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Brain - Compatible Curriculum: Strategies that Really Work
By: Pam Schiller

Scientific research during the past two decades has provided numerous findings about how humans think and learn. When these findings are put into application learning is optimized for all students. Here are a few strategies related to the environment and instruction that will optimize learning.

1. Ensure that students feel safe.
The brain will always pay attention to safety and well-being before anything else. Learning is inhibited when students feel threatened. For example, if the room temperature is too hot or too cold, if learners are tired or hungry, or if learners are fearful of the instructor, the results of failure, or another student, then the ability to focus on instructional material is impaired.

2. Keep the learning environment free of clutter.
The human brain receives between 35,000 and 42,000 bits of information every second—everything within the visual pathway, including the temperature, the feeling of clothing, smells of perfumes, and on and on. The brain is constantly trying to filter out most of these stimuli in order to focus on specific information. Overly decorated rooms and rooms that are cluttered with “stuff” overload the brain and interfere with its ability to narrow information down to what is relevant. Make sure that in the learning environment there is a place that allows the “eyes” to rest—a place void of stimuli. Place important information in front of learners and eliminate what is not important. Rotate materials to help reduce clutter.

3. Present information in ways that challenge learners to use multiple senses.
The more senses that deliver information to the brain, the more likely the brain will attend to that specific information. Teach children using visual models, music, manipulatives, and concrete examples. When studying oranges, touch them, taste them, feel them, and smell them.

4. Nurture curiosity.
Curiosity is the fuel of learning. Children are born curious. Bring unusual items into the learning environment (for example, a boat motor part, a bird egg, a fungi or strips of plastic tubing). Urge students to question, to explore, to experiment, and to compare. Encourage imagination and thinking outside the box. Invite children to create alternative endings to stories. Ask “what if” questions. What if there were only two colors? Accept the non-traditional. Refrain from rote memorization.

5. Keep lessons short.
Just like eating six small meals a day is better for digestion of food, shorter, more frequent lessons are better for the “digestion” of information. The brain can only hold on to a few pieces of data at one time. If students don’t have an opportunity to process information (make sense of it and establish meaning for it) before additional information is introduced, it is likely that information will be lost. Brighter students have no trouble separating the important part of a lesson from the less important parts and then quickly moving forward to process it. Slower learners, however, can get easily bogged down. When they are overloaded with too many details, they get stuck.

6. Tap into prior knowledge.
When past learning is used as a springboard or a bridge to new information, the student has a head start on processing the new information. The brain is always searching for patterns. How is this new information similar to what I already know? Learning is the accommodation of new information that occurs when students are able to make sense of and establish meaning for that information.

7. Provide time for practice.
Practice allows students to make sense of information. When they are able to apply ideas to real-life situations, they have a much better chance of remembering and conceptually understanding what they are learning. Practice requires feedback from the teacher and self-evaluation by the learner. This ensures that the practice is accurate. Practicing something the wrong way prolongs the time it takes for mastery.

8. Encourage students to think about information in complex ways.
When topics are suitable for higher level processing, have students apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what they learn. Each of these processes enhances and strengthens learning. These processes help students attach meaning and make connections to past learning, and, in so doing, they increase retention.

9. Teach to both the left and the right hemispheres.
The left brain is the logical hemisphere. It analyzes and evaluates factual information. The right brain is the intuitive hemisphere. It looks for patterns and gathers information from images rather than words. Comprehension is increased when the two hemisphere work in tandem by exchanging and coordinating information through the corpus callosum. Teaching to both hemispheres requires understanding.

David Sousa in How the Brain Learns outlines general guidelines for involving both hemispheres during instruction.

* Present information both visually (right hemisphere) and verbally (left hemisphere).
* Discuss concepts logically (left hemisphere) and intuitively (right hemisphere).
* Avoid conflicting messages. For example, if the information you are presenting is positive but the look on your face is grave, the learner will be confused. In this case, the learner may be more likely to remember your facial expression instead of the intent of the words that are spoken.
* Use activities and assessments that appeal to both hemispheres. Reading, writing, and computing address the needs of the left hemisphere. Creating and analyzing appeal to the right hemisphere.

10. Make sure learners are properly hydrated and that they have opportunities to exercise.
Thirsty brains can’t think! According to Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind, the brain requires water at regular intervals to fuel its neurotransmitter. Oxygen also fuels neurotransmitters. Sitting for long periods of time decreases oxygen and therefore inhibits alertness.

These strategies support the way the brain receives and processes information. When used properly, they will help students reach a higher level of achievement. But these strategies are only part of the equation. Teachers make a profound difference in whether a student will have a desire to learn and whether the information learned is valued and used or simply committed to memory. Teachers write on the souls of every student they teach. Never underestimate the power of one—you!

Pam Schiller is a curriculum specialist and freelance author and speaker. She has authored titles for Gryphon House, www.gryphonhouse.com.

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