Relevance as the to Brain Stressors
Even this newsletter has changed to be globally accurate. I previously designated the season as the title, but since doing presentations and workshops in the Southern Hemisphere – Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, and Indonesia, summer and winter in the Northern Hemisphere are not relevant terms to those of you who live there.
It is with relevance in mind that my focus here is the increasing importance of personal relevance for instruction to be not only engaging, but also memorable and contextual, such that learning becomes incorporated into long-term, context memory networks – available for future transfer to solve new problems and innovate creatively.
Educators are Brain-Changers: We are professionally responsible to physically alter students’ brains daily. As you understand more about the advances in neuroscience research about how the brain learns, you’ll increase your proficiency in the "bloodless brain surgery" you undertake when you strive to educate your learners.
Less Teaching, More Learning was the conclusion of a
10-year study evaluating college biology lab curriculum and instruction. They compared their traditional program of one “cookbook” lab each week to a system of two 7-week-long and one 14-wk-long inquiry laboratories. The inquiry labs used a student-directed learning approach to move the burden of active effort from the teacher to the student.
The students in the extended inquiry laboratories that mastered fewer topics deeply had the greatest gains in the understanding of biology and test scores. This group also built critical thinking skills that enabled them student to adapt learning more successfully to new applications and problems.
“Adaptive neurons” may be a structural manifestation contributing to cognitive and behavioral flexibility. Animal research reveals that prefrontal cortex neurons in regions of executive function networks appear to adapt their responsiveness and interconnections in response to new task demands (Stokes, et. a., Neuron. 2013).
Student-directed (centered, constructed) learning focuses on student construction of knowledge beyond memorization of isolated facts results in extended concept memory networks available for future transfer to novel applications. Students’ brains are more intensely engaged as interactive learning provides student-relevant connections to the goals of units of study.
Understanding develops as we ask students to make predictions and then test them out. When students arrive at answers, rather than from parrot back the memorized facts and procedures we give them. For students’ education today to build the skill-sets they’ll need to keep up with the changing “facts” and knowledge banks throughout their lives.
We can help by connecting new learning to their interests or constructing units that develop their interest in the topics (e.g. start with curiosity and prediction, incorporate learning into authentic performance tasks, activate their memories of engagement tools they previously used successfully). Differentiation for achievable challenge and frequent feedback sustain perseverance. Opportunities to use their executive functions, such as judgment, critical analysis, and metacognition, extend the skill-sets derived from these learning experiences.
Student-constructed learning encourages them to consider multiple perspectives, find more than one solution to problems, and develop the ability to explain their ideas to others. The metacognition of student-directed learning starts with ongoing feedback and provides opportunities for students to reflect about how they succeeded. As students develop their intentional selection of personal best strategies, they become their own guides in learning and life.
Attention to Relevance is Increasing
Relevance will be addressed in one of my upcoming staff Edutopia Blogs, Boredom Hurts Brains. This, and other educational journal articles I’ve written for publication in educational journals in the coming months, pertain to the power of relevance and other strategies to reduce the neurotoxic impact of the stress of sustained or frequent boredom.
As you consider professional development conferences in the coming months, you’ll find relevance a focus of concentration at several of the top conferences. Central themes of international conferences at which my participation in conferences pertaining to this topic include: Redefining Relevance in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Feedback and Metacognition in Nanjing, China, and Student-Directed Learning at the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston.
See also the link to the Wall Street Journal article (in the online and print June 12 editions), by their "Work & Family" columnist, Sue Shellenbarger. Her column, about how parents can best respond to children complaining of boredom, includes my interview responses.
Changing Students’ Brains For The Better
Just as new information and the unique needs of the participants means I never give the same presentation twice, you undoubtedly do not give the identical lesson year after year, as you adapt to new material, students, and technology to increase relevance.
It is not what our students learn, as much as what they can do with what we teach them, that drives us to keep our curriculum and instruction relevant. To help me keep that my primary emphasis is not specific facts, but rather the educators who are my “learners” and though them, the students whom they teach, I wrote myself a note that I keep by my desk. "This is not about me, it's not about you; it's about the mission of teaching in a way that changes our students brains for the better."
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. firstname.lastname@example.org