Research-based strategies to ignite student learning
by J. Willis M.D.,
2006, Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 125 pages, ISBN:1-4166-0370-0.
“Our job is not to be the opposition to their ideas, but to be flexible, living, breathing, organic and responsive to students’ ideas to help them embrace their dreams so they can channel their enthusiasm positively rather than cut if off because they don’t conform to a lesson plan.” (Willis, 2006, p.67).
Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning offers education professionals a glance at the tools and research essential to access student cogitation and learning strategies. The lens from which this book is reviewed is that of an upper grade elementary teacher with a fascination for neuroscience. Having spent a significant portion of my existence immersed in education, my goal is to seek ways to engage students in learning decisions based on current learning-centered brain research. In today’s accountability-driven environment, frenzied educators strive to develop an integrated, relevant, and measurable curriculum while presenting engaging subject matter. To inspire student learning, educators rely on the validity of resources such as Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Willis’ endeavor to translate research into practical methods and theories through a discussion of brain development, brain activity and the powerful discoveries of leading brain research launches the groundwork for educators interested in the neuroscientific basis of learning. She contends that the knowledge of neuroscience study will benefit educators, administrators and professional development specialists in this endeavor of refining students’ erudition, giving progressive instruction a biological foundation.
Although the text is satiated with technical neuroscience research terms, the book functions as a guide for the creation of classroom instructional strategies in connection with brain-based learning. This breakthrough opens up exciting new territory for education professionals. Willis’ research verifies the understanding that brain processes reveal innovative perspectives on instruction. Educators resembling myself value the opportunities of problem-solving activities, critical analysis, evidence gathering, and clear communication combined with successful brain-based and long-term learning. Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning includes the scientific research to benefit effective focusing, sustained attentiveness, active learning, storing, connecting and retrieval of learned material in the brain (Willis, 2006, p. ix). With her 15 years of experience as a neurologist, and her expertise as a classroom teacher, Willis aspires to assist other education professionals in gaining the neuroscientific background needed to evaluate brain research and to apply the research to instruction compelling educators to accept as factual the research she has done. The literature is organized into five parts. In each chapter Willis meticulously explores neuroimaging and brain mapping. She extends this knowledge beyond the confines of medical and psychological study, and links these essentials to how educators can utilize powerful brain research into their classrooms and curriculum.
Memory, Learning and Test-Taking Strategies
Throughout this segment of the book Willis targets teachers as “brain cell producers”, and encourages them to make practical application of neuroscientists’ discoveries. A review of brain anatomy provides the educator an opportunity to make the connections needed to deliver brain-compatible lessons. In an attempt to clearly translate current research, Willis includes a brief section in each chapter, titled “Gray Matter”, which presents the reader with valuable, in-depth information for exploration into the neuroscience of the brain. The technical terms and information furnish the reader with a greater understanding of how brain functions put learning into a new perspective. The author provides the key to understanding what appears to be a never ending stream of technical scientific terms, so the reader can interpret and connect the information to how learning occurs.
Dendrites, the amygdala, and synapse are features of the brain that focus on memory, learning and the retention of information. Willis defines dendrites as extensions that sprout out from electrically excitable cells, classified as neurons. Dendrites allow for a large number of neurons to interconnect, forming a network resembling the aggregate of ice crystals that create a snowflake. Dendrites increase in size and number in response to learned skills, experiences and information (Willis, 2006, p.1). Willis offers valuable suggestions for preparing lessons associated with dendrite growth. She reminds educators to present material visually and in an auditory fashion as well as provide opportunities for interaction with the material students are learning. Partner discussion, popcorn reading, think-pair-share, note taking, “dendwrites” (Willis, 2006, p.11), as Willis refers to it, and peer editing also promote dendrite growth. Willis emphasizes that because the brain organizes and stores information in patterns, it is important to present ideas in the same manner. A graphic organizer is a useful tool to achieve this goal.
Although one of the dynamics observed in brain based learning is increased dendrite growth, more importantly, says Willis, when the brain over processes, the amygdala, part of the limbic system in the temporal lobe, senses stress (Willis, 2006, p.24). It becomes overactive, blocking activity to higher cognitive parts of the brain. Communication of information between neurotransmitters is accomplished by movement of chemicals across a small gap called the synapse. Stress tends to deplete these neurotransmitters and slows the process of information. Willis includes suggestions to assist teachers when students become overloaded. As most veteran teachers know, students become fidgety, distracted and unfocused. This leads to student frustration and less efficient learning levels. The brain requests a rest. Willis uses a play on words and refers to this rest as a “syn-nap” (Willis, 2006, p.26). A review and preview, where the teacher stops teaching for a short period of time, gives students a time for reflection. In addition a drink of water, stretching, or a bathroom break also allows students to revitalize. Without question, the impact of standardized testing and the rigorous academic push to saturate students with rote memorization prompts the amygdala to sense stress and provides no beneficial student achievement.
Strategies to Capture Students’ Attention
Willis synthesizes this section into curriculum applications concentrating on how the brain chooses what information. The thalamus, a mass of gray matter cells located at the top of the brainstem, processes sensory input and decides what input stays in the temporary awareness and what is moved to memory storage (Willis, 2006, p.40). In addressing the issue of teacher effectiveness, Willis offers three words of advice: “Captivate your audience!” Her innovative methodology stresses student focused attention and maximizes learner engagement and achievement. Her examples are clear and inspiring and the approach can be immediately put to use. To increase intrinsic motivation, improve attitudes, and strengthen memory Willis recommends changing the learning environment through physical need, self-choice, and uniqueness, with simple adjustments including lighting, color choices, and seating. Creating and delivering curriculum through humor and visuals captivates students’ interest. Asking open-ended questions will force students to connect to their own experiences and interests. Allowing students a choice in selecting their learning activity produces creativity and problem-solving strategies. Providing opportunities for students’ minds to stay connected and thinking builds student interest as well. Another authentic connection to student interest is the often overlooked teachable moment. “Powerful opportunities arise when students’ responses to the emotional impact of teachable moments are supported (Willis, 2006, p.48).”
How Stress and Emotion Affect Learning
In this section, Willis explains why stress inhibits information flow to the brain. Stress releases a chemical called trimethyltin, which disrupts cell-development, impairs short-term memory, and reduces long-term memory (Willis, 2006, p.59). Willis provides numerous implications to reduce stress. She recommends exploring subject matter so that lessons are stimulating and challenging without intimidation. She once more reminds educators to ask open-ended, thought provoking questions to force students to use their thinking skills. Encouraging students to find their own connections in their learning is essential. Including physical activity in daily lesson plans is a necessity. Physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, growth of additional capillaries to keep up with brain growth and increased levels of dopamine and serotonin to sustain attention and concentration (Willis, 2006, p.73). In essence, the intent of this section is to offer suggestions to reduce stress and nurture student confidence. Teachers must take the time to listen and respect student opinion, welcome students’ unique characteristics, and help enforce a school community of respect so that all students will achieve their highest potential.
Assessments That Build Dendrites
Willis concentrates on practical implications. Instruction based on learning research replicates the brain’s processing of information by patterning. Willis recommends the use of rubrics to help students plan, monitor, adjust, and stay on focus. Rubrics correlate effort with success and function in a similar fashion to the way the brain processes information. In addition to rubrics, Willis includes suggestions for homework. She emphasizes that homework must have a purpose and must be an activity that students can learn from and where they can find success. The most significant impact of this portion is Willis’ advice in handling standardized testing. She offers several strategies to reduce test anxiety. Most importantly, teachers should equip students with a practice format, reinforce that incorrect answers do not make students poor learners, and allow a stretch after a certain time period to refresh the depleted brain.
Afterward: The Future Is Now
The art of teaching requires flexibility and creativity. Awareness of brain functions and its applications to classroom learning is a remarkable alternative to the rigor enforced in many of our schools today. Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning clearly defines the characteristics and learning implications of brain-based research in an atmosphere where the educator can familiarize and feel comfortable with the scientific terminology of neuroscience and connect it to specific classroom strategies. For those of who can’t do without it, a complete brain glossary is located at the rear portion of the book. As the reviewer, I am certainly in agreement with the basic foundation of the book, although many of the learning-strategies suggested are geared toward the beginning teacher. On the contrary, I enjoyed a fresh review of classroom practices evaluated in the book. The practices help to augment and enhance the repertoire of teaching strategies I as a skilled educator already possesses. The potential pitfall in this book is minimized by the inclusion of background information making this book an invaluable guide to the novice who is absorbed with the field of neurology and its connection to the art of teaching and may want to explore further in relation to this intriguing topic.
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