Brain Based Learning

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Brain based learning

Ms. Cynthia D'Costa

• Seventeen year old Mona was busy preparing for her Entrance Tests. She found that when she ate something sweet, like a piece of pudding, it helped her study better. • One of my students, a young trainee-teacher, once told me that the anecdotes I related during my lectures helped her to retain content. • My own experience with learning shows that I learn better when in challenging situations. All the above incidents are related. They are all linked by one term that is the buzz word for modern teaching learning----- Brain based learning. Brain-based learning has been called a combination of brain science and common sense. Leslie Hart advocated learning more about the brain in order to design effective learning environments.

An often quoted statement with reference to classroom motivation is “You can lead a horse to the water but cannot make him drink”. Extrapolating this a bit, cynics say “You can take a student to knowledge but cannot make him think”. Brain based learning takes the student up to knowledge and makes him think. The theory is based on the structure and function of the brain. As long as the brain is not prohibited from fulfilling its normal processes, learning will occur. The brain functions as an immensely powerful processor. More often than not, learning is inhibited by discouraging, ignoring, or punishing the brain’s natural learning processes. Brain based learning encourages teachers to connect learning to students' real lives and emotional experiences, as well as their personal histories and experiences. This form of learning also encompasses educational concepts such as mastery learning, experiential learning, learning styles, multiple intelligences, co-operative learning, practical simulations and problem-based learning. Principles of Brain Based Learning: Caine and Caine formulated some principles of brain based learning which state that the brain is a parallel processor, meaning, it can perform several activities at once, like tasting and smelling. Learning engages the whole physiology. The search for meaning is innate and it comes through patterning. Emotions are critical to patterning and hence play a vital role in learning. The brain processes wholes and parts simultaneously. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception. Learning involves both conscious and unconscious processes. We have two types of memory, spatial and rote. We understand best when facts are embedded in natural, spatial memory. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. Each individual’s brain is unique. These principles have resulted in some implications for the educational setup. These include: 1. Orchestrated immersion–This involves creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience. Primary teachers can build a rainforest in the classroom, complete with stuffed animals and paper trees so that the students get a feel of what a rainforest is like. A teacher teaching Commerce can take a field trip to an insurance company to have students follow an employee all day. Wilson College Nature Club, Mumbai regularly organizes exhibitions to promote a deeper understanding of ecology. One such an exhibition simulated a marine ecosystem complete with coral reefs and aquatic plants. Visitors got a near-first hand experience of the ecosystem and learnt amidst an atmosphere of orchestrated immersion. 2. Relaxed alertness–Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a reasonably challenging environment, generates relaxed alertness. Teachers play classical music, when appropriate, to set a relaxed tone in the classroom. All students are accepted with their various learning styles, capabilities and disabilities. A relaxed and accepting environment pervades the room. Children are stretched to maximize their potential. The whole ambience of the class promotes a conducive atmosphere to learn. Avoid threatening situations like stress filled tests. All evaluation must be in a non threatening situation. Discover and help learners overcome their barriers and strengthen their built–in motivators. 3. Active processing–Active processing allows the learner to consolidate and internalize information. Information is connected to prior learning. For example, after the student learns about earthquakes, he/she must be able to decipher how earthquakes are connected to the interior of the earth. The stage is set before a unit of study is begun by the teacher preparing the students to attach new information to prior knowledge so the new information has something to latch onto. Learning in teams also promotes active processing. Teachers structure learning around real problems, encouraging students to also learn in settings outside the classroom and the school building.

Using the latest neural research, educational techniques that are brain friendly provide a biologically driven framework for creating effective instruction. 

Here are some tips to make your classroom and learning strategies more brain compatible. • Classroom Climate: Build up rich, stimulating environments using student created materials. Display products on bulletin boards and display areas. Change the exhibits in the classroom regularly to provide stimulating situations for brain development. Make provision for places for group learning like tables and desks grouped together, to stimulate social skills and cooperative work groups. Many elementary children prefer the floor and small tables to work with a partner. Most of our schools have a very rigid setup that barely permits any movement. Allow re-arrangement of furniture to facilitate team work. If this is not possible, students may be taken to an open hall or ground to break the monotony of the classroom. Link indoor and outdoor spaces so students can move about using their motor cortex for more brain oxygenation. Ensure suitable lighting in the class.

• Meaningful Metacognition: Allow students opportunities to examine their own metacognitive structures. In other words, create a classroom where students are allowed to think and explore their own thinking and learning patterns, - how they think and learn best. Encourage miming, dramatization, role play and such kinesthetic activities. Cognitive skills develop hand in hand with motor skills. Encourage multiple ways of arriving at solutions. For example: Instead of asking “what is the sum of 56 and 78?” reframe the question as “Find three ways to add 56 and 78”. One response could be the usual way of adding the digits in the unit places, carrying over a digit and so on. Another response could be adding 50 and 70 and then adding 6 and 8 to the sum. Since the brain understands patterns, use patterns in the form of graphic organizers, flow charts and diagrams to promote learning.

• Stimulating surroundings: Have multiple resources available. Provide educational, physical and a variety of setting within the classroom so that learning activities can be integrated easily. Computers areas, experimental science areas should be in close proximity to one another. The writer has witnessed a wonderful setup for brain based learning at National English School, Virar, Maharashtra. The school has an ‘exploratorium’, where basic scientific apparatus is kept and students can just EXPLORE. A teacher- in- charge supervises to ensure that nothing untoward occurs. A Science Park on the school premises and theme based exhibitions are a few of the many healthy practices that the school follows to encourage brain based learning. Mr. Deepak Kulkarni, Director of the school, shares that students simply enjoy learning through exploration and constructivist methods.

• Nurture the brain: The brain can grow new connections at any age. Challenging, complex experiences with appropriate feedback are best. Also proper food habits, protein rich diet, adequate sleep, games to enhance thinking skills and a happy mind will help the brain to learn better. Avoid too much of junk food, food with preservatives or empty calories. Since a major part of the brain is made up of water, encourage students to keep the body hydrated. All the same avoid caffeinated beverages and colas. On experiencing mental fatigue have a snack. Even a sweet or a fruit will do.

• Stress reduction: Give due importance to activities as music, sports and art. Soothing music can lower stress and boost learning. Art is an important part of brain-based education in that it provides many learners with avenues of expression and emotional connection and release. Avoid situations that cause distress but encourage healthy stress or eustress. Some kinesthetic activity, a little exercise before lessons helps to attune the brain. The brain benefits from physical activity. It enhances circulation so that individual neurons get more oxygen. It may spur the production of nerve growth factor, and this enhances brain function. Gross motor repetitive movements stimulate production of dopamine, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. Sufficient exercise enhances the production of new cells in the brain. Spice your classroom activities with humour, anecdotes and metaphors. A nice, hearty laugh increases oxygen to the brain. Anecdotes related to the topic help to process information more meaningfully. Metaphors and similes also facilitate understanding. For example, comparing a sedimentary rock to a layered chocolate cake builds a visual in the mind and helps to connect to the abstract concept of a sedimentary rock.

The famous psychologist Csikszentmihalyi claims that the optimal learning state for the brain is the state of flow. He explains that low skills and high challenge creates anxiety, high skills and low challenge creates boredom, low skills and low challenge creates apathy, and high skills coupled with high challenge creates FLOW. Try to ensure "flow" by making your learning experiences brain compatible.

References: Jensen, E. (1998), Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD—Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Caine, G., Nummela-Caine, R., & Crowell, S. (1999) Mindshifts:  A Brain-Based Process for Restructuring Schools and Renewing Education, 2nd edition. Tucson, AZ:  Zephyr Press. 

D'Arcangelo, M. (2000). How does the brain develop- A conversation with Steven Peterson. Educational Leadership