Are there barriers to brain-based learning?

The final statement in the article Are we wired to learn? begged for a sequel to propose possible solutions to overcoming barriers that impede the ability to fully develop brain compatible learning opportunities for students.  If you have ever worked in a school or central district offices, you are keenly aware of a vast array of roadblocks preventing the use of these strategies. They may include things such as time constraints, narrowed focus on short term results,  master scheduling policies, competing initiatives, use of prescriptive programs, lesson planning requirements, staffing, space and class size issues, leadership beliefs, evaluation protocols, etc.  Although none of these issues is insurmountable, each requires thoughtful consideration, commitment by leadership and strategies to mitigate them.  Luckily there are strategies to work around the speedbumps, roadblocks and pot holes on the road to student success!

Why do we need to consider brain-compatible instruction?

We can agree the shared aspiration for our children, either as parents or as educators, is for them to grow into healthy, self-actualized, contributing members of society who will meet their full potential.  Each of their interests, personalities, skills, aptitude, talents and circumstances differ, and goals memorialized in many a school or district vision statements remain focused on maximizing student success.  They do not all learn at the same pace or with the same methodology, but they each can learn under the guidance of committed and intentional teaching.  Unfortunately our systems have the potential to get in the way of this. Joaquim Manuel Andrade is credited with the statement, “People often say that everyone can learn.  Yet the reality is that everyone does learn.  Every person is born with a brain that functions as an immensely powerful processor.  Traditional schooling, however, often inhibits learning by discouraging, or punishing the brain’s natural learning processes.”   Think of the return on investment for our students if we just consider incorporating what we already know about how the brain learns best.

Through the advancements in research and technology, we have a great deal of information about the functions of each part of the brain, it’s capacity and how we take in, processes and integrate new knowledge.  Brain-based learning has been called a combination of brain science and common sense, so why shouldn’t we combine what we know and have the two things work together?  It starts with relationship building and is fostered by a variety of learning strategies discussed in the previous article.

The journey information travels to get to long-term memory is unstable; however, think of this pathway using the analogy of the face of a traffic light.   The colors red, yellow and green represent what happens during the learning process. Strategies strengthen the neural pathways at each stage along the way to deep learning.  Simply think of it this way:

Red =Ready At this stage the brain is scanning for importance.  In order to compete for attention from many distractions, utilize engagement, novelty and the full range of sensory stimuli.

Yellow= Set During this stage, information is stored in short-term memory.  Design processing, practice and opportunities to connect, create and think deeply about content.

Green= Go It takes many repeated exposures over a period of time for learning to stick. Getting information into long-term memory requires elaboration, encoding and creating multiple learning opportunities to strengthen learning pathways.

What can we do?

By using the wisdom of teachers coupled with the power of technology tools, and driven by the content in a Learning Object Repository (LOR), we can build meaningful experiences for students and save educators time in the process by giving teachers back the time to do what they do best – teach.  Traditional and digital instruction can live in harmony and both have benefits.  Current research indicates that blending print and digital resources will provide students with maximum opportunities to become fluent in both mediums, thereby mitigating inequity. Teachers set the stage and have the opportunity, as well as the obligation to match the best resources to learning styles, interests and ability.  Educational technology is most effective when combined with collaborative social environments, a variety of resources and allows students to access information, problem-solve and create in new ways. When it comes to the previously mentioned barriers, consider viewing solutions through a student-centered lens.

Balancing act. There has never been, and never will be, enough time in life and in teaching, so maximizing the time we have to work with, both for planning and with our students, is key. To start with, having access to a Learning Object Repository (LOR) and other technology tools can make lesson planning more efficient by corralling all digital assets such as textbook materials, weblinks used in instruction and supplemental resources in one location.  When all the resources are gathered in one centralized place, finding the right objects for teaching, and for interest, preferred learning style and aligned to standards, is simplified.  The way we plan should be informed by the needs of our learners which includes the ways our brains attend to information.  When planning a lesson, use strategies to engage student attention immediately.  If learning doesn’t engage the attention of a learner within first few seconds, something else will.  Novel and varied digital content in a LOR provides engaging hooks for lessons.  The brain remembers firsts and lasts best so be creative with beginnings and endings of lessons with processing and practice time in between. Digital playlists filled with a variety of learning objects can be built in this way.  As a strategy to keep the brain from getting bored and off task, change the format or activities about 4-5 times within a class period. And finally, think about how to maximize transition time by stacking tasks to provide periodic review to distribute and reshape thinking over time.

Consider the long game. The pressure, especially in high poverty schools to close the achievement gap sometimes results in being hyper-focused on the short term gains fueled by prescriptive programs.  There can also be monetary and time costs associated with these so-called “quick-fix” solutions.   Although it may take some additional investment to build standards-aligned playlists, the long term benefits of having a sustainable base of lessons that can be continuously enhanced and updated rather than completely redeveloped cycle after cycle, far outweighs the initial investment and can have long lasting impact. According to Michael Fullen, deep learning is learning that lasts a lifetime and can change the world.  This can only be accomplished by helping students connect to concepts rather than engaging in endless discreet and sometimes disjointed skill building activities.  It may also lead to lack of focus on the social and physiological needs of students and create source fatigue.  Prescriptive programs have their place in building or remediating foundational skills, however variety is still the spice of life when it comes to appealing to the brains natural learning tendencies.  Our brains thrive on novelty and the unexpected so mix it up by building playlists that contain a variety of learning object types from audio, image or video files to interactive lessons and exciting weblinks.  Also, consider the assets students bring to the table and create opportunities for them to build meaning through discussion and review of exemplar work.  The chances new information will be remembered are increased when information is connected to relevant issues.  Design assignments that are both challenging and interesting and provide actionable, timely and specific feedback, when possible.  In addition, content can be viewed using closed captioning with or without audio.  Consistent with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principals, closed captioning provides maximum levels of accessibility to the broadest range of learners, including students with a wide range of disabilities. Particular benefits support auditory and visual learners or those working in loud and distracting places. Educational Equity encompasses a variety of concepts, all addressed by looking through a student-centered lens.

Connections are king. Master scheduling policies can make integrating curriculum difficult, but the more opportunities to create connections between content areas, the better the chances will be for helping learning to stick.  Long-term memory stores information in networks of associations or connections so discuss thematic approaches during PLCs.  It also processes in wholes and parts simultaneously.  Teachers, departments and schools can work together or share playlists as a way to increase cross-curricular connections. Furthermore, the deepest connections are made when students have ownership of their learning.  A LOR can facilitate this by being a creative platform for students to find and build their own artifacts as part of a personalized learning process.  Autonomous student-centered engagement boosts student understanding.

Efficiency of time and effort.  Two ways the Cambridge Dictionary defines efficiency are “the good use of time and energy in a way that does not waste any” and “a situation in which a person, system or machine works well and quickly.”   In these ways technology tools can increase efficiency because they allow educators to work faster, with the least amount of effort and in many cases can serve the needs of many simultaneously.  Staffing and space issues require creative solutions for collaborative group work, as well as whole and small group instruction. Meaningful skills or standards-based playlists can be developed to meet the differentiated needs of individual and groups of students in a way that frees the teacher to work with students in one-on-one or small group settings. Likewise, teachers can use evaluation protocols to their advantage.  The basis most instructional models have been built on is based on research and contains high-yield instructional strategies proven to increase learning.  When these strategies are incorporated every day as they should be, and not just during observations, evaluations begin to lose some of their sting.

Final thoughts and call to action

When we put the learning and the learners first, everyone wins.  Barriers must be acknowledged, addressed and overcome to ensure high levels of learning in the most natural and impactful ways possible.  Engaging learners means finding ways to get them excited about our content, but empowerment involves providing the knowledge and skills to pursue their own interests and ultimately their future.  Our students are depending on us remove the barriers to making the future they imagine possible.

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 [email protected], via LinkedIn or Twitter.

 

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