Brain & Learning Quality teaching Teaching Methods

Creating a Brain-Friendly Classroom

Neuronal Network in Mammalian Brain, IStockphoto

Another memorable experience at Learning Forward’s Annual Conference in Anaheim was being a part of Marcia Tate’s workshop entitled, Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.  For more information about her work, resources, workshops and books, see her website, Developing Minds.

As we walked into the conference room, we were greeted by Kenny G’s mellow saxophone playing beautiful Christmas music.  What was even more unusual was that Ms. Tate walked around and personally welcomed each participant.  I have never witnessed a presenter do that.  In addition, her opening slide was: “I’m delighted that you are here.”  It was obvious she was working consciously to connect with her audience.

Three questions that she planned to address:

  1.   how to stay healthy?
  2.   how to engage the K-12 brain?
  3.   how to help teachers deliver a great lesson?

In her opening remarks, Ms. Tate shared with us her perspective on why it is important to establish good, positive relationships with your audience (students).  Positive relationships with students, devoid of sarcasm, ensure that the learning environment will be safe for students.  From her perspective this begins at the door and should involve greeting every student as he or she arrives.  She points out that:

  • “Rules without relationships yields rebellion.”
  • “Students learn more from teachers they like than from teachers they can’t stand.”

Another routine she uses to set the mood of the classroom is to play calming music for students as they enter.

  • “You want to start every class with a positive perspective.”

As a participant, my experience was that she created a festive mood that got her audience energized.  She modeled the type of teaching she believes is effective in promoting a “brain-friendly” environment.

One strategy she used to promote student-student interaction was the appointment calendar.  We had to create a clock with four appointment times on it and then go around the room and find four different people with whom we set up appointments.  Throughout the workshop she used our different appointment groups as a vehicle for us to discuss something she presented.  This was a really effective strategy.

Her workshop was designed to show us how to create a brain-compatible classroom. While it was a five-hour workshop, she organized it as a series of model lessons that we witnessed and participated in.

Throughout the workshop she built the list of her 20 strategies that teachers can use to create a brain-compatible classroom. The strategies are:

  1.   Writing
  2.   Storytelling
  3.   Visuals
  4.   Visualization
  5.   Movement, AS = age
  6.   Role playing helps us remember
  7.   Metaphor, analogy and simile
  8.   Mnemonic devices
  9.   Reciprocal teaching, collaboration, team work
  10.   Music
  11.   Graphic Organizer
  12.   Drawing
  13.   Humor
  14.   Discussion/brainstorming
  15.   Games
  16.   Project-based instruction
  17.   Field trips
  18.   Manipulatives
  19.   Technology
  20.   Work study, apprenticeships, internships

Her three reasons why all teachers should use these 20 strategies were:

  1.   when used consistently they will increase achievement for all students;
  2.   when used consistently they increase student engagement;
  3.   and when used consistently they make teaching and learning fun.

Teachers will struggle with classroom management because students are bored or they feel inadequate.  Both result in student disengagement.  She pointed out that all 20 strategies tend to be used frequently by K-2 teachers, who preside over students that are generally quite enthusiastic about school. With time, students lose their enthusiasm for school because the classroom becomes much more one-dimensional.  Middle and high school teachers rarely incorporate the 20 strategies into lessons because they become more driven to cover content.

  • “Fun is going out of the teaching and learning profession.  We have to change it.”

In her workshop, Ms. Tate modeled the use of 16 of the 20 strategies.  From the response of the adult audience, it was clear that her approach was highly successful and meeting the learning needs of the nearly 150 participants.  The interesting takeaway was that she was able to construct a student-centered, five-hour lesson for 150 people that was highly engaging.

She emphasized each of the 20 strategies and offered personal comments and firsthand experience with each strategy.  For example,

  • “Connect what you are teaching to a metaphor or to something people understand because that makes the learning personal and more enduring.”
  • “Summarize frequently in a lesson because the brain needs to hear an idea at least three times.  For it to become a “habit” or second nature, the brain needs to hear it 21 times.”

She pointed out that much of what we know about the effectiveness of the 20 strategies came even before there was school.  Some of her comments were:

  • “What came first the brain or school?”
  • “Before humans learned how to write history was passed down through storytelling.”
  • “Movement is very important to a brain-friendly classroom.  School does not pay attention to this connection because the whole concept of school is to reward seat time.”
  • “We teach kids to walk and talk in their first three years and applaud their learning, but when they get to school we “demand that they sit down and be quiet for the next 15 years.”

From what I learned from Ms. Tate, we have to shift our thinking about how we structure classrooms and design lessons so students do not just sit in class and watch their teachers for six hours every day.

Many of the 20 strategies are used in schools all the time.  For example, athletes use #4, visualization, all the time.  When swimmers get prepared for a race, a common strategy that coaches require is to have their swimmers visualize the race before it starts.

We can help make ideas stick if we try to translate an idea into a metaphor, analogy, or simile.  Good companies often develop a marketing strategy that includes a catchy tagline or slogan using metaphors, analogies or similes.

  • “You are in good hands with Allstate.”

We use mnemonic devices for almost anything that would be complicated for people to remember.  Acquired Immunodeficiency syndrome is AIDS.  The National Football League is the NFL. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is NASA.

Reciprocal teaching, a very powerful technique, can make the classroom a more engaging place to learn. Just ask any well-functioning team of teachers whether they would rather function as a team or fly solo. Many other professions use this technique as part of their normal practice. For example, every teaching hospital in the country has experienced doctors working side-by-side with interns and residents to deliver high-quality health care and transmit the basic knowledge of the practice in real time.  In teaching, we shy away from reciprocal teaching and promote teachers working in isolation.

Music can have a very positive impact on learning environment when used strategically throughout the lesson. Ms. Tate shared three pieces of research that illustrated her point.

  1. We know that music changes states or moods in our brains.
  2. There is a strong connection between math and music.  Countries with the highest achievement in math and science have very high achievement in music.
  3. There is evidence that music helps the brain move ideas into memory.
  4. She modeled the effective use of music throughout her workshop. There are many resources that teachers can use to find good music for their classroom.

She also suggested having students create the song.  When students create a song connected to a concept, then are being asked to synthesize, a higher order thinking skill.

Ms. Tate pointed out that five things have to happen in a classroom to grow dendrites.  That is if we want to promote deeper understanding of the learning goals that we value then we have to create classrooms where students do the following.

  • Talking grows dendrites: people doing the most talking are growing the most dendrites, talking sends oxygen to the brain, helps memory, improves retention, and talking helps memory, so have students reteach concepts
  • Movement grows dendites: procedural memory is activated by movement, muscle memory, and procedural memory is the “strongest memory area.”  We never forget how to ride a bike.
  • Connecting ideas grows dendrites: connecting ideas promotes deeper understanding.  It is important to ask students to apply what they are learning.
  • Thinking positively grows dendrites: thinking positively gives the brain confidence
  • Having a purpose grows dendrites: make the content relevant

Here is a powerful quote from Ms. Tate:

  • “If every time you leave your classroom learning stops then there is too much focus on the teacher.”

The next connection she made is to identify the 10 characteristics of a brain-friendly classroom.  Many of these characteristics are connecting the 20 strategies to the classroom learning.  Here is her list.

  1. A positive environment with laughter, games, greeting at door, and absence of threat.
  2. Visuals: there should be things students can see OR if you take them away, then visualization should take their place.
  3. Music: but not all the time, less than 1/3 of class time, don’t play music with direct instruction.  She referenced a book by Eric Jensen, Top Tunes for Teaching.
  4. Relevant content that is tied to meaning and purpose
  5. Rituals are being taught, routines and procedures that work, classroom cannot be chaotic, but it can be active.
  6. Students should be talking about content.
  7. Students should be moving as one way to learn content.
  8. High expectations, some stds have low confidence, so you have to have high expectations to get them to rise up.
  9. Low stress.  Some stress is OK but too much shuts down learning.
  10. You want your content taught in chunks with activity.

She talked about the research on the adult brain that shows we can only hold seven things in memory at a time.  If you want students to remember the ideas you are teaching, those ideas or concepts have to be chunked into pieces that can be learned.  For example, we remember phone number somewhat easily because the numbers are chunked into units of 3-3-4 (with area code).  Most of us will not remember our passport number because the many digits are not chunked.

Ms. Tate referenced many teachers who ask the question:

  • “I don’t have time to do these activities or strategies because I have too much content to cover.”

Her response was to quote Madeline Hunter who said,

  • “If all you do is teach content, get a shovel and cover it up with dirt.”

So her final message was to grab a student’s attention a teacher must to be sure his or her lesson taps into these four ideas:

  • need
  • novelty
  • meaning
  • emotion

She ended with:

  • “Teaching is either fun or trudgery, I prefer fun.”

Her lesson was definitely five hours of fun.

3 comments on “Creating a Brain-Friendly Classroom

  1. I wish I had been there. I use the word dendrites with my first graders and they love talking about how their dendrites are growing. Also, we are using many Brain Gym activities to get the students up and moving. They ask to do this every day. Great fun!


  2. Pingback: Memory, Music, Emotion: Links to Enduring Understanding « Center for Teaching

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