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Monthly Columns

Using Brain Research in the Classroom



By Carrie Chiappetta


Understanding the brain's learning systems should be a prerequisite for all educators at all levels. Unfortunately, understanding the brain, its functions and its impacts on the classroom is not taught in many teacher preparation programs and possibly more disturbing is the fact that some educational leaders do not believe in connecting current brain research to classroom instruction. But by having educators understand the brain's learning systems and how to incorporate even some aspects of them into the classroom, students may begin to achieve at higher levels.

According to the book by Barbara Given entitled Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems (2002), educators need to know about the brain in order to more successfully teach their students. Given states that there are five natural learning styles of the brain: emotional, social, cognitive, physical and reflective (p. 7). Each of these plays its part in the development of an effective classroom but the two that seems to be most necessary is the emotional learning system because everything humans do is "run by emotions" (p. 15) and the social learning system since humans are said to be social beings.

Given states that teachers must have an emotionally safe classroom in order to facilitate student learning. Teachers can have this by showing an "enthusiasm for their subject, by helping students discover a passion for learning, by guiding them towards reasonable personal goals and by supporting them in their efforts to become whatever they are capable of becoming." This learning system helps students develop new skills and in addition, helps them become leaders.

The absence of an emotionally safe environment means that there is stress. This stress can wreaks havoc on one's system. People who are in a continuous state of emotional stress end up having physical as well as emotional aliments. Given quotes from Daniel Goleman's book entitled Emotional Intelligence (1995) that "stress makes people stupid" (2002, p.15). People who are stressed cannot remember things, cannot make good decisions and therefore cannot learn.

The effects of stress, whether real or imagined, differ from person to person. While some amount of stress may actually be good for people as it helps keep people interested in the topic at hand, some people act out due to stress (Nunley, 2007). This could resemble negative behaviors, non-responsiveness, or lack of motivation. Many teachers would probably attest to these behaviors being apparent in their classrooms at one time or another. Other people who are under a lot of stress may not act out but may experience "brain freezes," the act of not being able to remember things which they have already learned. Nunley says that stress increases the production of a chemical called TMT into the brain which "disrupts working memory and reduces a person's desire to explore new ideas and creatively solve problems." Therefore, people cannot learn if they are under extreme stress.

Given also discusses chemicals in the brain and how these affect the emotional system and learning. Given explains that J.J. Wurtman's book Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food (1988) says that a diet which includes protein can aid in the production of brain chemicals that can make students ready to learn. Additionally she said that in Wurtman's and Suffres' book Serotonin Solutions (1996/1997), carbohydrates such as crackers could provide the brain with the nourishment that it needs to be emotionally ready to learn. Conyers and Wilson (2005), in their book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Boosting Test Scores, mention that diet is important to relieving stress and facilitating student learning. Unfortunately, too often school breakfasts and lunches do not provide the diet that students' brains need to be ready to learn. When students do not have the proper diet, they tend to fall asleep, may lack motivation, and may have difficulty concentrating.

Developing an emotionally safe classroom is important and it can be said to be especially important in places where many children do not feel safe anywhere else except in school. There are ways that teachers can produce an emotionally safe environment. First, teachers can respect varied student thinking. Since students have different backgrounds and experiences, they may think differently and have diverse ideas, feeling and/or opinions. Rather than disregard these, teachers should embrace them and discuss them with students. Too often, teachers dismiss the ideas of divergent thinkers because many teachers want things done "their way" or according to a procedure. Second, some students have difficulty articulating their ideas, feelings and/or opinions orally through a discussion. Therefore these student should be encouraged (rather than discouraged) to come up with other ways to express themselves. This could be done through writing, singing, music, etc. Teachers need to allow for the differences in their classrooms to help students feel that their varied viewpoints and different ways of solving problems are acceptable. By encouraging this, teachers are creating an emotionally safe classroom and are encouraging and supporting learning for all students.

Another brain system is the social learning system. This system is responsible for the interaction with others. Given explains that there are two subsystems within the social learning system. One is established at birth while the other takes longer to develop.

According to Given, even when a baby is a few weeks old it looks for the face of adults. The baby is able to respond to facial expression and therefore when a baby sees "happy, pleasant faces" they respond similarly. Humans are able to develop a sense of what Given calls "sham emotions" (p. 40). This is when a person's actions or words do not match their true feelings. This is important for the classroom. Students respond to the facial expressions of their teachers and are also very skilled at detecting "sham emotions." This reading of the facial expressions and of true emotions could positively or negatively affect the relationship between the teacher and the student. Therefore it is important for teachers to show as much emotional honesty as possible although this can be difficult at times. All teachers have had one or two students who know just how to "push" the right "buttons" and it is all that we can do to hold back. Not letting these behaviors show their effect on us is important and therefore we should focus on the positive behaviors and not show the negative emotions on our face. Practicing this in a mirror or with other adults can help.

Another interesting point about the social learning system is "that children can learn to be sensitive, to know how someone else is feeling." Given says that D. Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ (1995) states that some children do have a higher ability to understand how others feel but that all children are capable of learning how to do this. Given says that children who do not understand emotions are those who do not associate positively with others and who do not "tend to the emotional needs of others." Therefore, children who understand emotions get along better with others. These students are able to work out differences with others and are able to express their own emotions (p. 41).

There are a few ways that teachers can help develop the social learning of students. One way to promote social learning, Given suggests, is to ask children questions about how others make them feel in certain situations. This is a sort of role playing. Given also says that the school environment is very important in developing not only the behaviors that are socially acceptable but also developing students' abilities to resolve conflicts.

A second way teachers can help with the social learning system is to make sure students experience a sense of belonging, understand others' feelings and needs, and have practice in being able to resolve conflicts. Given says that there should be "an unwritten code of conduct" which helps students become productive members of the class (p. 42). But the rules do not always have to "unwritten." Sometimes it may be better to have the teacher and students work together to define what the code of conduct for the class should be. This code could be written down for all who enter the room to see. As a result, students feel a sense of ownership and feel a sense of belonging since they helped create the classroom environment.

Teachers need to take many things into account when planning for positive experiences for all students in their classroom. First of all, teachers need to know and establish relationships with their students (Conyers & Wilson). These positive relationships facilitate learning by providing a safe environment. Since emotional and social readiness are necessary for learning, teachers need to be aware of the social and emotional needs of students. Factors such as "insecure attachment in a child's early years, parental substance abuse, and low socio-economic status" may indicate emotional and social difficulties in students (Gabriel, 2007). This is not to say that a low socio-economic status alone means that students will not develop positive emotional or social learning but that it, along with other conditions, could signal a problem. Some research has shown that "predictable home environments, residence with both parents, and a high level of self-confidence in students lead to positive development of emotional and social learning."

A second thing that teachers can do to create a positive experience in the classroom is to allow and nurture the varied learning styles of their students. Having teachers learn about, understand and incorporate Multiple Intelligences into their classroom is very important. Also, teachers need to be aware of the fact that each of the learning styles is equal and that none is better than the other. Conyers and Wilson say that students learn best in their own learning style and therefore the information becomes more meaningful to them (2005, p.45).

Educating students effectively is a very complicated job. Teachers need to understand more than just the content they are teaching. They need to understand how the brain affects learning and how to incorporate knowledge of the brain's learning systems into their teaching. Once this is done, students will feel safe and therefore will take the opportunities to express themselves and their diverse ways of thinking.




References

Conyers, M & Wilson, D. (2005). BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Boosting Test Scores. Winterpark: BrainSMART Inc.

Gabriel, Jerry. (April, 2001). Getting Ready for School: Pencils, Notebook, Positive Attitude. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/emotion-ready.

Given, B. (2002). Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Nunley, Kathie. (2007). Stress A Land Mine for the Brain. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from http://help4teachers.com/stress.htm.

Wurtman, J.J. (1988). Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food. New York: Harper & Row.

Wurtman, J.J. & Suffes, S. (1996/1997). Serotonin Solution. New York: Fawcett Columbine.


Author Biography Carrie Chiappetta is currently a teacher on special assignment working as the Secondary Mathematics Coordinator for the Stamford (CT) Public Schools. She has taught middle school mathematics for 10 years, was an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA and has been in the Coordinator position for two years. Carrie believes firmly that all students can learn mathematics and that all students should have equal access to high quality math instruction.

In Carrie's current position, she is assisting in the revision and alignment of the mathematics curriculum in grades 6-12 in Stamford. Not only does Carrie work with teachers and administrators but she also worked weekly with the math coaches in the district.

Carrie has written articles for the website www.k12 academics.com and has a passion for international math education. She has received numerous awards which include the Presidential Award for Secondary Mathematics, Toyota T.I.M.E. Grant, the Connecticut Education Association "Salutes" award, two Stamford Education Association "Spotlight on Teachers" awards, the Celebration of Excellence award, and six People's Bank Mini-grants. Carrie has also been interviewed for books, websites and Ph.D dissertations regarding mentoring teachers, effective lessons and teaching strategies.

Carrie's interest in international education led her to work at NSF in the Division of Graduate Education. During her year at NSF, she created the international component to the NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education Program (GK-12). She also arranged and led the GK-12 International Workshop in August 2007 and has participated in many international math conferences. She will be presenting at a conference in Germany in September 2009.

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