In Chapter 6 from the Robin Hunter’s book, Mastery Teaching, he writes about the importance of understanding that neuroscience informs us how to think about teaching and learning. Neuroscience explains that different parts of our brain are responsible for processing information. The left hemisphere is responsible for analytical and sequential processing, while the right hemisphere coordinates visual processing, spatial relationships, and nonlanguage sound. While these distinctions are not absolute, they do give us a way of understanding that different parts of the brain oversee different functions.
The two hemispheres don’t operate independently. There is neural tissue that connects the hemispheres, allowing them to share and integrate information. As Hunter points out, neither hemisphere is more important than the other, we need both to navigate our way through life. However, some individuals have strengths in left hemisphere processing, while other people have strengths in right hemisphere processing.
The takeaway for teachers is that their classrooms are composed of students whose brains work in unique and different ways. Designing one’s instruction to target analytical learners may leave out the students who have very strong visual processing capability. The same could be said for designing a learning experience primarily for visual learners might leave the analytical learner on a limb. Lesson design should take into account the variety of learners in our classrooms so each student can readily access the information with the part of their brain that is most developed. Of course, we want students to also exercise the part of their brain that is less developed. So a student who is not a strong visual thinker should be challenged to process information visually and vice versa.
One of the first principles in good lesson design is when a teacher opens a lesson the learning goals should be made explicit, and a simple overview of the journey should be presented to students. An analogy to think about is when you embark on a car trip from one destination to another, it is often good idea to begin with a general overview of the route you will be taking. Using concept maps, mind maps, or other visual devices for giving students the big picture view of where the lesson is headed, can help student orient themselves.
Hunter distinguishes between emerging versus static visuals. Static visuals are photographs, posters, or objects that do not change throughout the lesson. In a chemistry lesson, the Periodic Table would be a static image, while a whiteboard drawing of an atom would be an emerging visual.
Hunter writes about four basic principles to keep in mind when designing a lesson using emerging visuals, visuals that develop or emerge as the lesson is being presented (page 56).
- Say before writing. We process hearing information faster than writing it. Start with a simple oral explanation so students can begin processing right away, accompanied by a visual summary. Avoid too much text in the beginning of a lesson.
- Use key words and simple diagrams. When designing a lesson, structure how you will introduce the “power vocabulary” a student needs to acquire. The vocabulary represents the window into understanding the larger concepts. Remember, diagrams using vocabulary reinforces the connections, but be sure diagrams are not overly layered with text. In Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds writes about good presentations have “simple, but not simplistic” graphics or images to illustrate ideas in powerful ways. Simple graphics that make powerful connections are easier for the brain to process.
- Position = Relationship. Here the use of space allows the teacher to show the relationship between ideas. In a simple compare and contrast diagram, two ideas or concepts can be compared, processed by the student, and more easily stored in memory. (see figure 1)
- Erase before a new concept. As the lesson unfolds, good design allows for transition periods from one concept to another. A teacher should reset the scene for the new concept to be presented, drawing connections to the previous concept. Hunter writes:
A clear head encourages clear thinking.
the implication being that when one part of the lesson is complete, clear the scene and set up for the next concept. He suggests erasing old material before presenting new material.
Finally, with regard to static visuals Hunter writes:
when using photographs, posters, static charts or realia, first let the students take in the visual as a whole because often the whole gives the learning the necessary meaning. After they see the whole, focus them through words, covering, or pointing on that to which you want them to pay particular attention. (page 59)
Every teacher needs to decide how best to engage the left and right hemispheres of the brain as the lesson unfolds. Using emerging and static visuals is one way to engage the right hemisphere, while connecting visual images to the vocabulary and oral explanations of the concept.
Effective and strategic lesson design is the most powerful tool a teacher has to make learning visible for students.
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