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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

Learn. Teach. Lead.
Get the tools to put it all together at this can't-miss education conference—with more than 200 sessions and five inspirational keynote speakers.

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Books in Translation

November 1998 | Volume 56 | Number 3

How the Brain Learns

Making Connections

Marge Scherer

What Do We Know from Brain Research?

Pat Wolfe and Ron Brandt

The recent explosion of neuroscientific research has the exciting potential to increase our understanding of teaching and learning. But it's up to educators to carefully interpret what brain science means for classroom practice. Although educators must be cautious about many neuroscientific findings, a few are quite well established: (1) The brain changes physiologically as a result of experience; (2) IQ is not fixed at birth; (3) Some abilities are acquired more easily during certain "window of opportunity;" and (4) learning is strongly influenced by emotion. The authors discuss these findings in detail and point out that educators can expect more relevant findings in years to come.

Brain Science, Brain Fiction

John T. Bruer

When it comes to applying neuroscientific research to classroom practice, educators must look before they leap. To make their own critical appraisals of brain-based education, educators need to understand several key ideas from brain science. First, neuroscience suggests that there is no simple, direct relationship between synaptic densities and intelligence. Second, neuroscientific research on critical developmental periods is likely to have little relevance to formal education. Third, research on complex environments and related findings tell us that the brain can reorganize itself for learning throughout our lifetimes. And fourth, research on early synapse formation, critical periods, and complex environments has a long history. Yet, we have little understanding of what this research might mean for education. References to recent neuroscientific research are included throughout the article.

The Brains Behind the Brain

Marcia D'Arcangelo

Conversations with leading brain experts reveal what educators need to know about new brain research. Marcia D'Arcangelo talks with Marian Diamond, Pat Wolfe, Robert Sylwester, Geoffrey Caine, and Eric Jensen about how to translate research findings into classroom techniques. After Wolfe describes the physical structure of the brain, Diamond, Wolfe, and Caine discuss the importance of creating an enriched environment in the classroom to stimulate connections between neurons. Although in some cases, the brain's window of opportunity to develop certain skills decreases, researchers discourage educators from feeling powerless to change or improve student learning. Education should continue for a lifetime because, with appropriate enrichment, our brains will continue to grow and change.

Jensen and Sylwester also emphasize the role of emotion in the classroom. Education should be linked to emotion because the brain's emotional system drives learning and memory. Students can feel emotionally connected to their learning through such activities as debates, celebrations, and storytelling. In addition, students need downtime to process information to allow the newly formed synapses to strengthen. All these insights into the brain can help educators develop positive environments for learning.

How New Science Curriculums Reflect Brain Research

Lawrence Lowery

A new view of learning, based on research in the cognitive sciences, has three components: Learners construct understanding for themselves, to understand is to know relationships, and knowing relationships depends on having prior knowledge. Curriculum developers can use this new view to write curriculums that take advantage of the ways in which the brain constructs knowledge. The brain does not store a picture of an event or a behavior. Rather, all conscious and subconscious knowledge and behaviors are constructed as complex systems within the brain.

The more avenues that students have to receive data through the senses, the more connections their brain will make. The more opportunities they have to explore relationships among data and to use their prior knowledge, the richer and more permanent their constructions of knowledge will be. The new curriculums sequence developmentally appropriate concepts that progressively link and web together toward a grand idea.

Art for the Brain's Sake

Robert Sylwester

From fine-tuning muscular systems to integrating emotion and logic, the arts have important biological value. This article discusses four emerging themes that provide biological support for school arts programs. First, movement is central to life and to the arts. Second, sophisticated movements must be learned. Third, smooth movements enhance self-concept. And fourth, virtuoso movements are transcendent. Given the importance of the arts in developing and maintaining the brain, the arts must take center stage in schools.

The Music in Our Minds

Norman M. Weinberger

With all the current excitement over music research, what do educators need to know to determine the role music should play in schools? First, music is biologically rooted in all humans. This is why infants and young children spontaneously exhibit musical behaviors. The brain itself is constructed to process music, which shows that music is fundamental to human development. Second, playing and listening to music strengthen the synapses between nerve cells—and synapses grow stronger through use and weaker through disuse. Finally, research now shows that developing music skills enhances skills in other subjects such as reading and math. All these reasons support the need for strong music programs in school—not only because music is fun, engaging, and creative, but also because it actually improves and is fundamental to intellectual growth.

How Julie's Brain Learns

Eric Jensen

We can better understand how students learn by investigating five critical variables in the brain's learning processes: neural history, context, acquisition, elaboration, and encoding. By looking into the brain of a typical student, Julie, we see how all these variables influence her school day. First, Julie's brain has already been customized by her life experiences when she comes into class; the teacher must take into account that Julie's brain is not a tabula rasa, which is why she and the other students learn differently.

The learning context is also important. Educators must ensure that classrooms are both physically and emotionally safe. In addition, Julie's teacher needs to realize that although the old stand-and-deliver model of teaching works in short spurts, students' brains cannot focus for long periods of time. Teachers need to vary instructional techniques to allow time for the brain to process information. Julie's teacher also must realize that Julie and the other students' brains need elaboration to really learn information; students can peer edit, pair-share, or write in journals to get extra feedback. After elaboration, Julie needs to encode the information so that it stays with her. This can be achieved through many activities such as rest, emotional engagement, and proper nutrition. In these ways, brain-based research can help educators make classroom learning more productive and meaningful for students like Julie.

Theory of Mind Goes to School

Janet Wilde Astington

Research in psychology shows that educators need to focus on the ways children think about thinking—or their theory of mind. Children learn at different stages that people act to fulfill their desires in light of their beliefs. This "landscape of consciousness" lies alongside the physical landscape of actions and events. Students can improve their cognitive skills by recognizing that others have different motivations, desires, wants, and needs. Although many students learn their theory of mind at home, through parents, friends, and siblings, teachers can also help develop skills by encouraging students to talk about how they think. Students will then be better equipped to find information out for themselves, evaluate sources of information, and gain a sophisticated social understanding of the world around them.

A Lesson Learned About Multiple Intelligences

Sharon S. Sweet

A high school chemistry teacher learned important lessons on the applications of the theory of multiple intelligences from her students. Through classroom vignettes, the author introduces us to Ben, a bodily-kinesthetic learner, and Jay, a spatial learner, as they help shape her approaches to teaching. She realized that allowing a student to use his or her dominant intelligence often results in strengthening the student's other intelligences. She comes to understand that the students themselves are her most important sources of information about how they learn best.

Teach Me, Teach My Brain: A Call for Differentiated Classrooms

Carol Ann Tomlinson and M. Layne Kalbfleisch

All learners-from kindergartners to adult-education students—enter a classroom with different readiness levels, learning profiles, and interests. Teachers already struggling to cover a large quantity of material often try to teach these diverse students by using a single lesson plan delivered through a single instructional approach and do not modify their teaching style to accommodate struggling or advanced learners.

Both common sense and brain research suggest that curriculum and instruction are most effective when they are responsive to individual learning needs. The author describes three broad principles derived from neuroscience research that support the need for differentiated classrooms. First, the learning environment must feel safe; the brain of a child who feels emotionally or physically threatened produces chemicals that actually inhibit learning. Second, the student must feel appropriately challenged. A curriculum that is too advanced produces stress that induces the brain to overproduce neurotransmitters that impede learning. An underchallenging curriculum inhibits the production of other chemicals needed for optimal learning. Third, teaching that is based on broad concepts, not just facts, and that involves the learner in "doing" rather than in "absorbing," best meets diverse needs. The author lists 14 characteristics of academically responsive, or differentiated, classrooms.

Growth Cycles of Brain and Mind

Kurt W. Fischer and Samuel P. Rose

Advances in neuroscience have replaced the idea that development occurs as a sequence of stages, like the rungs on a ladder, with the biological concept of a recurring cycle of growth. From a person's birth to about age 30, both behavior and the brain change in repeating patterns that involve common growth cycles.

These cyclical changes become evident in learning and thinking when a child is operating at an optimal level of skill or understanding with strong contextual support. A short-term growth cycle involves constructing successive levels of skill or understanding that are nested in a long-term cycle that moves through four forms of thought or action called tiers. New discoveries about brain functioning suggest recurring cycles of cortical growth that parallel the cognitive-developmental cycle. The authors suggest how educators can use this recent research for effective teaching.

Revisiting Effective Teaching

Pat Wolfe

New advances in neuroscience research validate Madeline Hunter's Elements of Effective Instruction, developed more than 20 years ago. The author presents four areas in which effective-instruction theory and current research agree.

Hunter wrote of the anticipatory set, which today is reflected in research on the attentional mechanisms of the brain. Both involve the need for an individual to be prepared to pay attention to the right information for effective learning to occur. Today's emphasis on a classroom that is high in challenge but low in stress directly mirror Hunter's levels of difficulty and levels of concern. In addition, Hunter taught the importance of task analysis, that is, the process of breaking a task into its components to make teaching it more effective. New developments in neuroscience in the areas of declarative memory and procedural memory help explain why task analysis is both so necessary and so difficult. The fourth area of agreement between Hunter's work and neuroscience research is the importance of prior leaning.

Hunter emphasized that teachers should learn as much as possible about the science of teaching. Neuroscience research is supplying new information about the learning process, along with a new vocabulary, and often confirms the practices that good teachers have been using all along.

Memory Lane Is a Two-Way Street

Marilee Sprenger

Why can some students do math problems in math class and then forget how to do the same problems when asked in English class? This has to do with our episodic memory, which allows us to remember things only in the context in which we learned them. We have five memory lanes—semantic, episodic, procedural, automatic, and emotional—and teachers can improve student learning by triggering these memory lanes through different strategies. However, teachers must also remember to take these strategies into account when assessing their students. If a teacher uses procedural and emotional memory lanes to teach Greek mythology, but assesses students in a traditional multiple-choice (or semantic) format, then students may still have difficulty remembering the information. By understanding how each memory lane works, teachers can help students retrieve information in many different ways.

Food for Thought

Barbara K. Given

What and how students eat can have a profound effect on their ability to learn. Recent research on the connections between nutrition and neuroscience makes student eating habits a serious school issue. When youngsters have nutritious food available while studying, they eat as needed and consequently perform better in school. Poor nutritional habits and the consumption of food additives such as aspartame can have a negative impact on students' ability to learn. In addition to teaching about healthful eating, schools must do their part to ensure the availability of nutritious foods in the lunchroom, the vending machines, and classrooms.

The Other Intelligences (Oy Vey!)

Kim Chase

A middle school teacher takes a humorous look at the seven "Other Intelligences" that she has observed in her students.

Equal Does Not Mean Identical

Sally M. Reis, Sandra N. Kaplan, Carol A. Tomlinson, Karen L. Westberg, Carolyn M. Callahan and Carolyn R. Cooper

In a response to the Educational Leadership article "Detracking for High Student Achievement" by Jeannie Oakes and Amy Stuart Wells (March 1998), the authors argue that "equal" should not mean "identical." They present the case of Latoya, who entered the 1st grade reading at a 5th grade level. Four years later, her level of achievement in reading has stagnated and has not progressed. The authors describe the process of curriculum differentiation, which may be able to meet the needs of all learners in a classroom. They also defend the parents of high-achieving students, who in the experience of the authors are seeking only to have their children challenged in school, not to maintain a meritocracy.

The Advantages of Bilingualism

Andrew S. Latham


Brain-Based Policies for Young Children

Joan Montgomery Halford

Reviews / New Books by Brain Scientists

Robert Sylwester

A leading expert in brain-based education reviews ten books based on new research in the brain sciences that have broad relevance to educators.


Web Wonders

Carolyn Pool

ASCD in Action


Joan Montgomery Halford

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