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Brain Child: Teachers Toting New Brain Research into Schools

 
by Ann Work, Scripps Howard News Service, May 27, 2003

New brain research prompted elementary school principal Kathy Whitmire to scratch the word "unreachable" from her vocabulary.

She watched low-performer Matthew, a fourth-grader at James M. Brown Elementary in Walhalla, S.C., fall under the spell of a new curriculum based on secrets unveiled by brain research.

The science project he wouldn't attempt even with his teacher's help the year before earned him state honors the next.

What happened?

Real-world lessons that included discovery through nature trails and tending a habitat garden succeeded where incentives and consequences failed. The high-involvement lessons tied Matthew's actions and emotions to facts and formulas an irresistible pairing, researchers say.

High school teacher Jeb Schenck tried innovative approaches suggested by the latest in brain discoveries and chalked up success upon success. For example, his students at Hot Springs County High School in Thermopolis, Wyo., studied a highly complex cell respiration process by creating paper models to work out the sequence of events and their outcomes. They manipulated the paper shapes, closing their eyes to imagine the model and remember its parts. They aced the exam.

Two years later in college, the same students added the same hands-on memory technique to their studies to help them learn other complex procedures. They aced more exams, Schenck said.

From multi-sensory lesson planning to memory techniques and classroom management, teachers from coast to coast are toting the new brain research into schools and unpacking it in multitudes of ways. Nobody is predicting Space Age classrooms or the demise of traditional schooling. But as we get smarter about what makes us smarter, schools will change, experts say.

At elementary grade levels, the pace of change in schools is apt to be slow but sure, said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

"The level of awareness has increased significantly over the last decade. Implementation hasn't moved as fast," Ferrandino said. "Right now it's very uneven across the country, but I believe the trend is picking up support. I think over time you will see more and more schools implementing changes in the way they teach."

Ferrandino believes that federally mandated tests and tight budgets are forcing schools to narrow their curriculum focus, not expand it.

For others, the treasure trove of insights pried open by brain researchers is too captivating to ignore regardless of budgets and tests.

Special-education teachers are the ones digging deepest, said Anne Rosenfeld, president of Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston. "Special educators are on the forefront of learning about the brain in order to reach individual learners," she said.

So are schools with high at-risk populations, said Kathie Nunley, an educational psychologist from Salt Lake City.

Using the wealth of brain research available, she invented "Layered Curriculum," a teaching style that's been woven into classroom use in hundreds of schools nationwide, particularly among California's San Joaquin Valley migrant population, in inner-city Chicago and in rural Southern communities.

"We've got to create more diverse ways for kids to learn," she said. "Not everyone learns their times tables with flashcards. Some need puzzles, to manipulate the work. The absolute best teaching methods are not great for everybody. That's what layered curriculum is trying to do: offer students a wide range of assignment choices with different ways they can learn."
 
 

 

 

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