Using Brain Research to Help Students Develop Their Highest Cognitive Potentials
Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed.
PDF of today's powerpoint will be on there within a week, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Teaching strategy: Syn-Naps (Three-Minute Pause)
- Meet in groups of 3-5 to summarize key points, add your own thoughts, pose clarifying questions, predict meaning, your emotional reaction, your cognitive interpretation
- Use a One-minute timer to finish them up (she has a visual one) and a cue
Prefrontal cortex maturation
Educators are possibly the most important caretakers of the most important brain development in a person's life.
Networks of PFC develop with age, last part of the brain to mature, doing so while students are in school, most active maturation between 8-18 (5 to 25 on the bell curve).
Maturation: pruning & myelination, based on use
What can we do about it?
To even get to the PFC is 2/3 of an educator's job. Reticular activating system, amygdala, and dopamine must be engaged first (RAD Teaching)
Multiple functions of the PFC
Long-term Conceptual Memory
We can impact how strong these networks are, strengthening one has benefits to the other two
Today's students must be prepared to
- evaluate new information and modify understanding as information increases and "facts" change (e.g., Pluto vs. "planet-ness")
- use new technology as it becomes available
- to find solutions for problems we have yet to recognize
We are using a factory model in a digital world - learn these factoids and when you "get out there" you'll be told what to do with them
There's way too much information to even be an expert in one field! In schools, we keep making the books bigger and shoving more facts in. The new testing hasn't done anything to limit the standards. We can't just teach concepts and do projects, we have to deal with the realities of the constraints of the current system.
The PFC holds an executive function system that, when exercised and developed, can become the brain's successful CEO
3% of a cat's brain, 10% of a dog's brain, 20% of a human's brain (by volume)
Executive functions are the skill sets for 21st century success
- Considered decision making
- Delay of immediate gratification
- Goal planning
- Risk assessment
Syn-Naps - summarize what you have learned so far
Executive function use correlates with PFC activity:
- abstraction, reasoning, deduction, critical analysis, considered decision making, goal planning, prioritizing, judgment, & consideration of alternative perspectives
Neural networks of executive function can be developed to:
- evaluate new information
- modify understanding as information increases and "facts" change
- use new technology as it becomes available
Neuroplasticity: The physical changes of building, revising, or extending neuronal networks in response to activation (use).
Each time a brain circuit is activated it becomes stronger and more permanent
- electricity is the stimulant that promotes more dendrites, more synapses (more neurotransmitters), and more myelin (faster)
- comparing it to a muscle: physical exercise leads to larger bulk and greater motor strength, activation and neuroplasticity leads to a larger circuit which results in greater mental strength
- myelin thickening increases with activation; thicker myelin = faster processing; faster retrieval of information; protects it against the pruning (AHA!!!); Mastery in class doesn't mean you've done anything with your myelin - you have to reactivate the circuits over and over again. Faster PFC processing correlates with intellectual performance. Practice makes permanent.
PFC Proper Care and Feeding
- Opportunities to practice accurate and logical interpretation of new information; interaction with the information; lots of predictions; examples; other perspectives, including historical (interesting misconceptions). Interacting with content and learning necessary skills at the same time.
- Develop habits of mind (critical analysis, creative problem solving)
Training Critical Analysis of Data
- Know the difference between theory and research
- Read actual research
- Learn the scientific method & use it to critique scientific research (look who's funding it, how many people in control/variable groups, placebo, double-blind, etc.) Use this as a template for other disciplines.
Practice Executive Functions
- Defend a personal opinion with facts, but also...
- Predict what an opposing viewpoint would be and how to refute it
- Practice solving real world, student-relevant problems with no single "right" answer
- Activities: supreme court justice opinions, best restaurant in a city, evaluate website validity, identify ethical/unethical tv commercials and write a business letter, student participation in conflict resolution, photo analysis - which headline?, more on website
Summary: Teachers are the caretakers of the highest brain development
- PFC is last part of brain to mature
- PFC network processing speed correlates with intelligence
- Myelination promotes increased speed and is increased when networks are used
- Use of executive functions promotes their greater development
Argument has been made that this should happen in college, but is it? Or is college a place for remediating facts that weren't learned in K-12 or cramming in more facts?
Syn-Naps: What strategies and activities that you've used are likely to have promoted the activation and neuroplastic growth of the networks of executive function.
21st Century Success
Concept learning is critical for students to respond in the future with innovative solutions to new problems
Conceptual Long-Term Memory
Ma and Pa Kettle Math Clip
Of students who got 100% basic pythagorean theorem questions right, only 30% could transfer to a slightly more complex problem. Rote learning and practice does not lead to concept development. Isolated facts repeated and practiced in certain ways result in orphan networks, no matter how strong they are. Have to do things for transfer.
The brain seeks patterns and pleasure
Short-term (working) Memory is a matter of pattern matching
- Amygdala and Hippocampi. Info that gets through amygdala (not stressed), goes into hippocampus for processing. The brain interprets new information based on existing patterns (schema - literally a physical template in the hippocampus). If there is no patter waiting (or activated within a minute), new input is misinterpreted or disappears. When there is a successful pattern match the hippocampus encodes sensory input into working-term memory. Fun pattern brain games on her slides! I got them ALL WRONG!!! :) The strongest pattern that has had the most activation is strongest and fastest retrieved. The fastest go-to pattern is not always right.
- Patterning is the basis for literacy & numeracy and for connecting short-term memories, the system by which we turn memories into bigger concepts. Patterns are passageways for memories to follow. Patterning is the brain's process for linking new learning to existing knowledge. Activate prior knowledge! Without that activation, lack of development of executive function will result in spotty patterning (DO NOT assume students will do it). If we do activate it, the hippocampus encodes sensory input into working memory that can then go to the PFC and, with practice, become long-term memory.
- Activities - bulletin boards that preview, personal/cultural connections, pre-unit assessments, show videos or images that remind students of prior knowledge, remind students about previous exposures (cross-curricular, spiraled curriculum), ***predict/KWL***, similarities/differences, graphic organizers (organization, personalization)
- New information must link (encode) with existing memory to become working memory.
- Frequently activated patterns promote automatic responses
- Start early, have children sort and verbalize patterns
- Patterning strength promotes automaticity for literacy and numeracy
- Prior knowledge activation and graphic organizers increase pattern matching for memory encoding
Syn-Naps: How will you activate your students' prior knowledge and help them create patterns with the information from your class (and other classes)?
- Hippocampus encodes
- PFC for construction of long-term memory
- Plasticity from mental manipulation
- Long-term memory is the result of physical changes
- Practice makes it durable
- Mental manipulation - things that are most likely to take things from hippocampus and make them long-term memory: similarities/differences, categorize, analogies, graphic organizers, narratives, teaching someone, personalized and humorous mental manipulations are more memorable (actual change in the RNA when there's a positive emotion - happy makes stronger memories), concise summaries (twitter, text messaging, one-minute summary).
Long-term CONCEPT memory
- Pattern extension, connection of separate patterns
- Transfer activities - new applications of learning, incorporation of isolated fact memories into extended concept knowledge
- Recognize key elements (big picture, big ideas, & essential questions, desired goals), understand key elements (mental manipulation (personalize, perspective), meaning-making (interpret), reconstruct the knowledge (summarize, synthesize)), transfer to new application
Big Picture: Teaching disconnected bits of information is like asking them to solve a puzzle without giving them the picture to look at.
Differentiation - give them more or fewer transfer cues, scaffolding
Learning in a variety of ways creates connection between various areas of the brain. When we explicitly require students to use them together to retrieve and practice, we are making those connections stronger. Related subsequent input has more patterns to connect with. Concept networks are now available for transfer to future tasks. Prepared for 21st Century - new questions, new data, have pathways to solve new problems and innovate.
Experience your neurons' neuroplasticity - try to draw clockwise circles with your right foot and the number 6 in the air with your right hand. What happened? Demonstrates how strong pathways can be!