- Posted by Susan Ruckdeschel
- On 1 December, 2013
- 2 Comments
Cognitive-Friendly Classrooms That Differentiate
Human brains are designed to transmit information. Nerve cells, muscles, the glands – neurons are the nerve center of the brain and there are anywhere from 1 billion to 100 billion working at a given moment (Martinez, 2010). From body cells to dendrites, the electrical charges exacted in this area of the body could power a room or charge a battery at the least! These sensory pathways carve out new learning, and multisensory instruction is the ideal in addressing the needs of struggling learners whose pathways might need assistance in getting from Point A to Point B.
Beginning with the amygdale, the center, or “nerve center” of our brain and all the other activity that surrounds it, information is born and bred by the hippocampus, the thalamus, and sensory frontal areas of the brain where depending on which way you’re looking at it, reside on the left or right. It’s an information-feed that tells us how to act, feel, think, react, and most important: learn. How does this tie into differentiated instruction?
Like DNA and fingerprints, no two brains are alike. Learning is as physiological as behavior is social, and each has an individual affect on cognition. Therefore, instruction needs to be meaningful to students in order to be relevant to their lives, and this search for meaning can occur through patterning, as the brain and mind process parts and wholes simultaneously. When we take in information, we take it in as a whole then plug the rest into what we already know – prior knowledge is highly relevant to learning. It involves both focused attention and peripheral perception with two approaches to memory: isolated facts and skills, and making sense of experiences. Yes, it is that simple, and it is also developmental. By differentiating our instructional practices, we can teach in some highly cognitive-friendly ways.
This is what we know about the Brain:
- The human brain can grow new neurons at a remarkably fast pace – it is never too late to learn!
- Our brain cells – or neurons – carry information as fast as 200 miles an hour.
- The environment has much more influence on brain than heredity or genetics does.
- The brain responds to threat and stress faster and more frequently than any other organ in the body.
- In addition to hormones, teenage behavior may result from brain-related factors. In fact, the brain doesn’t fully develop until well into one’s twenties, with the frontal lobe developing last (affecting judgment and executive functions).
- Genetics aren’t as permanently fixed as traditionally thought.
- Emotional states and cognition can affect one another at a given moment.
- Music and art can highly influence cognition.
- Software programs that use brain plasticity to retrain the visual and auditory systems have been shown to improve attention, hearing, and reading ability.
- Exercise is correlated to increased brain mass, better cognition, mood regulation, and new cell growth.
- Using the pattern-making areas of the brain is critical to brain development
Wolfe (2001) researched cognitive-friendly classroom environments that differentiated for learners. The following lessons were learned:
- Classrooms should have words and literacy everywhere.
- We learn by our environment. 70% of what we learn is what is around us, not what we are supposed to be taking in.
- Music has proven to improve spatial tasks among children.
- Stress can be good if used as a challenge to stimulate more learning, but it can also alter the brain and preclude it from learning. Memorable stress leads to lifelong learning.
Procedural memory is another kind of implicit memory. Often referred to as motor memory, body learning, or habit memory, procedural includes riding a bike, washing dishes, and talking on the phone. Procedural memory is activated with physical movement and includes sports, dance, games, theater, or role-playing. Procedural memory has unlimited storage capacity, requires minimal review, and needs little intrinsic motivation (Jensen, 2005).
Choice also changes the chemistry and behavior of the brain. When learners have choice on task, resources, or goal-setting, their stress lowers and they feel more comfortable and confident about their learning. This triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that inspire confidence.
- Students should be tested in areas in which they’re familiar, safe and comfortable in. Test them in the same room they were coached successfully in! Studies have shown that students who test in their own environments have markedly improved test scores (Jensen, 2005).
- The human brain rewires itself to make more and stronger connections – it’s never too late to learn (Fischer and Immordino-Yang, 2008; Martinez, 2011).
- Better visual thinking, problem solving, language and creativity are associated with music and art training (Jensen, 2005; Martinez, 2011).
The four enemies of learning include threat, excessive stress, anxiety and induced learner helplessness (Jensen, 2005). Out of survival, these cause our brains to shut down, bringing performance to a halt, rendering less of our brains are available to learn because they must revert to familiar, reactive behaviors. Higher-order thinking is thus reduced, as is creativity and retention. Students perform best in non-threatening classroom environments where learning can thrive and accelerate (Fischer and Immordino-Yang, 2008).
Meaningful lessons connect real world application to align with the need for a brain’s prior learning (Jensen, 2007, refers to this as “priming”) to be activated and ready to receive new knowledge in content specific areas. The brain’s susceptibility to paying attention is very much influenced by priming. We are more likely to see something if we are told to look for it or prompted on its location. How do we prime brains? Through prior knowledge. All students have some prior knowledge, even if random or unconscious learning. Prior knowledge consists of real, physical brain matter – synapses, neurons, related and connected networks. This is what else we know about the relevance of prior knowledge in learning:
- Prior knowledge influences deeper understanding of a topic.
- Prior knowledge is personal, complex and not likely to change.
- Priming accelerates the understanding of concepts, giving the brain information to build upon, increasing a knowledge-base and higher-order thinking;
- Priming prepares learners for new content.
- Priming is maximized when students name or use the primed word repeatedly.
- Using priming before any formal lesson, or several weeks in advance of a lesson, increased students’ capacity to understand it (Jensen, 2007).
DI and Vocabulary:
Vocabulary experts agree that 90 to 95% of words in a text must already be known in order for students to comprehend. This 90 to 95% base-word knowledge enables a learner to learn the other 5 to 10% readily and easily. Learners who lack this word-knowledge base become farther behind on both fronts. It takes 26 times of successful use before a vocabulary word is mastered (Hwang and Nation, 1989; 1995).
Use vocabulary words as a priming vehicle. The following are vocabulary activities that will reinforce them, lead to mastery, and work to differentiate for learners:
A word a day
- Use and point out new and known vocabulary in discussion.
- Always pre-teach new vocabulary.
- Display key concepts on walls and/or on posters.
- Develop key vocabulary in context, taken from units for example and used in small groups. Create questions or cloze to place on placards to be used for whole class reviews.
- Use choral-response to vocabulary for whole-class review, giving one half of a word used in context (phrase) from learning where students finish the rest.
- Maintain vocabulary master lists for all content areas and brainstorm them with students for review.
- Develop and continue to work from word taxonomies.
- Maintain word walls and constantly add to them.
- Maintain vocabulary journals and constantly respond to them.
- Have students use taught vocabulary words in extended writing projects.
- Set yearly vocabulary goals, such as 200 descriptive words for the year, or 100 synonyms, etc.
Novelty also stimulates neurons
Here are some suggestions for keeping novelty alive, student engagement high, and neurons stimulated by differentiating group learning activities:
- Find problems within your school, classroom or community for students to solve. Allow students to work through the writing process and continue working at different entry and exit points – prewriting, writing, peer review, revising, etc. It is through this struggle that students will learn content and critical thinking. Here are some writing ideas:
- Protecting natural habitat
- The spread of infectious diseases
- Teen pregnancy
- Global warming
- Issues of school violence
2. Brainstorm for an upcoming trip and have students plan them, or sections of them, in groups
- Transportation issues (calculate options – buses versus parent drivers)
- Develop opinion polls, then compare/contrast with national results.
- The cost of busing
- The cost per-student
Hands-on learning experiences engage more of the senses and use multiple pathways to store, therefore more ways to recall, information. This is why we remember what we experience much better than what we hear, see or read.
What does differentiation have to do with all of this? No two brains are alike, and no two students learn exactly the same. When a student struggles or has great difficulty in learning for whatever reason, we should make provisions for them to ensure they can master essential knowledge, filling in learning gaps in order for them to move ahead. Similarly, when students learn faster than we can teach them, we should have a plan for adapting our instructional pace, scope and sequence of learning as it impacts them. Because no two brains are exactly alike, and no two students learn exactly the same way.
Content for this blog was taken with permission from Literacy Solutions PD, Inc., course No. 156: Brain-Based Literacy Strategy for Grades 6-12.
Fischer, K. & Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2008). The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hwang, K., & Nation, I. S. P. (1989). Reducing the vocabulary load and encouraging vocabulary learning through reading newspapers. Reading in a Foreign Language, 6, 323–335.
Hwang, K., & Nation, I. S. P. (1995). Where would general service vocabulary stop and special purposes vocabulary begin? System, 23, 35–41.
Jensen, E. (2007). Teaching With the Brain in Mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Martinez, M. E. (2010). Learning and Cognition: The Design of the Mind. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.