Nowhere is the evidence of unbridled excitement for learning clearer than in a classroom full of 5- and 6-year old students. The 32 kindergarteners that made up my first class were fidgety, unfiltered, full of questions, and above all else, little sponges when it came to learning. We spent that first year together in a portable classroom at the far end of the campus learning our letters, sounds and numbers by singing and dancing to hand-me-down records, choosing partners to make messes and clean up with, and exploring the concepts of measurement, capacity and physics at the block center and water table.
We didn’t all learn at the same pace, or with
the same methods, but we all grew in big and small ways. That’s where my
20-year infatuation with how external and internal factors influence how we
think, feel and understand began. If we deeply understand the ways our brains
take in, process and synthesize information, we can design our instruction to
lead to deep learning.It was crystal clear — each student needed
a variety of ways to experience learning. Everything learned right there in
that kindergarten classroom applied to all subsequent groups of upper
elementary age students, college students, and adult learners. Our brains are
hard-wired to learn!
In the mid-1970’s. Ron Edmunds is quoted as
saying, “We can, whenever and wherever we
choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.
We already know more than we need to do this. Whether we do it or not must
finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we have not done it so far.”
The pressure is greater than ever to make sure students are proficient in
math and reading skills and have knowledge-building strategies in many content
areas. Most schools and districts have plans outlining the improvement
goals and steps needed to increase the percent of students meeting or exceeding
those targets. How many of them consider the research behind how we learn best?
If our goal is to make learning stick, we should explore some of the ways we
can help make this happen and the tools we have available to assist us,
including building playlists powered by the SAFARI Montage Learning Object
If there ever was a trend overdue in education,
perhaps it is teaching in brain-compatible ways. Although the idea that
we only use 10% of our brain has long ago been debunked, we continue to be
mystified by the capacity of the brain to learn. We are only beginning to
understand how to harness the true potential our brains hold, but there is a
body of research that can guide us as educators to use what we already know.
In her book Brain Matters,
Patricia Wolfe states “The more we understand the brain, the better we’ll be
able to design instruction to match how it learns best.”1 This body of knowledge
continues to change as new ways of learning, such as digital mediums, become
Are We Meaning-Making, Pattern Seekers?
The path to long-term memory is unstable but can be strengthened in different ways. Information makes it to our long-term memory over time, by engaging the senses, creating patterns, making connections and through repetition. The accompanying infographic, depicting a brain approaching a stop light on a highway, illustrates this process.
To begin with, there are an infinite number of
objects, ideas and distractions competing for the mind’s attention, so the
clock starts ticking to engage the brain in the first few seconds of a lesson.
The encoding of new information within short-term memory begins with
intentional planning of tasks to help learners connect multi-modal experiences
and engage their brains, and continues by providing opportunities to access
prior knowledge, and practice skills and strategies. The final phase is
locking information in long-term memory. This is a fluid process that only
occurs with spaced rehearsal and opportunities to elaborate on earlier exposures.
A few specific strategy suggestions to build upon include:
Using advanced organizers to
trigger attention and share lesson outcomes to make sure students know
what is expected of them.
Building lessons to review
objectives at the beginning and at the end because the brain remembers
best what comes first and what comes last.
Being unpredictable because the
brain pays attention to things that are new or different like
storytelling, jokes or games. Our brains get used to patterns so being
unpredictable helps strengthen memory pathways.
Using visualization, mnemonic
devices and tying learning to real-life situations. We tend to be more interested in things
that have meaning to us, so this is a great way to emotionally connect
students to the content.
Incorporating collaboration and
using healthy debate. Our brains are social and like to contemplate
different viewpoints, so communication and cooperation can be effective in
soliciting new ideas or problem-solving.
Engaging students in
“meaning-making” tasks. Brain connections are built during
experiments and inquiry. Analysis, synthesis and evaluation tasks
create new neural connections.
How Technology Plays a Role in Retaining Information
The potential for forgetting points along this
learning trajectory is high, so carefully selecting the right technology tool
to assist in retaining information is essential. The SAFARI Montage Learning
Object Repository (LOR), stocked with a variety of procured, curated and
created learning resources, is a valuable tool for designing rich,
brain-compatible experiences for learners. LOR helps teachers by warehousing
tools to engage the brain. Playlists can be developed for classes or small
groups of students, aligned to standards or specific skills with directions for
use built-in, and designed for differentiated needs and with natural learning
pathways in mind.
Teachers can choose image, audio or video files
as hooks for learning and string them together in progressions that include
opportunities to move, collaborate or problem solve. They can then build
multiple processing experiences using a variety of file formats, web links,
interactive lessons coupled with pre-designed Slates that provide targeted
instructional strategies to practice or deepen knowledge by comparing,
contrasting, analyzing and/or synthesizing learning. Checking for
understanding can be aided by a quiz, View & Chat student engagement tool,
or Get it? interactive, formative assessment. These playlists can all be
easily edited, stored, shared and used in as many ways as you can imagine.
Are Today’s Teachers Transforming Learning?
Student’s grow up to become police officers,
singers, guidance counselors, orthopedic surgeons, drill sergeants, real estate
agents, entrepreneurs, computer engineers and more. The most tenacious,
self-motivated and creative group of students have come a long way from that
classroom where the words “confusion is good” was written on the board at the
front of the room. The reason for this
is that the brain seeks equilibrium and can’t stay in a state of confusion for
very long. Working through cognitive dissonance and productive struggle leads
to greater understanding.
They hated it then, but watching the dendrites
grow were some of the most satisfying moments to observe! Teachers can
create opportunities for productive struggle, and ultimately deep learning, by
plugging into the brain’s natural tendencies, no matter the age of the
students. So, if we have the knowledge, strategies and resources to help our
students cruise down the information superhighway, what are the barriers we can
eliminate to help them arrive at their final destination namely – student
About Dr. Rafalski
Dr. Shana Rafalski is the Vice President of
Digital Instruction Strategies for SAFARI Montage. She previously served as the
Executive Director of Elementary Education at Pinellas County Schools, FL and
the Director for Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at Orange County Public
Schools, FL. Dr. Rafalski has over 25 years of experience in education,
including many years in the classroom, as a teacher, trainer and school
administrator, and has presented at education conferences across the county
including Council of the Great City Schools, Marzano International Conference
and ASCD National Conference. Connect with Dr. Rafalski at firstname.lastname@example.org, via LinkedIn or Twitter.
1 Wolfe, Patricia. 2001. Brain Matters:
Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development
The Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), the largest, national, independent education technology conference, annually attracts thousands of education and technology leaders from around the world. Delivering strategies and best practices for student success and schoolwide advancement, FETC is known as one of the nation’s premier education technology events! Recognized for its outstanding program year after year, FETC provides CTOs, CIOs, Innovation Directors, Special Ed/Pupil Services Directors, Early Childhood Directors, Media Specialists, Technologists, Administrators and other Educators, the opportunity to explore the most effective integration of technology across the curriculum — from preK-12 — through premium sessions, intensive workshops, various concurrent sessions, live demonstrations of several hundred hardware and software products, plus much more. Visit www.FETC.org for more details.