There is a lot of movement, laughter and constant encouragement in Jones-Twomeys
classroom. The students are studying not only what to learn, but how to learn. Their
teacher bases her program on the new Ontario curriculum and delivers it through
Recent research on the brain and how it works have received unprecedented interest in
the last two or three years. Teachers are signing up for workshops and seminars to
discover the latest research on the brain and how it can help their teaching. These
sessions show teachers how they can access both sides of the brain more effectively and
productively to make learning easier and teaching more effective.
One of the foundation blocks of brain-based learning is the belief that all knowledge
is embedded in other knowledge. The brain works best when it can connect one idea onto
Renate Caine, professor of education at California State University and educational
consultant Geoffrey Caine have spent much of their careers researching how the brain works
most effectively. In Making Connections, Teaching and the Human Brain, they write that the
brain has the capacity to learn and understand much more when it sees how subjects relate
to each other instead of memorizing isolated facts and skills. They point to thematic
teaching and integration of the curriculum as two key approaches to facilitate learning.
Teachers familiar with this research give overviews before beginning a topic or new
subject. Because the brain is naturally curious, they put up posters, signs and bulletin
board displays on a particular topic before its introduced. Then they integrate this
new learning into what the students already know and make connections by allowing the
students to see how this all fits into the big picture.
One very powerful way to make these connections is to mind map the information.
Mindmapping incorporates graphics, colour, pictures and key words on one piece of paper.
Students can learn to make these maps with the central idea or topic they are studying at
the centre, with branches drawn to represent minor ideas or components. This not only
synthesizes the subject, but is an excellent way for students to show the teacher that
they understand what theyve been taught.
With mindmapping introduced to the students, brain-based classrooms feature mindmaps on
past subjects, mindmaps on what is currently being taught and a display of what is coming
up next. The brain needs to see the connections of what the student is doing in class
relative to their lives. A brain-based teacher has to answer the question
"Whats in it for me?" for each student.
Teachers who find connecting with their kids an on-again, off-again thing can take some
comfort from recent research into timing of their lessons. David Sousa, a former
superintendent of education and author of How The Brain Learns, published by National
Association of Secondary School Principals, recently spoke to the Association of
Supervisory Officials of Ontario. He said that the brain learns best at the beginning and
at the end of a learning episode. This primacy-recency effect has major implications on
how we teach, as learners remember the most at the start of the class and the second most
at the end of the class.
Sousa says that in a 40-minute period students attention is strongest for the
first 20 minutes, then the brain needs down time for approximately 10 minutes. The last 10
minutes is the next best teaching time.
In secondary schools, with an 80-minute class, the prime time for teaching is the first
30 minutes of the class with a down time of 30 minutes followed by excellent teaching time
for the last 20 minutes.
Pulse learning theory tells teachers that learners need a diffusion time after a
focused session. The best lesson with the most retention is focused, diffused, focused.
This research tells teachers that these key times in a lesson are crucial in reaching
their students. Students retain more material when their lessons are shorter and they have
more breaks. Learners, no matter what age, will go into downtime throughout a lesson.
Teachers who, with the best of intentions, give the last 10 or 15 minutes of the class
to pack up, clean your desk, or because of good behaviour, do something quiet
are actually missing out on key learning time.
The water bottles are on each students desk in Jones-Twomeys classroom
because of another finding of research on the brain and education. Water assists learning
and thought. Neurophysiologist and educator Carla Hannaford has studied for many years how
water and certain movement exercises can improve our learning potential.
In Smart Moves, Hannaford writes that water increases the ability of the blood to carry
oxygen to the brain by 100 to 1,000 per cent. The more students drink water, the more
energy they have. Students who are bored or listless and who lack concentration may be
dehydrated. Thats why Jones-Twomey and a growing number of teachers like her remind
students to drink water before a lesson and allowed them to drink it during class.
Brain-based teachers also do specific physical exercises with their students to assist
in learning. Brain Gym was devised by Paul Dennison, who heads Californias
Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Its based on the belief that the left and right
hemispheres of the brain do not always function in conjunction with each other and certain
exercises or movements help to connect them. The exercises are particularly useful in
times of stress or when learning blocks occur.
Sharon Robertson, an elementary school principal in Waterloo Region, uses Brain Gym
exercises with her staff and students. Teachers in her school are adapting Brain Gym
activities into their daily routine. She firmly believes that movement through Brain Gym
activities enables her students to access parts of the brain previously inaccessible to
them. The changes in learning are often immediate.
The teacher may start the day off by engaging her students in specific physical
movements like cross crawls (crossing the arms to touch the knees), brain buttons
(applying pressure on specific points near the neck to stimulate blood flow to the brain)
and hook-ups (crossing the arms and legs in a way that automatically induces calm).
Teachers who use these techniques often report that their classes are more manageable
and ready to learn each day.
But Normand Frenette, associate professor at OISE/UT, cautions that there is no magic
science to teaching and learning. He says brain-based learning can be very seductive to
teachers, who may rush to incorporate as many strategies as soon as possible. Frenette
says long-term studies are needed to authenticate the value of the explosion of research
on how the brain learns.
Nevertheless, teachers like Liz Jones-Twomey are responding to brain-based educational
innovations in the way good teachers have always done theyre reading,
learning, experimenting and using whatever works well for them and their students in the
Brad Robertson is principal of Westvale Public School in Waterloo. He can be
contacted at email@example.com