly the goal of teaching and learning is for students to acquire knowledge, processes, and skills that they can use to build new knowledge, a process that requires the use of long-term memory systems. Leading researcher on memory, Larry Squire (2002), tells us that the most important factor in determining how well we remember information is the degree to which we rehearse and repeat that information. Based on the method and frequency of presentation, memories consolidate as the brain reorganizes, modifies, and strengthens synaptic connections among neurons. During tasks that involve only working memory, the brain uses proteins that currently exist in brain synapses (Ratey, 2001). When information moves, however, from working to long-term memory systems, new proteins are created. Effective teaching can result in biochemical changes in the brain!
What’s the Impact on Learning? Brain Target Four of Brain-Targeted Teaching™ encourages teachers to plan for repeated rehearsals of content, skills, and concepts so that the information becomes part of students’ long-term memory systems. Such repetition would be terribly boring for students (and teachers too) if the same activities were presented multiple times in the same way. Instead, teachers are encouraged to plan varied experiences so that students can manipulate information within a variety of modalities. The best way to accomplish this is through the integration of artful teaching into content instruction.
Integration of the arts encourages meaningful connection to concepts, encouraging teachers to pair visual, kinesthetic, and musical thinking with linguistic learning tasks. As Howard Gardner (1983) states, “The abilities involved with the visual arts, with sculpture or painting, with drama, mime, use of the body, with music, all represent separate sets of cognitive skills.” Cognitive learning and higher-order thinking can be enhanced with meaningful connection to the arts through such activities as musical performance, role-playing, visual representations, creative movement, drama, poetry, and creative writing.
What Can Teachers Do? By providing students with multiple ways to manipulate content, skills, and concepts, teachers are not only promoting long-term memory but are providing the opportunity to differentiate instruction based on students’ emotional needs, academic goals, and cognitive learning styles.
Brain Target 5: Teaching for Application
What Do We Know? The acquisition of knowledge is only the beginning of a sound instructional program. Brain research supports what educators know to be the hallmark of effective instruction — life-long learning best occurs when students are able to apply content, skills, and processes to tasks that require them to engage in higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.Using knowledge meaningfully requires students to extend thinking by examining concepts in deeper, more analytical ways, thus requiring the brain to use multiple and complex systems of retrieval and integration.
Brain researchers have used the concept of the modular brain to describe differentiated functions of brain regions. Modules from one part of the brain connect to other modules when we perform complex tasks. Research has demonstrated, for example, that the motor cortex, originally thought only to control motor functions, becomes activated when the brain engages in problem-solving that includes such cognitive components as memory, language, emotion, and active learning.
What’s the Impact on Learning? Brain-Target Five promotes the use of performance-based instructional activities within each learning unit. Such activities require students to engage in inductive and deductive thinking, analysis, and problem-solving skills. It allows students to apply what they have learned in tasks that have real-world application.
What Can Teachers Do? Within the Brain-Targeted Teaching™ learning unit, Brain-Target Five focuses on real-world activities like conducting investigations, designing experiments, creating metaphors and analogies, examining cause and effect patterns, analyzing perspective, and engaging in creative thinking through the visual and performing arts.
Brain Target 6: Evaluating Learning
What Do We Know? Cognitive science supports what teachers know by experience — Immediate feedback strengthens learning and memory patterns.
What’s the Impact on Learning? While Brain-Target Six is the last stage of Brain-Targeted Teaching™, each stage of the model includes evaluation activities. The goal of evaluation is to provide students with relevant feedback about their performance so that the student can adjust learning habits and the teacher can make sound instructional decisions. Brain-Targeted Teaching™ supports the use of an evaluation measure for each objective and activity.
What Can Teachers Do? Brain-Target Six encourages teachers to align learning objectives, instructional activities, and evaluation methods while considering other brain targets. In addition to using selected-response test items such as multiple choice, matching, and true-false, teachers include constructed-response assessment activities such as performance tasks, exhibitions, projects, and portfolios. Constructed-response assessments measure the kind of student performance promoted by Brain-Targeted Teaching™ that typically is not measured well by selected-response test items. And teachers use scoring rubrics, keys, checklists, self-evaluations, and reflections to measure what students know, perform, and construct to demonstrate content standards in constructed-response assessments.