Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What’s the Brain Got to Do With It?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

The Magic of Flying

I am not a nervous flyer, but I really have no idea how a plane actually manages to stay in the air. I mean, if you drop a rock, if falls. So, how on earth does an airplane, which weighs so much more than a stone, even manage to take off from the ground? Of course, there is a scientific explanation for this, but as I strap myself into my tiny little seat on the plane, I am just glad that I can get from my home in Belgium to my mother in Western Canada in hours rather than days.

Similarly, for a long time, I was content with being ignorant as to how learning physically happens in the brain. Just like I can fly all over the planet without understanding exactly why I am able to do so, I had been comfortable teaching without understanding exactly what was happening in students’ brains as they were learning (or not). However, in recent years, I have come to learn that this learning isn’t something opaque or magical. It is physical, and it can now be seen with a microscope because, “[t]hanks to neuroimaging, scientists can now see inside a living, thinking brain.” (Zadina, 2008) How exciting is that!

The Science of Learning

So, what has our look into our microscope told us about the physiology of learning? In our brains, there are at least 100 billion neurons, which look a lot like “a leafless tree in an Ohio winter.” (Zull, 2002) The way I understand it, these neurons transmit information down their “branches” (researchers call them axons) to synapses, the spaces between neurons. The information, in the form of electrical pulses, jumps across the synapses to the dendrite branches of another neuron. This connection can be strengthened through repeated practice, much like a path in the forest is cleared by hikers constantly walking on it. (My good friend and fellow brain research enthusiast, Sarah Saxer, came up with that lovely image.) The bottom line, if you read through my muddled description with a growing sense of confusion, is that the more students practice new skills, the stronger the synaptic connections will be, and the more likely the new skill will be remembered. In the famous words of the Hebbian law, “cells that fire together, wire together.” (Hebb, 1949)

The Brain and Language Learning

The question then becomes, under what conditions does the brain learn best? How can we best prompt neurons to fire repeatedly so that they wire together? Brain-based Learning (BBL) experts have many great suggestions. In my experience, four elements of a successful practice activity stand out.

First, practice activities need to prompt some kind of positive emotional reaction. Of course, I don’t necessarily mean wild cheers (though that’s always nice). Even a low-key positive emotional response can make learning easier, as stress hormones and neurotransmitters are released at emotionally charged events, and they “tag” the event and give it prominence in the memory. In other words, if students are happy, they are more likely to learn. All the better if you can prompt a chuckle or two (no small task in a grammar practice activity). Laughter releases endorphins, which stimulate the brain’s frontal lobes to increase both the degree of focus and students’ attention spans. Apparently learning is a laughing matter.

Second, research suggests that students need to move to remember things. According to Jensen (1996), even the act of standing increases heartbeats, which sends more blood to the brain, and which activates the central nervous system to increase neural firing. So, activities that get students up and out of their seats facilitate learning better than those which have them sitting in their seats all day. Instead of giving students a handout which requires them to put sentences in order, give each student a sentence and have them line up in the correct order. Instead of having students do an activity which requires them to draw a line matching a picture to a vocabulary word, give each student a card with either a picture or a word and have them circulate around the classroom until they find their match and then review the matches as a class. Instead of having students sitting at their desks working on multiple choice questions, project or write the questions on the board and have students get up and write their initials or team names beside the answer they think is correct. There are just so many ways to inject movement into your lessons!

Third, activities that contain an element of novelty increase the probability that real learning will occur. Ideally, an activity “should be able to satisfy the brain’s enormous curiosity and hunger for novelty, discovery and challenge.” (Caine & Caine, 1995) Of course, this doesn’t mean that teachers need to provide radically different activities and change their classroom procedures every class. That would be exhausting and confusing. Instead, Caine and Caine are talking about novelty within a routine. Even something as easy as having students sit in a different seat from time to time can serve this purpose. When doing choral repetition, varying the repetition can spice things up and engage students. Whispering, going row by row, having male students repeat and then female students repeat– these are all ways to bring variety to choral repetition.

Finally, synergy is a key aspect of a brain-friendly lesson. By working together, students “increase each other’s effectiveness [and] each participant ends up having a better understanding as a result of this interaction.” (Sousa, 2006) In other words, working in pairs on a grammar gap-fill, for instance, requires that students explain their theories about which answer is correct, which reinforces the target language in their memory. Synergy can involve pair and small group work. If you play games in your class, giving each team two or three minutes to create a team name can be a great way for them to bond. I like to give them a theme, animals or cars for example, from which to pull their team name. In this way, they become one cohesive whole cheering for the “giraffes” or the “Volvos” rather than a disparate group of students.

When I plan my practice activities, I try to choose those that incorporate at least one of these elements of brain-based learning. That fun, engaging practice activities that involve movement and group work may not be entirely new information for most teachers. Most of us have known this on an instinctual level for years. I just like that now I understand why they work so well. And, I love the idea that tiny physical changes are taking place in the brains of my students as they learn. As Zadina (2009) points out, “when we teach, we are changing the form of the brain.” How’s that for a powerful incentive to spice up your practice activities?

Caine, G. & Caine, R.N. (1995) Reinventing schools through brain-based learning, Educational Leadership, 52/7.

Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Jensen, E. (1996) Completing the Puzzle: A Brain-Based Approach to Learning. San Diego, CA: Brain Store.

Sousa, D. (2006) How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA, London, New Delhi: Corwin Press.

Zadina, J. (2008) Six Weeks to a Brain Compatible Classroom, Brain Research and Instruction.

Zadina, J. (2009) Language, Learning and the Brain: Creating New Pathways, paper presented at TESOL 2009, Denver, USA.

Zull, J. E. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.


Comment from Haleemss
September 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Very interesting!

“[t]hanks to neuroimaging, scientists can now see inside a living, thinking brain.” (Zadina, 2008) How exciting is that!

I was wondering why the letter [t] above was put in brackets.

Thanks a lot.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 6, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I put the ‘t’ in [] because it was the beginning of Ms Zadina’s sentence, but I have used the quote in the middle of my sentence. As I have ‘changed’ her quote, I need to show where I changed it. I hope this helps!

Comment from Haleemss
September 7, 2011 at 12:17 am

Thanks lot.

I am sorry but this wasn’t clear.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 7, 2011 at 10:59 am

Simply put, when you change someone’s quote in any way, you need to use []s to show the change. I changed her quote from a capital to a small “t”.

Comment from J.R.
September 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I liked your analogies (which also aid the learning process) and appreciated your reminders to incorporate emotion, interaction and novelty into the learning process.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 12, 2011 at 8:11 am

Glad it was helpful!

Comment from Hussain
October 3, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Thank you very much, it was helpful.

Comment from Holly DeLong
November 30, 2011 at 7:41 am

Very interesting and useful! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 30, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I am glad to know there are others out there with an interest in how the brain learns.

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