Teaching & Learning | Spotlight

Brain Matters: Maximizing Your Classroom for Learning

This educational consultant advises teachers to keep brain science in mind when figuring out how to help their students learn.

Teachers need to break up their lessons more during the class period and get the students moving if they want optimal learning to occur. That's the advice of David Sousa, former teacher and superintendent and current educational consultant and author of 15 books, who spoke to a colossal crowd of educators and K-12 technology leaders during the second day of FETC 2013. His topic, how to design brain-friendly schools in an era of accountability, ranged from showing how singing in class can help students learn to how the brain likes surprises to proving that nobody can truly multi-task.

Noting that teaching was the "only profession whose job is to change the human brain every day," Sousa offered a fast-paced tour of "educational neuroscience"--research that pulls together the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and pedagogy with the aim of increasing student attention, retention, and interest.

At the heart of the science is the question: How is technology affecting students' attention spans. The answer to that is still an unknown, Sousa stated. What is known, he added, is that the demands on student attention are increasing. Whereas school used to be the major thing in students' lives now there's also Twitter, gaming, Facebook, the cell phone, homework, and e-mail. "All of these things are vying to get our brain's attention," he said. So figuring out how to "make those kids feel welcome in our schools" is crucial for finding success in the classroom.

Based on the findings of educational neuroscience, Sousa offered a number of tips for maximizing learning.

Shorter is Better
Retention takes place in "beats"--two episodes per lesson, the first episode more enduring than the second. Sousa advised teachers to break up lessons to achieve more retention. In a 40-minute class, he said, "If you teach one lesson, you'll have two beats; if you teach two 20-minute lessons, you get four of those beats."

The Brain is Attentive to Novelty
The brain is wired to pay attention to anything that's unexpected. "Anything the brain perceives as not fitting the pattern of its current environment" will help with learning, Sousa said. "It doesn't mean the classroom has to be a three-ring circus," he added, but if the teacher can figure out ways to break up the expectations, that'll get the students re-engaged.

One suggestion: Add quizzes. "Students learn material while writing questions and answers," he said. His advice was to enlist technology to help. "Set up a little studio and record [students] playing games, then broadcast those. Or have them play games through the Internet with kids from other parts of the country or parts of the world."

Get Them Moving
Physical activity improves memory access and storage, according to Sousa. Movement of the body stimulates the long-term storage function of the brain, which can help students remember and recall. Sousa encouraged school designers to remember: "Classrooms should have plenty of room for movement; [otherwise], you're restricting the very thing that can help kids learn better."

Add Music and Humor
Explain content through music, Sousa suggested. "Students learn content while singing the lyrics." Sound corny? He showed a video of a 10th grade math teacher teaching his students how to find the perimeter of an octagon through rap. "It's going to be on the state test," Sousa noted. "He knows what he's up against. As the kids come into the room, he hands them a sheet of paper. On there are the lyrics." Then the instructor stands in front of the class rapping and emphasizing the points he wants the students to remember. Then he has them sing the song several times and asks them to repeat the formula. "They remember it."

Along the same lines, Sousa encouraged teachers to remember humor in the classroom. "Not to embarrass anybody," he emphasized, but to show how funny students can be. His suggestion: Share student bloopers from online sources.

Let Students Do the Talking
"Teachers still do too much of the talking," Sousa reminded the audience. The cure: "We should have students talk about what they've learned. Talk is one of the more powerful memory devices we have."

Discourage Multi-tasking
Multi-tasking asks the same area of the brain to accomplish two or more different goals at the same time, and it doesn't work, Sousa declared. "The brain cannot successfully perform two or more cognitive tasks simultaneously." Why not? "Focus is what keeps us alive," he explained. "Out on the Savannah, "you want to focus on getting away--finding the best way of escape. You don't want to stop and say, 'Wow, look at the trees--aren't they beautiful?'"

During the process of trying to multitask, the brain is actually alternating from one task to the other. What happens in the process of learning is that interruptions generate learning loss as we shift off of one activity and move to the other. "This is when we begin to make mistakes," he said. "it's better to complete one topic or project before starting another."

Any student who doubts can try a quick exercise: Have them sit with both feet on the ground and ask them to move their right foot in a clockwise motion. Stop that, then have them point their index finger ahead and move it in a figure-eight motion. Stop that and have them start the foot motion again and add the finger motion. "You can't do it," Sousa insisted.

Working Memory Capacity Is Declining
Sousa said that for years researchers performed tests to understand capacity of the temporary or working memory part of the brain. For decades the tests showed that people under the age of 14 tended to top out at five items when it came to remembering something; people older than that topped out at seven things. In the latest decade, that latter number is no longer seven; now it's three or four. "The capacity of working memory is going down, and we don't know why."

This has "grave implications" for the classroom, he stated. "This has implications for curriculum development and day-to-day teaching in the classroom." To expect information provided in the classroom to be stored, it has to make sense to the student.

That means teachers need to figure out how to make the learning relevant to every student. "We're in such a rush, we don't give enough time for meaning." His suggestion: Use technology to share videos showing real-world applications and bring in experts via online mechanisms.

Turn Off the Spigot
Finally, Sousa, said, teachers have to teach their students how to turn off the information, once they have what they need to know. "Beware the curse of too much information. The brain can't handle it. Too much information hinders cognitive processing," he explained. "Eventually, you end up remembering nothing."

One approach to grappling with overload is to help students learn the practice the art of "satisficing," locating just enough information to satisfy the particular need and then ignoring the rest. "Kids are falling into this trap--[going] from link to link to link. What's happening is there is a lot of energy, but no direction."

As a result, Sousa said, that may require a rethinking of how curriculum is designed. His suggestion: to divide it into two categories: "The things we want them to remember and the things they need to [be able to] find."

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