By Jennifer R. Lloyd – Express-News
Teens in Martin Alvarez’s math class at Edison High School might have been surprised when they were told to ditch their graphing calculators for an outdoor math exercise.
To bring a lesson to life last year, Alvarez instructed students to stand as coordinates on a massive grid and hold hands to form a giant version of the graph.
Alvarez is among the local educators leaving behind some textbook lesson plans. They’re presenting an active learning process using techniques based on cognitive science. Teachers say students who are mentally, emotionally or physically engaged through an experience might understand the underlying concepts more easily.
The push toward what some call brain-based learning popped up in summer workshops, teacher development sessions and administrative directives.
While redesigning a lesson plan may be one approach, another brain-friendly tactic is simple: Keep students from dehydrating. Research has shown that dehydration can impair cognitive performance and affect mood.
However, some best practices for the brain are more difficult to incorporate in a typical school day when much of school culture revolves around accountability ratings.
During the summer, about 200 educators in the Harlandale Independent School District experienced brain-based learning firsthand as they joined in a fast-paced scavenger hunt all while becoming acquainted with neuroscience research and teaching techniques from expert Eric Jensen.
Between activities meant to engage workshop participants, Jensen spoke about using brain-based techniques with students from impoverished backgrounds. Research has shown that socioeconomic status is associated with childhood achievement. He emphasized helping students cope with stress, learn appropriate emotional responses and increase cognitive stimulation.
What these teachers may not have realized was the basis for these strategies stretches back to experiments half a century ago.
Leslie Owen Wilson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point School of Education, said brain-based learning can trace its origins to the Split Brain Experiments of the 1960s, in which scientists discovered that the two brain hemispheres had different functions. But, neuroscience research has been slow to diffuse into classroom settings, said Wilson, who is based in Austin and is teaching an online course on the topic this fall.
“Generally, teachers teach the way that they were taught,” said Wilson, who added that an administrator who adopts brain-friendly policies can ease the transition.
For students to retain learning, they must practice, talk about and act upon the information, Wilson said.
“A lot of kids physically have to do something in order to ingrain the learning at a permanent level,” Wilson said. “That takes a great deal of time and teaching artistry and, you know, it’s not on the test.”
Using new techniques
Melva Matkin said that when she became principal of Esparza Accelerated Elementary School in the Northside Independent School District more than 20 years ago, most students were functioning below grade level on standardized tests.
“We knew something had to change,” she said.
Matkin’s formula for creating an “enriched” learning environment included asking teachers to stay current on cognitive research and to use students’ emotional states to optimize learning and behavior management.
For instance, students might hear classical music playing during lunch. Matkin has observed that classical music calms students. The few times someone has slipped the wrong CD into the player, she’s seen the kids get really revved up.
She has also advised teachers to cater to students’ multiple intelligences. This translates to students building a diorama of the Alamo for history class — an activity that would appeal to their spatial intelligence — rather than just reading about the Alamo.
In North East Independent School District, the push toward brain-based learning is coming, in part, from the physical education and health department. There Rachel Naylor, assistant director for physical education, health and athletics, said teachers began incorporating brain breaks into classes last year.
“It could be anything from standing up, stretching, breathing and sitting back down, to going outside for a walk,” Naylor said.
Strategies that work movement into the school day boost blood flow to the brain and can create a domino effect that affects learning, quality of life and, potentially, test scores, Naylor said. A preliminary NEISD analysis from the 2008-09 school year found that obese middle school students had lower passing rates on both the reading and math portions of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills tests than students with a healthy weight.
Rather than lecturing to quiet lackluster learners, teachers may have to adapt to a classroom cacophony — a potential side effect of having engaged students — according to local educators who have made the switch.
But aside from managing energized students, there are other impediments to using brain-based learning techniques.
For instance, educators must first understand the scientific research to translate it into classroom practices, Wilson said.
Another downside is the amount of time it takes to teach using these tactics.
“If I zip through a textbook or indulge in round-robin reading, I can say I covered that material, but I can’t with any certainty say a child learned it,” Wilson said.
Alvarez said he found time management to be an issue when he took students outside to practice graphing, an activity that took twice as long as expected.
“There’s no other way, sometimes, to get through a lesson besides notes and lecture because there are time constraints,” Alvarez said.
Matkin acknowledges that brain-based learning is not a quick fix.
Though the success of these initiatives can be difficult to measure comparatively, Matkin pointed out that Esparza, a school of about 750 students, received an exemplary rating in the 2010 Texas accountability ratings.
Brain-based learning is “a philosophy and approach to education that’s kid-friendly and it’s, frankly, teacher-friendly,” the principal said. “It is not an easy way to teach, but it is a fun way to teach.”