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Posts tagged ‘brain research’

Marcia Tate, the brain, and worksheets

As my only daughter, Erin has to put up with my often expressed frustration with the current education process. Too much sit and get. Too many lectures. Too many worksheets. Not enough critical thinking. Not enough problem solving. Not enough authenticity.

As a junior in high school, she often echoes my frustration. It was several years ago, as an 8th grader, that she became a bit more vocal about it. She was heading out the door on her way to middle school and wasn’t too excited about it.

But bless her heart, she attempted a bit of humor to lighten the mood:

I’m off to change the world, one worksheet at a time.

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Ken Burns – Telling stories and manipulating your kids

One of my earliest memories of useful discipline-specific staff development was not organized by my school district or building. It wasn’t organized by my building or department chair.

It was designed by Ken Burns. Yeah. That Ken Burns.

The guy who directed and produced the awesome Civil War documentary that first aired in 1990.

I learned more about the Civil War and how to teach about the Civil War by watching that nine part series. Ken used amazing images, poetry, oral history, biography, and music to tell an incredibly interesting story. I began to realize that a big part of being a highly effective teacher of history is the ability to tell a great story. And more importantly, I realized that a big part of my job was to help my kids learn how to tell their own stories.

A recent article highlights a video that has Ken describing a bit about the process of telling great stories. It’s a sweet five minutes. Two things that stood out for me.

1. Ken says that a great story is the same as a mathematical equation. One plus one equals three: 1+1=3. A great story is greater than the sum of its parts.

2. Ken also uses a word that I’ve been using for years. And it’s a word that bothers some teachers. The word is manipulate. I love that word and I think we need to use it more when we talk about teaching and learning.

I starting thinking about manipulating the brains of history students several years ago while reading a great book by James Zull titled The Art of Changing the Brain. Zull suggests that a teacher’s job is to re-wire the brains of students so that new learning takes place. One way to do that is through positive manipulation of emotion.

So when I heard Ken Burns talking about using really good stories to manipulate how people respond to content, I got this deja vu / heard this before sort of moment.

The video is a nice reminder of what teachers can be working on between now and the start of school next fall – researching and perfecting great stories. Creating an emotional connection between content and kids so that their brains are re-wired.

Manipulation. It’s not always a bad thing.

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Edutopia – Six Tips for Brain-Based Learning

Edutopia always has great stuff. Every once in a while, they’ll put out a teacher’s guide to help us do our job better. A recent guide focuses on ways to help you integrate brain-based strategies into your instruction.

In this resource guide, you’ll get practical tips across the K-12 spectrum, a reading list, and a variety of resources to help you learn more about this fascinating field. To help you and your students learn more about their own brain power, they’ve also included a bonus project that will get students thinking critically about how they learn.

What’s Inside the PDF?
  1. Create a Safe Climate for Learning
  2. Encourage a Growth Mind-set
  3. Emphasize Feedback
  4. Get Bodies and Brains in Gear
  5. Start Early
  6. Embrace the Power of Novelty
  7. Bonus Project: Build a Brain Owner’s Manual
  8. Recommended Reading

You’ll get specific strategies, tons of resources, lots of links, and useful suggestions. I especially like the recommended reading list.

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How to Focus

I’m torn.

Is social media, Web 2.0, and technology good for us? Or can it be so distracting that we (and our students) are unable to focus long enough to think and deliberate on important issues?

Can we use mobile devices and Edmodo and Twitter and all sorts of other tech tools to encourage learning, collaboration and creativity? If we really can’t multitask but switch quickly between tasks instead, is back-channeling and Tweeting and texting and other forms of social media just encouraging less comprehension and more confusion?

Let me be clear . . . I strongly support the use of social networks and technology as learning tools. But I’m beginning to believe that we’re not really sure how to use these tools appropriately as part of instruction. We’re not asking enough questions about the best ways to integrate tech into what we do every day.

Can students and instructors really use technology/media/social networks in ways that engage and keep students focused on the truly important?

I think so. But we should think about, and we need to train our kids to think about, finding a proper balance between indiscriminate use of “shiny” new doodads and quality use of technology tools.

A recent article over at Edudemic seems useful. They’ve put together a handy infographic that provides suggestions and ideas of how to stay focused “in an age of distraction.” The infographic breaks up your day into six categories:

  • Managing your space
  • How to work
  • Create rituals and habits
  • Managing email
  • Take time to reflect and review
  • Help for addicts
  • Take a digital technology detox

It seems like the balance I’m looking for – acknowledging the fact that technology is necessary but understanding that we have to be careful how we use it.

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10 Great Ways to Make Your Kids Smarter

I’ve always been a Newsweek fan. And in the last year or so, I’ve gotten really hooked on their digital offering, The Daily Beast. A recent Beast article caught my attention that I think we as teachers need to look at.

Written by Sharon Begley, Buff Your Brain: 31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012 says

If the information isn’t in there, no amount of brain training will tell you how the Federal Reserve system functions, why the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the significance of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, or why Word just crashed.

Yet that’s what we all want—to know more, to understand more deeply, to make greater creative leaps, to retain what we read, to see connections invisible to others—not merely to make the most of what we have between our ears now, but to be, in a word, smarter.

The title is fairly self-explanatory. We can make ourselves smarter. And not just by a little bit but what Begley describes as raising our IQ by a “staggering” 21 points. It got me thinking.

If it’s our job as teachers to make our kids smarter, are there any takeaways from the article?

You can read the piece yourself but I think the answer is yes. Here’s what I got out of it.

Get News from Al Jazeera

This may be my favorite. The basic concept here is is simple – don’t shut yourself out from new ideas. A 2009 study found that viewers of Al Jazeera English were more open-minded than people who got their news from CNN International and BBC World. (I’m going out on a limb here and suggest the same would go for for Fox News viewers.) A huge part of thinking historically is being able to see and understand different perspectives. So it doesn’t have to be Al Jazeera but you need to require that kids read, view, and listen to a variety of sources.

Toss Your Smartphone
I’m a big believer in using technology and mobile devices as part of what we do. But the research is pretty clear – constantly checking email, interrupting thinking to text or to go on Facebook disrupts focus and saps productivity. Learning in the 21st century requires the use of a wide variety of tools. Design your instruction to encourage deep thinking.

Go to a Literary Festival / See a Shakespeare Play
I combined a couple here. Reading the Bard has been shown to engage the brain more actively than most contemporary texts and watching is even better. The point here is that we need to use more fiction and non-fiction stuff in our lessons. Great poetry, prose and novels can engage kids and provide very cool historical context

Follow These People on Twitter

There are some very smart people out there. Not all of them are on Twitter but here’s a list I put together a while back that’s still pretty good. Use Twitter to connect your kids with experts and others outside your classroom.

Every doctor will tell you that dehydration forces the brain to work harder and dampens its ability to work well. It’s sounds silly but passing out bottles of water to your kids is not a bad idea. Water breaks during block schedule? Another possibility. Encourage students to pack in refillable bottles in book bags? Yup.

Check Out iTunes U
iTunes U has awesome free stuff. Podcasts, audio clips, documents. There are university and K-12 channels that provide you and your kids access to some of the best thinkers in the country. Did I mention it’s free?

Visit MoMa

You probably won’t be heading the Museum of Modern Art anytime soon (Though MOMA and other great museums have iTunes U content and handy apps.) but viewing art, photographs and images has been shown to increase retention of content. You can make your kids smarter by incorporating images into your instruction.

The Pomodoro Technique
This time-management strategy aims to make you productive using nothing more than a kitchen timer. Use it to break your presentation or your student’s work into 20-minute blocks, taking a short break for reflection and maybe a water break; the frequent rests aid mental agility.

Zone Out
A string of studies suggests that zoning out and letting the mind wander – especially when you don’t consciously realize you’re doing it – allows the brain to work on important “big picture” thinking. “Sleeping on it” is not an old’s wife tale. It provides time for your brain to make connections and see relationships. Purposefully plan for discussions and brainstorming to happen over more than one class period. Then be sure to go back to review and reflect. This could be written, small group or large group. (maybe even all three!)

Write Reviews Online
Anyone can be a critic on the Internet – and your kids should too. Typing out their opinions will help them to better understand their own thinking. This could be book reviews on Amazon, guided prompts on your own Edmodo site, on news sites or in Blackboard CourseSites blogs.

You can make your kids smarter. Pick one or two of these. Maybe five. And start using them in your class. The good news? You’ll get smarter too.


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Gamification in the Social Studies

What are the characteristics of a highly effective learning environment?

Yeah, I know. It sounds like the sort of question you’d find on your last college ed final. But it’s still something that’s good to think about, no matter how long we’ve been teaching.

And here’s the answer:

The characteristics of a highly effective learning environment are very much like the characteristics of a highly successful video game.

I started messing around with video games as teaching tools way back when. During my very first month teaching 8th graders in Derby Middle School in Fall 1986, I used a turn by turn game called Archeology.

Catchy title.

We played it on an Apple IIE desktop, with groups of 4-5 taking turns to “dig up” artifacts that eventually revealed a 18th century New England farmhouse.  The game ran on a 5 1/4 floppy desk that I protected with my life because we couldn’t find a way to create a useable backup. But it worked.

Kids were engaged. Conversation was happening. Stuff was being learned. Of course, I didn’t know why. I just knew something good was taking place. It wasn’t till much later that I started connecting brain research to what happened back at Derby.

What exactly was going on? Today I can think back and describe what happened as a result of playing Archeology:

  • increased literacy skills
  • improved problem solving skills
  • simulated authentic situations
  • encouraged collaboration
  • engaged students in content
  • lead to sophisticated research

There was a merging of brain research and effective learning environments.

I didn’t call it “Gamification” back in 1986. (If you would have asked me then, I would have called it “They’re so busy learning that they’re not setting stuff on fire and that’s a good thing-ification.”)

But we’re calling it Gamification now. It’s the idea that we can take video game concepts and apply them to our classroom instruction. This could mean we actually use games and simulations or it could mean we begin to re-structure our lesson and unit designs using gaming concepts.

What exactly are those gaming concepts?

  • Players get to modify the game environment and make individual choices.
  • Players become the experts.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
  • Players receive immediate feedback.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
  • “Cheating” is supported.
  • Trial and error works best.
  • Game play is almost always better in groups.

Okay . . . now start thinking about these concepts in a social studies unit design. Let’s say we’re designing a unit on the causes of the Civil War.

  • Students get to modify the learning environment and make individual choices.
    Differentiated Instruction allow for students to research using a variety of tools and develop a variety of final products.
  • Students become the experts.
    We provide an engaging problem or over-arching question and allow students to find the answer on their own. This is instead of  just giving kids the answers and asking them to memorize them.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
    The unit problem or question is the key. It has to be hard enough but not too hard. Challenging but doable. For example – ” Using primary documents as your main source of information, prove the following statement true or false: States Rights was not the cause of the Civil War.”
  • Students receive immediate feedback.
    You will need to constantly monitor progress. This doesn’t mean grading. This means providing information in a way so that leads to the desired end result.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
    This relates back to the idea of differentiating the learning. Game designers call it “flow” and most current games will automatically adjust the difficulty level based on how the player is doing. If a player is struggling, the game will make the current task easier. If a player is having lots of success, the game will make the task more difficult. We need to do the same thing with students.
  • “Cheating” is supported.
    Almost all games provide cheat codes, walkthroughs and in-game help. This is not seen as cheating by players in the same way that we define academic cheating. So during learning, you need to provide scaffolding – this might be giving more time to finish things, suggesting different tools or web sites and even designing activities that encourage student / groups to share information.
  • Trial and error works best.
    We know how powerful mistakes can be in the learning process. So we need to provide opportunities for failure. Never grade first attempts, require 1st and 2nd drafts of work and design problems and questions that can’t be Googled.
  • Learning is almost always better in groups.
    We need to connect kids with other kids and adults. This could be permanent groups throughout the life of the unit, temporary teams to solve problems, hooking kids up with adult experts, using technology to join your kids with someone else’s kids or simply asking kids to reflect with a partner after an interactive lecture.

Games and simulations can and should be part of our instructional tool kit. But the brain-based research that is the basis for their design should be part of our kit as well.


Get on it. I’ll be here when you’re done. Let me know how it goes.

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