“What should I teach?” is a fairly easy question to answer – there are things you legally must teach (mandated by the state), things you should teach (informed by community data) and things you like teaching (your favorite lessons). “How should I teach?” is a deeper question, and one that is considered in this weeks awesome blog post from Dr. Kim Morton. Dr. Morton has presented at numerous local, state, and national conferences focusing on curriculum, design and instructional delivery. She wrote and designed Choice Led Health Curriculum(s) providing skills-based instruction through the use of “Health Menu’s” for grades 6-high school. If you are an educator, presenter, or trainer you will love what Dr. Morton shares regarding how the brain learns best to increase student engagement, memory and recall.
Teachers spend an enormous amount of time developing lessons and preparing for their instruction. If a teacher’s ultimate goal is to have students remember and apply information for a lifetime, we need to make sure the content “sticks” and stored in their long-term memory.
When I taught high school health education, my focus was on delivering standards aligned skills-based lessons. However, I equally prioritized how I was going to deliver those lessons to increase student engagement and retention.
To help students recall and retain information, I created (and use) the 6 “sticky learning strategies below for any classroom teacher, any subject and any grade level. Additionally, these strategies are effective for adult learners.
1. Emotions Rule
One of my most memorable professional development “takeaways” is when Eric Jensen stated, “All Learning is Emotional.” Emotion drives attention, which influences our learning and memory. The amygdala, a small almond shaped region deep inside our brain, allows us to store and recall our emotional experiences. In other words, the stronger the emotion (good or bad) the stronger the memory.
Right now, pause and reflect back to some of your childhood memories. Why do you remember these memories? Was it a good one or bad one?
As an example, I’ll share my own personal highly emotional events. Anytime, I hear the song, “Manic Monday” by The Bangles (Yes, I was an 80’s child) it takes me back when I was 15 years old and experienced my first broken heart. Manic Monday was playing in the background on my music player (aka…boombox) when my boyfriend called me on the phone to tell me he is breaking up with me. In fact, I his exact words were “I think you like me more than I like you, so I am breaking up with you.” It felt like a huge punch in the gut. Don’t worry, I have fully recovered from this event, but it’s a powerful reminder how music can even trigger some of our highly emotional experiences.
2. Memories are Malleable
Memories are not fixed; they can change over time. The human brain is generally not built to get things “right” the first time. I am willing to bet
many of us have been told, “that’s not what happened,” “I didn’t hear them say that” or “that’s not what I remember.” Here are some
reasons why our memories or information may not have been encoded properly, or how they have morphed over time:
1. Not paying attention: Being sleepy, hungry, bored or unmotivated will have our brains and thoughts float off into “la-la land”.
2. Poor Diet: Excess sugar, unhealthy fats, refined carbs and processed foods can impair memory and learning.
3. Erosion: The longer time goes on…the details fade away.
4. Subject/Cognitive Bias: Our brains are built to remember what is the most meaningful and relevant to us.
5. Influenced by others: We tend to believe people’s thoughts and comments when they are within our own social group.
6. Recycling Old False Memories: When we inaccurately retell an event or memory so many times, our false memories eventually become real to us (my older sister is famous for this!).
7. Misattribution: When our memory is distorted, and we may disassociate some of the events or forget part of the details.
Our brains act like a “surge protector” and filters what information gets in or stays out. Therefore, it is critical for educators to review and revise to help students understand and retrieve content with confidence. Try using graphic organizers, storytelling, peer feedback, group quizzes, brainstorming, review games (ball toss, balloon review), jigsaw activities, repeat after me, summarize in your own words, “teach the teacher”, exit tickets, or vote by your feet exercises. Bottom line: we can’t expect students to learn, process, comprehend, and store information correctly by clicking through slides and lecturing to students.
3. Movement is a Must
Mike Kuczala states in his famous Ted Talk, “Learning happens from the feet up, not the neck up.” Anyone could simply Google Search how movement positively impacts student learning but here are my top ten reasons why movement is a must:
1. Facilitates Cognition
2. Develops Body/Brain Balance
3. Anchors Learning
4. Improves Working Memory
5. Regulates Mood
6. Less fidgety, More Focused
7. Decreases Learned Helplessness
8. Builds Class Cohesion
9. Reduces Stress
10. Increases Brain Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): Otherwise Known as “Miracle-Gro” to the Brain
The research is clear, if we want the data to improve, we must allow kids to move. In their book, Ready, Set, Go, authors Mike Kuczla and Traci Lengel explains how movement enhances our brain’s ability to learn and allows what we learn to move from temporary memory to permanent storage for later recall. In other words, movement is not a break from learning, it is learning.
4. States Matter
In his book Tools for Engagement, Eric Jensen states “There is no such thing as an unmotivated student, only students in unmotivated states.” Learning “states” are student behaviors at any given moment. There are 100’s of student learning states but the most common ones we see in a classroom are:
1. Anticipation and Curiosity
2. Frustration, Distress and Tension
3. Confusion or “Feeling Lost”
4. “A-ha” or “I Got It!”
5. Boredom or Apathy
Since all learning is state dependent, I believe the core of a teacher’s job is to get students into target learning states. My favorite state changing strategies are:
· Play Music: Use soft non-lyrical music when students are reading, writing or completing student assignments. Use upbeat lyrical music when students are physically active.
· Get Students Moving: I incorporated “Wall Spelling” when I needed a quick and easy movement break. I would tell the kids “to stand up, push in their chairs and let’s spell…..” I would then give them a word that was aligned to the unit we were exploring (tobacco, prevention, abstain, etc..) and students would search and touch the letters in order of the intended word printed on posters, student work, bulletin boards, etc. and then sit back down when they were done.
· Tell Stories: Show off your theatrical talents by making good eye contact, incorporate a variety of facial expressions, use different tones in your voice, and move strategically throughout the room to engage your audience.
· Allow for Student Ownership: Give students a choice board, playlist or menu to choose which assignments they want to complete for course credit.
· Add Novelty: Incorporate something new or different into your lessons. Toss a different object, play new music, go outside into the hallway, rearrange the room, or change the lightening in your room.
· Arouse Curiosity: At the beginning of each school year, I had a huge envelope in the front of the room labeled ‘Top Secret.” Undoubtedly, a student would ask me, “What’s inside the envelope.” I would then open the envelope and read off suggestions from my last year’s students on how to succeed in health class.
5. Environments Affect Brains
Strive to create a flexible learning environment. If you have the option, choose furniture (I love round tables and stand-up desks with wheels) that are easy to move to create different learning activities. Your lightening, seating arrangement, incorporating live plants, books, props for learning
objectives, temperature in your room can positively impact student learning. Create decorative bulletin boards, prepare anchor charts with visual cues, directional signs, and visual prompts to increase anticipation and student engagement.
Every year I created a bulletin board labeled, “Now and Then.” Under the “Now” label I would hang up pictures of myself taken in the present year. This way, students got to know who I am, who my family is, what are my hobbies, do I have any pets, etc. Under the “Then” label I would post pictures of myself when I was the age of my students. They always loved seeing me in braces and sporting the famous “Dorothy Hamill” haircut.
6. “Too Much Too Fast, Won’t Last”
Often, teachers become overwhelmed thinking about all the curriculum standards and objectives they are required to cover in one school year. Most likely you have observed teachers panic during the months of April and May and tend to deliver more “drill and kill” lessons to prepare for end of grade testing. Cramming more content is counterproductive because our brains are not are built to store and retain large amounts of information given to us at one time.
The hippocampus which plays an essential role converting working memory to long-term memory has capacity limits. Imagine your memory
capacity limits as a red solo cup. When teachers present new information (think content as water) they start filling up our “red solo cups.” When teachers succumb to the pressures of performance testing, they feel the need to pour more and more content into our “cups.” When this occurs, the result is obviously messy, and water just spills over the top of our cups and onto the floor.
However, when teachers allow time for processing and to review content, the water (information) slowly empties out of our cups and moves into our long-term memory. As students process the information it creates more space for new content to be added.
‘More Movement in the Classroom‘ was inspired by Mike Kuczala’s work and makes me yearn for a time when we can all return to the classroom and work collaboratively and in close proximity of others.
This blog post also reminded me that I need to go back and re-read ‘Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning‘ by Peter C Brown, and also ‘Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die‘ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
And this….is for Mary. Thank you.