The brain is a complex mechanism that is yet to be fully understood. Through research and current neurological studies, scientists have been able to unearth information about the brain that has huge implications for success in the field of education. As a teacher, I use current brain research to inform my instruction. Knowing about the brain, and understanding how students process information is best practice in the teaching profession of today.
There brain processes information from short-term to long-term memory using a complex set of “rules”. Without us even knowing, we are subconsciously making choices that will either send information into our long-term memory or into a dumping ground. It is an educator’s hope, that the new information being taught will become part of a student’s long-term memory, ready to be taken out of the file and used at a later date. This is not always the case. Bad teaching practices, emotional situations and classroom distractions can easily send kids spiraling into a black hole of memory loss.
First, in order for something to enter into long-term memory, a student must be emotionally capable of accepting the task. If a student does not have a positive self-concept, they will not be able to commit new information into long-term storage. Emotions can and will over-ride new learning capabilities. In second grade, a strategy that is used inside my classroom is that of growth mindset. From the start of the school year students are coached on perseverance, failure as a learning opportunity, and emotional stabilization and self-regulation through mindfulness exercises. The students and I use morning meeting in order to talk about anything that may have happened the say before in our classroom community. This also allows students to feel safe, respected and loved in the environment in which they are learning. Every classroom should have time set aside to work on emotional regulation and mindfulness to promote positive self-concept. The conversion of short-term working memory to long-term memory is blocked by poor self-concept, feelings of fight or flight and poor self-regulation skills for coping with stressful and challenging situation. This is why the development of a program in every classroom to teach these skills through text or discussion is essential.
Second, in order for students to be able to commit items into long-term memory, the direct instruction environment must be distraction-free, and chunked into small bouts of direct instruction followed by practice. The chunking strategy uses the known fact that working memory only lasts so long, and can only hold so much information at one time. When new information is chunked into smaller bits over time, a student is able to pull from their background knowledge (long-term storage), connect to prior concepts, and apply their new skill to what they already know. This helps to ensure the new information makes sense to the student, can be held onto and does not exceed the working capacity of a 7-8 year old. This time frame for direct instruction tends to run from 10-15 minutes. If the student can recall the information after 24 hours, then it is transferring from working to long-term memory storage over night.
Last, I use emotions, feelings and background knowledge of students to create meaning during instruction. I always try to make new learning and practice relevant for students, so that they can connect to prior experiences and knowledge in a way that is personal to them. When I teach a lesson about teaspoons, I ask students if they have ever run out of spoons before. When student reply “yes”, I then tell them a story about how I ran out of spoons at the table (tablespoons), and my kids used the tablespoons to eat their cereal. Most of my students get excited to hear that I have gone without proper eating utensils. I then explain that the reason I only have teaspoons left is that they are so teeeeeny tiny that we couldn’t use them to eat our cereal. My students always enjoy hearing stories that they can relate to, and pull from their own background knowledge with. I also tell a lot of stories about my own kids when teaching, since my son is in 2ndgrade also. The students love relating to my kids, since they are the same age.
To sum it up, students must be given small chunks of information that is meaningful to them in order to commit new knowledge into long-term memory. Through the use of relevant, interesting and engaging chunked instructional practices, most students can succeed. The only other item that can get in the way of this instruction is emotional well being. Students cannot learn without a positive sense of self-concept and a mind frame that is ready to learn. When students are stressed, or feel unsafe in their learning environment, they cannot learn new information and commit it to long-term storage. Mindfulness and relationship building can help to alleviate these roadblocks. The brain is complex, but brain-based teaching can help to ensure it is maximized for learning.