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Posts tagged ‘brain research’

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 disc 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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Tip of the Week – Readability cleans up web pages

Ed tech folks often talk about the powerful impact that appropriate use of technology can have on learning, especially with online tools. The assumption is that web use by kids increases brain wiring – that being online makes students smarter. But we need to be careful with those sorts of assumptions. A Wired article from last spring does a great job of documenting what happens in our brains when we’re online. And it’s not necessarily good new.

The article’s author, Nicholas Carr, discusses a wide range of research that is saying that hyperlinks, especially those that live inside text, cause comprehension problems.


People who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.

It takes hypertext readers longer to read documents and they were seven times more likely to say they found it confusing.

Comprehension declines as the number of links increase – whether or not people clicked on them.

A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse.

If the research is correct and teachers are asking kids to read more and more online, we’ve got a problem. So what to do?

Well . . . you use technology to solve the problem, of course.

The people at Arc90 created a simple little beta bookmarklet a couple of years ago that they recently released in a full version. The idea is simple – strip web pages of all the extra photos, links, videos, stories and ads leaving just the text that you want kids to read. It looks like this:



Once you’re in the clean text mode, you can print and share your clean page via email, Facebook and Twitter. You can train your students to use the tool or just use it yourself to create clean, crisp pages to print as handouts. You also have the option have to any links in the text be taken out completely or to be added as footnotes at the bottom of the article.

(You can also subscribe to a Pro version at $5 a month to get access to a mobile app and to have the ability to store your clean text for later reading.)

The tool is incredibly easy to use.

1. You need to install either the browser Add-On or the Bookmarklet. The Add-On is a small piece of software that creates a button across the top row of buttons in your browser. Find the Add-On on the Readability front page. The Bookmarklet is a simple button that you can drag unto the Links Bar in your browser. It’s a bit difficult to find the Bookmarklet page so go directly here to get it.



(I like the bookmarklet button because it takes up less space but you may want to experiment to see what works for you.)

2. Navigate to a page with text. Click the Read Now button.

3. Pat yourself on the back for improving the reading comprehension of your students.

Have fun!

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7 triggers that guarantee student engagement: Part I

Okay . . . guarantee is a strong word.

Encourage might be better, maybe stimulate. Jump start?

But it doesn’t really matter what word we decide on.

I think using some of the ideas that Sally Hogshead pushes can help increase the chances for grabbing and keeping the attention of our kids.

Sally wrote a book called Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation that came out about a year ago. What she talks about in the book are the powerful strategies that are used to influence thinking and decision making. Fascinate is targeted at marketers and ad folks but the ideas seem to be exactly what stressed-out teachers are looking for.

So . . . imagine a middle school teacher trying to elicit engagement and excitement about the Compromise of 1850 with 13 year olds. What to do? Sally has some suggestions . . . seven to be exact. She calls them triggers. A trigger is “a deeply-rooted means of arousing intense interest.”

Sally says it just a matter of picking, choosing and combining the right triggers and your kids will be eating out of your hand.

So what do these triggers look like?

Trigger One – Lust

And I know what you’re thinking. Sex and 13 year olds – not a good mix. But Sally says lust is about more than sex. You only have to go as far as watching the people in line outside of an Apple store when the iPad came out, the smell of a new car or the incredible taste of chocolate-covered bacon to get what she’s talking about. It’s about stimulating all the senses of your audience.

You want to use this trigger to try and create a total sensory experience.

How to integrate lust into your instruction:

  • Create a welcoming classroom environment. Clear out the clutter in your room, hang attractive posters, arrange tables or chairs in small groups.
  • Use a variety of media to appeal to different senses. Use music as kids come into the room and during instruction. Think about food and the power taste has. One teacher I know even used the smell of fireworks while her class watched battle clips from the movie Glory to imprint memories.
  • Create great-looking slides for your presentations. There are some basic design principles that can help. And don’t forget to apply the same design principles to your handouts.
  • Basically remember that everything your students see, hear, smell, taste and touch impacts learning and engagement.

Trigger Two – Mystique

Mystique is seductive. Mystique compels people to want to find out more. The brain is designed to solve problems and we need to find ways to incorporate that into what we do.

How to use mystique in your instruction:

Trigger Three – Alarm

Alarm hits our survival mechanism. It pokes people and forces them to take action.

How to use alarm in your instruction:

  • Clearly spell out expectations and consequences – good and bad. These expectations should focus on classroom management issues and academics.
  • Make deadlines clear.
  • Use surprising hooks to catch students’ attention at the beginning of lessons and units.

Used appropriately, Sally’s triggers can help you engage kids in content at very high levels.

Next week? We’ll finish up with the last four triggers.

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