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10 Brain Tips To Teach and Learn — Ideas for New Year Resolutions

My inter­est in the brain stems from want­i­ng to bet­ter under­stand both how to make school more palat­able for stu­dents, and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment more mean­ing­ful for fac­ul­ty. To that end, I began my Neu­rons Fir­ing blog in April, 2007, have been doing a lot of read­ing, and been attend­ing work­shops and con­fer­ences, includ­ing Learn­ing & the Brain.

If you agree that our brains are designed for learn­ing, then as edu­ca­tors it is incum­bent upon us to be look­ing for ways to max­i­mize the learn­ing process for each of our stu­dents, as well as for our­selves. Some of what fol­lows is sim­ply com­mon sense, but I’ve learned that all of it has a sci­en­tif­ic basis in our brains.

1. Review and 2. Reflec­tion are two means for think­ing about what is being learned. Review can be done in the moments after a ques­tion is posed, a com­ment is made, a pas­sage is read, an activ­i­ty is done, or direc­tions are giv­en, pro­vid­ing ample time to think about what has tak­en place, process the infor­ma­tion and respond accord­ing­ly. Review is also what should be done peri­od­i­cal­ly over the course of the year, so that stu­dents have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it, relearn, clar­i­fy and con­sol­i­date their learn­ing to mem­o­ry. Mar­ilee Sprenger, based upon research by Jeb Schenck, notes that “spac­ing reviews through­out the learn­ing and increas­ing the time between them grad­u­al­ly allows long-term net­works to be strength­ened… the tim­ing between repeat­ed reviews can sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect how much infor­ma­tion is retained.

Reflec­tion encom­pass­es not only a response to actu­al mate­r­i­al but also think­ing about how one learns. It is 3. Metacog­ni­tion, and with each iter­a­tion you learn more about your­self as a learn­er. We empow­er our stu­dents and our­selves when we take the time for reflec­tion, because the more we under­stand about how we each learn, the bet­ter we can become at learn­ing. Accord­ing to Sprenger, “Metacog­ni­tion involves two phas­es. The first is knowl­edge about cog­ni­tion or think­ing about our think­ing. The sec­ond is mon­i­tor­ing and reg­u­lat­ing cog­ni­tive process­es.

For me, blog­ging has been a con­tin­u­al process of review and reflec­tion. In the course of over 170 posts to date, I con­tin­u­al­ly revis­it top­ics, make con­nec­tions, and write about my own course of learn­ing. As teach­ers, ide­al­ly we should be review­ing and reflect­ing on lessons, course mate­ri­als, and inter­ac­tions with stu­dents, both as a means of improv­ing them as well as learn­ing from what worked or did not work.

4. Sleep is anoth­er way to con­sol­i­date learn­ing, which is one rea­son get­ting a full night of unin­ter­rupt­ed sleep is impor­tant. Of course, doing so also helps us the next day to have more ener­gy and patience, which then helps us with our atten­tion con­trol. In fact, cou­ple suf­fi­cient sleep with wak­ing up to a healthy break­fast, and you are pre­pared to tack­le the day.

Prop­er 5. Nutri­tion keeps our sys­tems func­tion­ing clos­er to their peak by sta­bi­liz­ing var­i­ous lev­els of hor­mones and chem­i­cals. All of this holds equal­ly true for stu­dents as well as teach­ers!

We all have our own life sto­ries, and being exposed to some­thing new tends to stick bet­ter if we have some­thing else to asso­ciate it with or if it is suf­fi­cient­ly unusu­al that it stands out on its own. Tak­ing advan­tage of stu­dent 6. Pri­or Knowl­edge prob­a­bly requires min­i­mal effort on the part of the teacher, but yields big returns by engag­ing stu­dent inter­est as stu­dents con­sid­er new infor­ma­tion as it per­tains to them and their expe­ri­ences. This, in turn, can 7. Engage Emo­tions, which is the largest hook into learn­ing. We all tend to remem­ber things that get our blood boil­ing for bet­ter or for worse. The parts of the brain engaged in emo­tions include the small yet mighty amyg­dala, the hip­pocam­pus and the hypo­thal­a­mus.

The amyg­dala deals with our emo­tions, helps process our mem­o­ries, and gets total­ly absorbed in man­ag­ing our response to fear and stress. Com­bined, these are big­gies, so the hip­pocam­pus and hypo­thal­a­mus chime in with some assis­tance. The hip­pocam­pus han­dles fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion, while the hypo­thal­a­mus mon­i­tors how your body is doing inter­nal­ly and directs the pitu­itary gland to release hor­mones on the basis of func­tions such as body tem­per­a­ture, appetite, and sex­u­al func­tion­ing.

8. Nov­el­ty is anoth­er big hook. As infor­ma­tion pre­sen­ta­tion blends between teach­ers or stays the same by one teacher, it becomes dif­fi­cult to see pat­terns and stu­dents may tune out the “same­ness”. But change it up a bit, intro­duce some­thing rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent or in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent man­ner, and all of a sud­den it is like a quick-pick-me-up in the mid­dle of a les­son, a “brain snack”. Stu­dents refo­cus their atten­tion, and it can even enliv­en your pre­sen­ta­tion and wake you up! One way to incor­po­rate nov­el­ty is to add some 9. Move­ment to reen­er­gize the body and brain cells. Move­ment can shake the sil­lies out or wake up slug­gish bod­ies and brains; it can be an anti­dote to the time of day or the cli­mate. Move­ment is also a close rel­a­tive of 10. Exer­cise, and it has been shown that exer­cise is espe­cial­ly help­ful in keep­ing our adult brains healthy, so remem­ber to par­tic­i­pate in that move­ment with your stu­dents (and they will prob­a­bly con­sid­er your par­tic­i­pa­tion a bit nov­el!).

Nov­el­ty and move­ment can also effec­tive­ly be used to assist kids with sharp­en­ing con­trol of their exec­u­tive func­tion, which is man­aged by the frontal lobes in the neo­cor­tex. Exec­u­tive func­tion is how we con­trol our atten­tion, cre­ate plans, and car­ry out those plans. Too often in school, kids are required to “sit still” and “qui­et down”, yet these are the very basics of being a kid! Con­sid­er har­ness­ing that nat­ur­al kid ener­gy to help stu­dents man­age their own func­tion­ing. Indeed, in a Newsweek arti­cle, Wray Her­bert notes that an exec­u­tive func­tion cur­ricu­lum has emerged to help stu­dents man­age “effort­ful con­trol and cog­ni­tive focus but also work­ing mem­o­ry and men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty” the abil­i­ty to adjust to change, to think out­side the box.

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course” I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram”. She is the K‑8 Com­put­er Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­o­gy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­niz­er of Dig­i­tal Wave annu­al sum­mer pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain con­fer­ences. This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in July 2008, and is repub­lished here now to help read­ers incor­po­rate these brain tips into  New Year Res­o­lu­tions. For more ideas, you can check out The Ten Habits of High­ly Effec­tive Brains — Time for Brain Fit­ness Res­o­lu­tions?

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  1. Jeb says:

    I see some of these prin­ci­ples with my baby daugh­ter as she grows. The human brain is amaz­ing.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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