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The Latest on How the Brain Works

From: NEA Today Newspaper

April, 1997 ; Page 17

Definition, please.

Nature or nurture? It's an old argument - with new research on how the brain works that may tip the scales.

New brain-based research challenges the notion that genes determine intelligence. Those who subscribe to brain-based learning theory say that a child's experience in the first 12 years of life play a much bigger role in determining whether a child is bright, inquisitive, or confident.

Babies' brains, say the researchers, are made up of trillions of unconnected neurons waiting to be connected to other neurons, much like a computer is programmed.

More connections - formed when children are stimulated and supported in their learning - mean a better functioning brain for life.

There are four main principles of brain-based learning:

- Millions of patterns in the brain form from huge amounts of input.

- Millions of programs in the brain result from learning by doing.

- Feedback fine-tunes the brain's patterns and programs.

- Students who feel safe and secure can learn more than those who don't.

What are the practical messages for educators?

1) According to brain-based research, the early years of a child's life - when neural connections are made - are more critical than ever thought before.

2) Hands-on learning is crucial to making neural connections that will be crucial throughout life.

3) A safe learning environment is essential for children to reach their potential.

Why is this revolutionary?

"Because it's changing the way many teachers structure learning for their students," says researcher Robert Sylvester, author of A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain.

"Memorization only taps into one part of the brain," Sylvester says.

"With brain-based instruction, teachers immerse children in a variety of hands-on and problem-solving experiences, which engage their brains more fully than simply reading textbooks out loud."

How hot?

In the past 10 years, brain research has gained credibility, funding, and attention. The topic has been on the covers of Time and Newsweek, the front pages of countless newspapers, and the subject of radio and TV public service announcements.

Recent new developments in brain research have caused a flurry of activities focused on infant and early childhood development. This month, President and Mrs. Clinton will convene a White House conference of educators and researchers on how the brain works.

Brain research will also be the cornerstone of a major multimedia campaign sponsored by the Families and Work Institute to support families with young children. The campaign includes a television show, a CD-ROM, and a Web site.

Brain research is so critical the American Academy of Pediatrics is disseminating information about it to all of its members.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is forming a group of state legislators who will introduce legislation based on research findings that show what children need to thrive and learn.

Finally, more and more educators are studying brain research - and using it to change the way they teach.

How does brain-based teaching work?

"Many of us were taught to present things logically, in neat, step-by-step sequence," says Barbara Pedersen, a Lebanon, Indiana elementary teacher who now coaches colleagues on brain-based instruction.

"Brain-compatible teaching doesn't work that way because the brain doesn't work that way," she says.

To be "brain-compatible," Pedersen says, teachers should:

- Provide meaningful first-hand experiences. "Students won't understand the vast Pacific Ocean if they don't first understand the pond in their back yard," Pedersen says.

- Create an enriched environment, which can include music, field trips, visiting artisans, books, reproductions of famous paintings, and more.

- Give students time to process what they're learning. Let them question and probe.

- Offer choices in activities.

- Build trust and a safe environment for kids. "Students shouldn't be pressured to learn," Pedersen says. "They should be stimulated to learn."

Why bother?

"All you have to do is look inside my classroom for the answer," says Sharon Smith, fifth grader teacher at Dry Creek Elementary School in Rio Lindo, California.

"My students are engaged. They're not looking at the clock or looking at me for answers. They're trying to figure it out for themselves, they're asking questions of each other, and they're actively putting all the pieces together. That's the wonder of brain-based learning."

What's the downside?

"It takes time and work to restructure your way of working and your way of thinking," says Smith. "You may be challenged to change the way your school day or school curriculum is structured. That isn't always easy."

Who's throwing stones?

To brain researchers, the early learning window is so small that even programs like Head Start may be too late for many children. Many believe those who aren't properly stimulated by kindergarten will never fully catch up.

Those who disagree - who believe it's never too late to rewire "broken circuits" - fear that brain research will provide a rationale for writing off disadvantaged kids.

Need more information?

There are a number of books and publications on brain research and brain-based learning. Here are just a few:

- Brain Development in Young Children: Research and Implications. Rima Shore. Families and Work Institute, 212/465-2044

- Teacher TV. "Teaching to the Brain." This episode of Teacher TV - coproduced by NEA and The Learning Channel - looks at two schools where a brain-based teaching approach helps students learn. To order, call 800/229-4200.

- Making Connections by Renatta and Geoffrey Caine, $15.95 from Addison-Wesley Publishers, 800/447-2226.

- The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development offers the following two publications. For more information on them, contact ASCD, 1250 N. Pitt St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1453, 703/549-9110.

- A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain by Robert Sylvester

- ASCD Select: Brain-based Learning




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