Brain Research - DOC by Yx3Jx5zC


									Mark Blanton
DVN 775
                  Brain Research is Changing How We Teach
                             Technology Shows us the Way

       Researcher David Sousa (1998) summed it all up when he said, “We are in the

middle of an unprecedented revolution of knowledge about the human brain, including

how it processes, interprets, and stores information. Never before have known more

about human learning” (¶ 1). So how do we learn about the brain? With the help of

technology we are no longer, as Eric Jensen author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind

points out, restricted to learn about the brain from examining these small grapefruit-sized,

inefficient organs from those who are no longer alive. With the explosion of discoveries

being ushered by these advances in science, technological tools at the hands of

neuroscientists are bringing about an evolutionary change into how we used to view the

brain and its implications into how we learn. Imagine being able to capture the essence

of the brain’s thought process at a rate of an image every 50 milliseconds with the help of

nuclear imagery. Advances like these, combined with ongoing clinical studies

(behavioral psychology), will provide us higher levels of confidence into the

interpretation of today’s brain research. Consequently, empowered with ideas and

newfound possible pathways, educators like myself, can put these discoveries into action

where it counts the most: the classroom. These new insights from current brain research

can be broken down into five major concepts that could have a profound influence on our

educational practice: meaning, attention, threat and stress, emotions, and enriched



       To better understand how the brain contrives meaning, one first must delve

inward into the biological workings of the brain. What neuroscientists have learned

about the brain is that it is divided into two cerebral hemispheres and each side processes

things differently. This idea isn’t all that new, but what is revolutionary is the complexity

in which these two halves work together at many different levels, dispelling the much old

thinking of the separateness of “left brain” and “right brain” thinking. Holistically,

scientist view the brain in four regions, which are called “lobes” that are responsible for

all the different human bodily functions. Generally speaking, our ability to see comes

from the occipital lobe toward the back of the brain, while the frontal lobe is responsible

for the purposeful acts we do, like planning. For higher sensory functions and language,

we have the parietal lobe on the top-back portion of the brain. And lastly, there is the

temporal lobe that provides us with hearing, memory, meaning, and language. Even

though one could easily get lost in the complexity of the brain, one shouldn’t overlook

the explanation of how the brain learns. Within these basic truths, even the average

teacher can find a treasure chest of tools that when understood can influence how her

students learn in the classroom.

       Did you know that dehydration is a common problem that impairs student

learning in school classrooms, leading to lethargy and impaired learning (Hannaford, as

cited in Jensen, 1998)? Remarkably, the brain needs plenty of water a day—almost 8-10

glasses to operate at its best. That might make a teacher think twice about restricting the

drinking fountain because they’re trying to teach! Likewise, the brain also needs

nutrients, which is supplied by the tremendous flow of blood it draws from. Combined,

the brain maintains an electrolytic balance necessary for the electricity that drives our

thought processes that passes between the billions of brain cells we all have. Most

important to this amazing function is not the fact that we are losing brain cells daily,

actually thousands of them (Howard, as cited in Jensen, 1998), is the notion that

individuals have the power within them to actually grow more brain cells and enlarge the

pathways of information processing. Keeping the mind active and engaged literally can

enhance this chemical passing of electricity. It was interesting to learn that from the

moment of birth, brain cells that are not used actually die away and are discarded.

Furthermore, “Learning changes the brain because it can rewire itself with each new

stimulation, experience, and behavior” (Jensen, 1998, p.13).

       Technology has the ability to enhance a student’s ability to construct meaning.

Complex-real world problem solving can build meaning with the

use of Web Quests. Graphic organizers, like Inspiration, also

allow students to use technology to visually tie in patterns, bring

relevance to ideas, and connect prior learning to concepts they

are studying. And then, there is always the Internet available to captivate learners by

helping them discover information and answering questions.


       Thanks to clinical studies, action research, and the infusion of cutting-edge

technology, neuroscientists are discovering more how can go about getting and keeping

one’s attention—an age old complaint in the classroom. First of all, it needs to be

understood that it’s not a question of turning on the brain’s ability to pay attention, but

“paying attention to what.” Researcher Eric Jensen points out that our brain is in a

constant mode of attention, seeking some level of survival or pleasure. In fact he notes,

“a normal person makes this decision about 100,000 times a day” (1998, p. 42). From a

teachers point of view, getting a better picture how the brain is constantly scanning its

environment using its sensory inputs (hearing, vision, touch, smell, and taste) to make

decisions about what to pay attention to can lend to more effective classroom

management. Equally important to this equation, is realizing that the brain is in a

constant state of chemical blends that are the body’s reaction to the stimulus input it

receives from its constant scanning. Combined, these functions of the brain create a

complex bi-directional sharing of information, which allows the brain to stimulate and

amplify the correct neurons to “focus” on the task at hand, while simultaneously

suppressing other neurons related to unimportant information.

       Sure focused attention is a good thing, but too much of a good thing is actually

counter productive. Scientists have discovered that the brain needs down time to either

process or make sense of what has been taken in if learning is to occur (Dudai, as cited in

Jensen, 1998). This down time varies according to the learner and how much of the input

is new, but either way is vital to learning. I know from past experience, group sharing,

journaling, or physical activity has been very effective activities for preparing to shift

gears. I thought Jensen put it perfectly when he said, “You can either have your learners’

attention or they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time” (1998, p. 46).

Furthermore, studies have shown that this time of rest from input is important to

strengthen the neural connections, but also prevents the risk of contaminating the

memory process (Manning, as cited in Jensen, 1998). The brain can keep on thinking

about something for up to 48 hours, even though you consciously have left it behind.

       Thus educators need to be more conscious of the fact that sometimes, “less can be

more” in the long run.

       When students are given choices, curriculum is presented in novel ways, and

                   students are given opportunities to engage, like with technology,

                   teachers can easily captivate students’ attention. I remember last year,

                   as part of a lesson in which we were reading about the sinking of the

                   Titanic, students went to the lab of computers we had available in our

                   classroom and explored the wreckage. The students were engaged and

                   I had their attention. Best yet, they had made a connection to a

memorable event, locking-in the learning to a memorable event.

Threat and Stress

       Did you know that “Excess stress and threat in the school environment may be the

single greatest contributor to impaired academic learning?” (Jensen, 1998, p.52). You

would be surprised to learn how the brain, behavior, and learning can be negatively

impacted. It has been found that stress causes our adrenal glands to release a chemical

called cortisol that “triggers a string of physical reactions” that actually, when in high

levels can “lead to the death of brain cells” (Vincent, as cited in Jensen, 1998). Stress has

been linked to student failure.

       Stress can come from a variety of sources: physical, environmental, and social,

both real and imagined. Learning more about how stress can impair learning, can also

better prepares us, to deal with those student behaviors that are less than desirable.

       Stress also has a tremendous influence on a student’s desire to learn, in other

words, their level of motivation to succeed. We must learn to unlock the motivation that

dwells within students, which releases a state of chemical balance that we associate with

pleasure. Studies have concluded that three primary conditions keep us from reaching

this chemical euphoria. First, a person’s current situation (simple as a teacher’s voice or

tone) may trigger an unhappy situation in the past, conjuring up feelings of failure

(Peterson, Maier, and Seligman, as cited in Jensen, 1998). Jensen further notes that

mismatched learning styles between                                 the student and lesson

can also influence a student’s level of                            motivation

(Wlodkowski, 1998). Lastly, how the                                student views their

future success. Student’s brains that believe they will be successful release a cocktail of

pleasure chemicals, like dopamine and opiates, as a self-reward system (Ford, as cited in

Jensen, 1998).

       Technology can also play an important part in releasing stress. With the

                         introduction of the multi-media computer into the learning mix,

                         students can be afforded more choices in the style in which they

                         learn—lowering their stress level. Computers by their very

nature are multi-sensory. Furthermore, computers are also “safe” to children and non-

judgmental. They also allow students to be in control and set their own learning pace.


       One of the most miss-understood forces that significantly impacts the entire

learning process, are the emotions—the “feeling” state the body is in. In fact,

neuroscientist LeDoux (1994) was quoted by Eric Jensen as saying “Emotions drive

attention, create meaning, and have their own memory pathways” (1998, p.72). It has

been said that all of our emotions (joy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger and sadness) affect

learning. Because our emotions activate specific neurons in our brains, and thus release

chemicals accordingly, we find that it is our emotions that ultimately influence most of

our behaviors. Miles Herkenham of the National Institute of Mental Health was quoted

by Eric Jensen as saying that “98% of all communication within the body may be through

these peptide messengers” (chemicals) (1998, p.75, clarification added). Consequently to

be successful, educators have to be keenly aware to be always striving to create an

affective atmosphere that helps students feel good about learning.

       If lessons are designed that prick student interest, technology can provide choices

for the student to perform a task that they feel good about and still meet the teacher’s

learning goal. The key in provoking the optimal chemical response, thus behavior, is

allowing the student to feel good because of learning style and choices which allows

them to feel in control during the learning process. For example, when I taught the

“Mission” era in California history, I would provide student choices as a component of

their grade. I would allow students to demonstrate their understanding by choosing one

of many projects: building a mission, create a PowerPoint presentation, diorama, a CA

content topographical map, create a “roller-movie,” write & perform a skit, or talk with

me on a way they would like to demonstrate their understanding. Emotions, however,

don’t always originate in the classroom. Consequently, many teachers who understand

the power of emotions on learning may use technology to softly play classical music in

the background as students enter a room or take a test. Technology can also invoke many

other productive “emotional states,” like watching a streaming video that addresses a

topic with controversy. Students can be asked to give an oral report to the class (highly

emotional) using PowerPoint. Having the multimedia prop often relaxes and encourages

students through the experience. All in all, technology can

give students choices and support, that ultimately can make

the difference between them feeling successful or not. And

we know, positive memories can link the “learning” as a more easily, recallable event—

moving what they learned into long term memory.

Enriched Environment

       For decades, researchers were of the mind that we are but a product of our gene

pool (nature). This view, however, was drastically changed in 1967, when the studies of

brain pioneer and neuroanatomist Marian Diamond discovered that the brain had an

amazing malleability to it. The brain was also a product of its environment (nurture).

Jensen quoted Diamond as saying, “When we enriched the environment, we got brains

with a thicker cortex, more dendritic branching, more growth spines and larger cell

bodies” (1998, p.30). Thus, Diamond planted the seed for whole new field of study for

researchers to follow: the effects of an enriched environment, or lack of.   Consequently,

researchers discovered that the environment and curriculum within its boundaries, if

engaging and stimulating, has the ability to literally change & enhance the physical

nature of a person’s mind to learn. These ideas of an enriched environment were put to

the test in “The Simi Star Project” in California where six elementary schools tested the

effectiveness of computers in the classroom and the effects of integrating technology into

the curriculum. The test group of classrooms integrated six networked computers into

their curriculum with writing software. The control group taught the same curriculum,

but did so in a more traditional approach without computers. At the end of the study, a

multitude of assessments were given aimed at measuring the effect on the students'

reading and writing development. Researcher Jean Casey reported that the students of

the computer enriched classrooms “averaged at least two writing levels higher than those

in the control classrooms” (2001, ¶1). Thus by influencing a student’s neural pathways to

become more and more efficient, it will then take less energy for a cell to react when it

has been activated, because it (the cell) has learned! Researcher Eric Jensen also goes on

to say that studies by neurobiologist Harry Chugani reported that the first year of a

child’s life “can completely change the way a person turns out” (Kotulak, 1998, p. 46).

According to The Harvard Medical School, “…By age four you have essentially

designed a brain that is not going to change very much more” (Kotulak, quoted in Jensen,

1998, p. 7). This is why it is so important for parents to stimulate their children early on

with reading, even as soon as 6 months old. So, as research continued to report, the brain

actually could vary in the way it developed according to the level of enrichment of the

environment it was subject to. Research then moved towards answering the question,

what constitutes enrichment?

       Eric Jensen notes of researcher William Greenough’s studies “two things are

particularly important for growing a better brain. The critical ingredients in any

purposeful program …is the learning is challenging and…second, there must be some

way to learn from the experience through interactive feedback” (1998, p.32, emphasis

added). “The single best way, according to Jensen, to grow a better brain is through

challenging problem solving. This creates new dendritic connections” 1998, p.35).

Furthermore, Greenough went on to say that novelty is also important. Educators should

be changing the classroom décor, instructional strategies, and grouping regularly if they

are to maximize learning.

Just as important as novel, challenging curriculum content and delivery, is the interactive

feedback component. Providing specific, multi-modal feedback in a timely manner

lowers the learners level of stress and allows the brain to decide what to do based on what

has been done so far. All students need to be challenged and given timely, specific

feedback that allows their brain to react and grow from stimulus in a non-threatening

environment—it is the ideal, enrichment for the brain.

        Enriching the environment can also be tremendously powerful with the use of

technology. By learning                                   how to integrate technology into

the classroom environment,                                teachers can implement everything

brain research tells us about                             novelty, challenge, and feedback.

Researchers Davis Caruso and Daniel Shade had this to say about technology: “When

computers are integrated into the curriculum and are applied to real problems…children

gain the ability to use computers as natural tools for learning (1994, ¶ 1). It’s true the

District and State dictate to teachers “what is to be taught,” but most importantly, they

don’t tell you how. This is exactly where each individual educator can use the student’s

interest to inject novelty, challenge, and excitement. With computers, the choices are

almost limitless. Best yet, curriculum can be created and delivered in a multitude of

ways, which can empower learners in their learning style and provide feedback that is

perfect in specificity and pace for our self-referencing brains. No matter what grade level

is on your role sheet, the truth is, you teach a variety of multi-year skill levels in a sea of

subjects—a task that could seem impossible without the use of technology. With

powerful software programs out there, like Accelerated Reader & Math, PowerPoint,

Word, Inspiration, Publisher, & KidPix, combined with the unlimited resources of the

Internet, teachers can provide enriched differentiation that is unprecedented.

       Undeniably, we are, as David Sousa (1998) spoke, “in the middle of an

unprecedented revolution of knowledge about the human brain, including how it

processes, interprets, and stores information (¶ 1). Educators have been given powerful

insights into how meaning, attention, threat and stress, emotions, and enriched

environment should affect our educational practice. And thanks to technology, we have

the tools to show us the way.

Casey, J. (2001). A path way to literacy: Empowering students in your classroom.
  Retrieved February 8, 2004, from ERIC database (ED458540):

Davis, C., & Shade, D. (1994). Integrate, don’t isolate: computers in the early childhood
  curriculum. Retrieved February 8, 2004, from ERIC database (ED376991):

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. VA: Association for Supervision and
   Curriculum Development

Sousa, D. A. (1998). Is the fuss about brain research justified? Retrieved
  February 5, 2004, from Center of Development & Learning's Web Site Web

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