The Latest on How the Brain Works
NEA Today Newspaper
Nature or nurture? It's an old argument - with new research on how the brain works that may tip the scales.
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,
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.
connections - formed when children are stimulated and
supported in their learning - mean a better functioning brain
are four main principles of brain-based learning:
Millions of patterns in the brain form from huge amounts of
Millions of programs in the brain result from learning by
Feedback fine-tunes the brain's patterns and programs.
Students who feel safe and secure can learn more than those
What are the practical messages for educators?
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.
Hands-on learning is crucial to making neural connections
that will be crucial throughout life.
safe learning environment is essential for children to reach
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
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
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.
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.
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.
research is so critical the American Academy of Pediatrics is
disseminating information about it to all of its members.
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
Finally, more and more educators are studying brain research -
and using it to change the way they teach.
does brain-based teaching work?
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-compatible teaching doesn't work that way because the
brain doesn't work that way," she says.
"brain-compatible," Pedersen says, teachers should:
Create an enriched environment, which can include music,
field trips, visiting artisans, books, reproductions of famous
paintings, and more.
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."
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.
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
What's the downside?
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
Who's throwing stones?
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
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?
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
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
Making Connections by Renatta and Geoffrey Caine, $15.95 from
Addison-Wesley Publishers, 800/447-2226.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development offers
the following two publications.
For more information on them, contact ASCD, 1250 N. Pitt St.,
Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human
Brain by Robert Sylvester
Select: Brain-based Learning
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