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Brain Givens and Learning Implications

by Sue Bos

Our emotional and physical states are at the base of all learning.

marblesAristotle was right when he said, “There is nothing in the intellect that has not been in the senses before.” Our senses serve as the conduit for getting information to the brain. As sensory input travels through the brain on its way to the cerebral cortex, it is affected and sometimes altered by its passage through the lower systems of the brain, systems that attend to our physical and emotional needs. All learning has at its core an emotional and physical basis. Students? availability for learning is directly impacted by their emotional and physical well being. Sensory input is filtered by the brain stem and limbic system, before it gets to the cerebral cortex, where information processing and learning take place. Students who are sick, scared or emotionally hurting will not be able to maximize their learning potential.

Teachers must be aware of this and must work to ensure that the classroom is physically and emotionally safe. It should be understood that students and teachers will be treated with respect, care and dignity. The classroom should be a place where everyone feels safe, comfortable and securely supported. Teachers should demonstrate genuine caring and concern for the physical and emotional well-being of their students.

The brain is a pattern seeker and maker.

The brain is a complex organ, made up of a network of neurons, through which the brain receives, processes and stores information. Physical neural networks are built, altered and maintained within the systems of the brain.

These networks provide the structure for individual neural maps of meaning. In its quest for seeking and creating map patterns, the brain is constantly on the alert for new input that has some meaningful connection with information that is already established somewhere in the brain complex.

New learning and understandings need to find a secure place to take hold in the brain?s network, and this task is more easily accomplished when new information makes sense in some way. If there is something in a student?s past experiences that the new knowledge can be connected with in some way, then that new information will already have some meaning for the student. Active learning happens when we engage in new activities, building on past experiences, making connections and taking meaning from those activities and the connections that ultimately emerge.

writingAs teachers we need to provide our students with meaningful learning experiences. Work in the classroom should be thoughtful and purposeful, and students should have a clear understanding of the importance and underlying meaning of the work they do. Students should be aware of and understand the “givens” in the curriculum, but they should also be allowed some choice within those “givens” to whatever extent is possible. Meaning is inherent in those activities over which we have some choice.

The brain is made of a network of connecting neurons.

Humans are born with all the brain cells they will ever have. We don't get more, and can?t make any more. Which is too bad, but not really a big problem, because, as important as individual neurons are, it is the connections between neurons that are clearly more important. Neural networking is what it?s all about.

The brain is capable of building an infinite number of neural connections which can be used in the creation of neural network patterns and maps of meaning. The pathways themselves can be physically altered and enhanced to allow for a more efficient passage and processing of stimuli and information throughout the network. Neural connections are built, maintained and enhanced in environments that are sensually stimulating and thoughtfully and safely challenging. This is the Nurture part of the great Nature vs. Nurture debate, i.e.: which is more important, genetics or environmental influence. In brain development it looks like a nurturing environment has critical importance.

Streamlining of neural pathways has been shown to be facilitated by good physical health, and enriching and supportive environments. Enriched learning environments are sensually stimulating and are stocked with a variety of learning materials. They are places where students are encouraged to actively engage with materials, and are given frequent opportunities to interact with their peers.

The brain needs time to build strong neural connections.

Our brain needs time to process input and build the physical connections that are necessary for rage and processing of new information in the neural network. There is a physical process that occurs, and this process takes time. A constant barrage of input that demands neural attention with no break, will not allow the brain the time it needs to build useful and secure neural connections. New learning networks need time to develop and take hold.

hermAs teachers we need to be mindful of this real and important need for processing time when planning our curriculum and learning activities and going about the business of running our classrooms on a daily basis. This time needs to be structured into the school day on a regular and reliable basis. What we do won?t take hold if we don?t allow time for the neural networks to get built. (photo at left: students interviewing an community elder with hearing loss, needed to use creative listening and speaking skills.)

For me, this means paying attention to the need for “down time” throughout the day and trying to hold to the theory of “less is more” in planning curriculum and activities. Lessons and activities focus closely on one or two core concepts, and what we do, we try to do thoroughly and well. We focus our work around theme areas and do activities throughout the curriculum that reflect and enhance our theme.

Reflection opportunities are another way to facilitate and support the development of neural connections. Reflection allows for time to think over, reprocess and further develop our new knowledge and understandings. Opportunities for reflection can occur throughout the day at quiet structured times for thinking and writing, and during small and large group discussions and dialogues.

Misconnections and fuzzy understandings are more likely to occur if we rush our students, if we try to do too many things in too short a time. Students need time to reflect on their work and their learning. Teachers need to be vigilant about providing this time. We need to ensure that our students have regular reflective opportunities in the classroom.

The brain can pay conscious attention to only one thing at a time.

The brain does an amazing job of managing the overwhelming amount of sensory input it is receiving all the time. Luckily, much of this work is accomplished on auto-pilot as the brain goes about its work of stimuli management and information processing and storage. Thinking activities, however, demand conscious attention from the brain. We do not think about things that we are not paying attention to. Attention is the first tier of thought. The problem is that the brain can only pay conscious attention to one thing at a time.

The ability to focus is extremely important for cognitive learning and students need help in developing their attentional skills. They need guidance in their selection of things to attend to, and they need training and opportunities to practice good habits of attention. We can not assume our students have these abilities.

In the classroom we can provide these opportunities. We can read aloud to our students, everyday, making listening a part of the curriculum and not an assumed student skill. We can focus curriculum around theme areas, where the given theme is attended to throughout the day in varied learning activities and subject areas. We can allow for student choice wherever it?s feasible. That?s fifty percent of the attention battle right there. Let them attend to something they already want to attend to.

Each brain is unique.
While all human brains share the same basic physical structure and methods of operation, each brain is unique and different from every other brain. Genetic material that makes up the brain varies from person to person, and grows and develops following a schedule that is unique to each individual human being. We build our brains with what we have and according to our own personal timetable of development. Finally, we each bring our own diverse perspectives, emotions, memories and prior experiences to every environment and event we encounter in the world. All of these things work in concert to create individual human brains that are unlike any others.

We must always remember this, for these brains are in the bodies of the students in our classrooms. We must create environments and learning experiences that recognize, support, enhance and challenge a diversity of student interests, abilities and potentialities. It is, at times, a challenging and even daunting task, but one well worth taking on. We must celebrate, support and encourage the diversity of minds that are in our classrooms.

A Teacher's Thoughts on the Brain

The Mechanics of the Brain l Brain Chart

Brain Givens and Learning Implications

The Brain and Service-Learning

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sue Bos is a veteran teacher at Guilford Central School in Vermont. She teaches 7/8 Science. Community Works Institute asked Sue to reflect on and compile her work investigating newer research on the brain. Her investigations are significant for their direct connections to her own classroom teaching. Several of the pieces included here originally appeared in Community Works Journal.


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