Learning Neuroscience

Judy Willis on Brain Breaks, #neuroscience!

Judy Willis (@judywillis), author of a number of books on applying findings in neuroscience to support classroom and instructional design, wrote an interesting piece on Edutopia (@edutopia), Using Brain Breaks to Restore Students’ Focus.  Willis, a former physician, turned in her clinician’s lab coat for a position teaching science to Middle School students.  Leveraging her background in medicine, neuroscience, and science education she has written extensively on the impact that neuroscience can have on teaching and learning.  One of her books that I have read and used in my work is, Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom.

As she explains in her article, brain breaks are a strategy that allows students to re-energize.  She writes:

Brain breaks are planned learning activity shifts that mobilize different networks of the brain. These shifts allow those regions that are blocked by stress or high-intensity work to revitalize. Brain breaks, by switching activity to different brain networks, allow the resting pathways to restore their calm focus and foster optimal mood, attention, and memory. (click here)

In a typical 40-minute class, students will have on average a 15-20 minute attention span in the beginning of the class, where they are focused on learning.  Afterwards, they enter a period of downtime for on average, 10-15 minutes, before they regroup and focus on learning during the final 10 minutes.  This pattern has been called the primacy-recency effect or serial position effect (click here).   Willis suggests that at some point after an initial phase of focused learning teachers think about “commercial breaks” or “brain breaks” to allow students to refocus or restore their batteries.  During the downtime period teachers could think about designing learning activities that encourage students to apply their understanding, reflect on their learning, or engage in an activity directly tied to the new learning.  Downtime could also be used as a time to review and consolidate what the teacher expects know, understand or do.  In her article, she suggests other strategies that teachers can use during a break time.

Teachers who work with students in a block schedule have a slightly greater challenge when designing their classrooms.  They may need to incorporate a series of breaks throughout the 60, 70 or 90-minute block to maximize student learning.  From a design perspective the challenge is figuring out how to structure class time, as well as create meaningful and relevant activities connected to the new learning that inspire a “tired mind.”

Willis explains the neuroscience behind what brain breaks accomplish.

Brain breaks, by switching the type of mental activity, shift brain communication to networks with fresh supplies of neurotransmitters. This intermission allows the brain’s chemicals to replenish within the resting network. (click here)

Application of these neuroscience principles can certainly aid a teacher in making the classroom a more enjoyable experience for students.


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