Education leaders and teachers are working with bodies of students that are in the process of growing at a cellular level. We need to acknowledge that this means we are dealing with growing brains and we now have the technology to observe the process and understand what it takes to ‘Switch on the brain’.
Mind-brain-education science (MBES) is the intersecting point of three disciplines: Psychology, neuroscience and education (with a specific focus on pedagogy – how children learn).
We need to combine perspectives from each of the three in order to consider how the human brain actually learns.
MBES takes a holistic approach and a deep look at students from the developmental, socio-cultural and other aspects of each individual student.
The approach tries to align teaching and learning with how the human brain is biologically organised in order for learning to take place.
MBES goes further to acknowledge that the environment is important for optimal brain function. This includes structuring a learning environment in each class that is based on the various student’s characteristics and encourages creativity, conceptual understanding and the power of relationships.
Eric Jensen, one of the original Thought Leaders in what was previously referred to as Brain-based learning, recently published a checklist regarding what a MBES school needs to prepare to look like. We have used his ideas to generate our own.
The Switch on the Brain Checklist
1. Positive Environment
Idea: Organise a professional walk through all the classrooms with the whole staff.
One of the essential criteria in MBES is shared and collegial learning. One gets so many good ideas by visiting the classrooms of our colleagues, but we so seldom do it. For too long schools have allowed classrooms to be individual islands and few have made the effort to see if the classroom presented as a Positive Environment.
One just needs to think about our favourite restaurant. Sure, the food is good and that is why we are sitting in the restaurant, but the environment plays an important part in whether we will select that restaurant again. Relationship and Environment scaffold learning.
Too often, classrooms are lecture halls, where no one takes responsibility for the space, making it anything but a positive learning environment. The brain has a natural tendency to SWITCH OFF in these environments.
This is a word used often in MBES. Agency has to do with empowering students with the right mindset in order to learn. It allows students to have a voice and a choice. This certainly switches on the brain.
This item on the checklist is making sure that there is a structured support system for students. Many schools allocate mentor teachers to smaller groups of students to provide them with a safe place to voice their concerns. It also provides a space to develop a sense of belonging.
MBES has taught us that a student who does not feel safe and have a sense of belonging, does not learn.
In schools where teachers teach vast numbers of different students each week, AGENCY is essential.
In order to tick this off on the checklist, MBES schools have to show evidence that the brains of their students are activated.
Brain activation is essential. In order to learn, the brain requires glucose, oxygen and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factors). All three of these can be produced by movement, including the reward drug dopamine and the calming drug serotonin.
When these neurotransmitters or neuromodulators are present, data sticks in the synaptic gaps between the neurons. Regular movement activities during lessons produce the necessary glue for laying down new neural pathways between the neurons and for strengthening the existing ones.
Our brains are automatically wired for two things.
1. To stay alive and,
2. To look for meaningful and relevant information.
This requires each teacher to have prepared the necessary HOOKS to make sure that the unique brains entering their class can identify both that they are safe and that the material they are going to learn is meaningful and relevant to their world. No HOOKS – no LEARNING.
Hooks foster curiosity and anticipation – two essential LOVES of the human brain.
5. Order and Systems
The brain does not learn in subjects but makes use of the acronym CROPS = Categories, Relationships, Order, Patterns and Systems.
Don’t even try to start a Term or Unit of work without creating a platform where the work is clearly laid out with the success criteria (what success will look like). Make use of graphic organisers, tell a story about the journey you are going to take them on during this unit of work, hook them onto their prior knowledge and record it on newsprint or show them a short video. The brain loves ORDER as it is now able to locate the correct place to lay the neural pathways for rapid retrieval during the unit of work.
6. Concrete First
Always initiate a new unit of work in the concrete form. Abstract concepts need to be developed from concrete realities. The working memory is not good at holding abstract concepts. At best, it can hold 2-3 ideas for a very short period of time. Once it has a concrete basis, the working memory can hold between 8 and 12 ideas. Always prepare by explaining a concept in a Grade One version of yourself. ie: “Is it easy to understand?”
“Abstract concepts need to be developed from concrete realities.“Gavin Keller
7. Surface then Deep Learning
The brain learns in story form. It requires the information to be presented in such a way that it can be mastered first at a surface level and then consolidated with practice, before going deeper. Deep Learning includes these activities on the table below. Notice their effect size.
Any activity with an effect size over 0,2 is regarded as worthwhile, but activities over 0,4 are regarded as highly effective.
One of the big mistakes we make in our MBES checklist is our failure to make sure that we have built in sufficient time for spacing. Spacing refers to a carefully planned strategy to reinforce the abstract new learning by exposing the students to the material in different contexts that has been spaced out over a period of time.
The effect size for Spacing is 0,44. It has to be done.
9. Teacher Directed vs Student Directed
MBES is very clear about the pedagogy involved in embedding data. It requires firstly Teacher Directed teaching where the teacher presents the input. This is divided into the I do (Teacher does) and the We do (teacher directly guides students as they try to do it on their own, giving them prompts and direct feedback).
The second phase is Student Directed learning where students work on the input on their own and extend that learning by working collaboratively with peers. This balance is a very big part of the checklist.
When a teacher requests the Working Memory of each student to go and retrieve stored data from long-term memory, days or weeks later, this is where great learning happens. The checklist is not about including studying for a test, but rather allowing the brain to rehearse retrieval. The more you do it, the better the quality of the retrieval. Once it has been retrieved, the effectiveness is all about error correction.
We make a massive mistake in traditional teaching by assessing students on what they can retrieve based on a Memorandum in a test or examination under stressful conditions. MBES teaches us that the brain needs to retrieve data – that is often still in story-form and have it corrected so it can store the corrected and more accurate version for when it is required to be retrieved at a later stage.