How to use the WHOLE brain to learn

Teaching

Teaching | Thursday, October 10, 2013

How to use the WHOLE brain to learn

Whole brain teaching

Your brain connects experiences to each other through branches called dendrites. Here are some ways to leverage brain research in teaching.

I always thought the brain was kind of like a huge cardboard box.

You know, like those huge wardrobe-size ones you use when you move. The ones you can actually hang clothes in so they don’t wrinkle.

I thought that, when you learned something, you just pitched it into this huge box, this memory receptacle, for use later. In my mind, some people were a little better at digging through the box than others. (My wife’s box, in this analogy, must have shelves and be color-coded and organized with the Dewey Decimal System. Her memory is like a steel trap.)

Chris Biffle proved me wrong.

I’m just getting into his fascinating book, “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids.” Well, it’s fascinating so far in that it has already shaken my beliefs about learning in the first few chapters.

Chris’s research into how the brain works during learning shows that there is no single part of the brain dedicated to memory. The hippocampus region of the brain “processes memories and then sends that information back to the region where it originated,” he writes.

Repetition makes permanent in the brain, so the more a person makes connections to an experience in a part of the brain, the stronger that memory is in the brain.

Our goal then, as teachers, is to help our students form strong memories by engaging as many sections of the brain as possible. Hence the name, “Whole Brain Teaching.

As Chris listed the different parts of the brain in his book, it got me thinking of how each could be engaged in learning. Here are a few thoughts for different regions. (Remember, I’m brand new to this, so my ideas might not accurately connect to the right regions of the brain. Fair warning!)

Prefrontal cortex (reasoning, planning, decision-making): debates, explaining why something happened or the logic behind it, “show your work”.

Motor cortex (movement): gestures in learning vocabulary, flash card activities, acting ideas out.

Visual cortex (sight): pictures, video, creating art.

Broca’s area (speaking): reading aloud, practicing conversational language, think-pair-share.

Wernicke’s area (language, hearing): listening to authentic recordings, music, performing poetry.

Limbic system (emotions): talking about our desires, connecting new content to our senses, discussing controversial topics.

Whole Brain Teaching is a new concept to me, but the ideas associated with it will sound very familiar to educators. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences instructs teachers to play to students’ strengths in learning. His visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical feel similar to the different regions of the brain described above. On a more basic level, teachers have played to the three modalities — visual, aural and kinesthetic — for centuries.

Whole Brain Teaching has me thinking about how to create “dendrites,” or the branches that come from neurons in the brain to connect them to other neurons. Biffle says, “Repetition equals dendrite growth equals learning.”

What thinking does Whole Brain Teaching stimulate in your brain? How have you taught to the different regions of the brain? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

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  • Linda Gilmore says:

    As soon as I finished reading this blog I checked out the Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) website and watched most/all of the videos on Thursday. With a strong interest in the brain and neuroscience, the ideas made sense to me and the videos convinced me it was effective. I teach at a two-year college and was skeptical about using the techniques on my students since it is typically used with K-12 and I was concerned it might be misperceived as ‘childish’ or ‘silly’. However these students are also nontraditional(and learn better by doing and talking than by reading). After I saw the video of WBT used with college students, I decided the benefits might be worth possibly making a fool of myself. So I introduced the technique during my class on Monday. It seemed to go over well–students were agreeable, cooperative and talking more than in my traditional format. There was more energy in the room. As I observed my students explaining various concepts of classical and operant conditioning to one another, I could see how WBT could be very effective in achieving student learning in the hands of a teacher skilled in the technique, even as I was still stumbling along just trying to remember to implement specific things I had learned instead of yakkety yakking for long periods. I stuck to a few basics (Class-Yes and Teach-Okay). Feedback after class from a few students was favorable so I will continue next week with that class, and tomorrow with a different class, and then see what happens. For this particular content on learning theories I traditionally do demos with props and already have the ‘lecture’ broken into smaller learning units to simplify the concepts so it was easier to apply the WBT technique than it might have been with other lecture topics. I felt more like I was actually ‘teaching’ in this format since students were demonstrating understanding right there in the classroom, vs. me lecturing and students demonstrating understanding (or not) later on a test. It was a “freeing” experience to be listening to the students, instead of vice versa, as they were doing the hard work of learning. This was the ‘learner-centered teaching’ I have been reading about and thought I was doing, up to this point. So, anyone thinking of giving this a try but hesitating to pull the trigger, I say, “go for it”. I don’t normally post on blogs but I thought this WBT concept/experience was worth leaving a comment. Would love to hear about other newbie experiences with WBT in college setting.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Way to go, Linda! Keep me (and the readers) updated with how your work with whole brain learning goes. I would be fascinated to hear about it! And thanks, again, for contributing to this community with your thoughtful responses!

  • AngieR says:

    Matt-
    Excellent points on the whole brain teaching. Two colleagues and I have published a pedagogical book for beginning teachers based on the information processing view of learning.
    I was just saying to Rose yesterday, that there is work to be done, I think, in creating connections for language instructors, between the science of learning and technology. At some point, I would love to discuss this with you further. It’s way too much to put in a blog post.
    Best, AngieR

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for your comment and your work on this topic! I am still quite a novice on this topic and am anxious to learn more. I agree about the connection between the science of learning and technology. I am finding that often teachers want to try the shiny new toy and leave their sound pedagogy behind. I always want to make sure that what I do, with or without technology, is founded on solid, proven teaching techniques … But I know I have a long way to go! Like I tell my kids, we just keep practicing and trying our best and trying to get better day by day.

  • Chris James says:

    Great post Matt. Even though WBT isn’t “new” – neither is air travel but it’s still a wonder every day that those things get off the ground!

    As a 29 year veteran of the Army and now in my 10th year of teaching, I’m a HUGE fan of repetition.

    That being said – students who don’t appreciate the necessity of it can shut you out. What you have to do is offer them the chance to connect something they KNOW with something they’re not yet sure of. No student now is likely to believe that tying their shoes is difficult. But they do believe it’s complex. There are quite a few steps, some significant digital manipulation, there’s a particular order that promises success, etc. But COMPLEX and HARD are not the same thing. HARD is what you don’t know. EASY is what you DO know. And KNOWING complex things makes them EASY, COMPLEX things. Like tying your shoes. I remind them the first time, the first dozen times, the first dozen dozen times were both hard AND complex. Now – after repeating the steps over and over and over and over – it’s EASY, and complex. 🙂

    Most things that are complex are hard… repetition, rehearsal, review, and relearning changes these things to complex and easy.

    Easy – right?

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