Applying Brain Science to Teaching and Learning

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brain imageToday we know more about the brain and cognition than any prior generation of educators thanks to developments in technology and research. In her book Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning That Taps Into the Power of Emotion, author Allison Posey notes the following findings from brain research (p. 8):

  1. Emotions are central for learning.
  2. There exists tremendous range and variability regarding how individuals learn, and there exists tremendous variability within individuals themselves at different times.
  3. The brain is malleable thanks to tremendous plasticity, and it can undergo change based upon interactions with the environment.
  4. Experiences matter in learning.

How do teachers create environments that maximize brain engagement and learning? Posey provides the following six approaches to tap into emotion to maximize learning (pp. 4-5):

  1. Activate the physiology by making clear and relevant learning goals.
  2. Employ UDL (Universal Design for Learning) concepts to maximize variability.
  3. Foster the development of brain networks by modeling, reflecting, and providing feedback.
  4. Enhance attention by employing routines, novelty, and autonomy effectively.
  5. Scaffold memory by making multi-sensory and emotional connections.
  6. Apply Flow Theory and Self-Determination Theory to help students intrinsically motivate.

Over the next few weeks we will examine these six approaches more thoroughly. Increasing your own awareness of these areas and applying the new information to your own practices will be very rewarding for you and your students alike.

Coaching in the Classroom

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Project based teaching creates opportunities for teachers to take on more of a coaching role than traditional teaching. Such coaching is often student-centered, focusing on student strengths while finding ways to overcome student weaknesses. The teacher, operating within his/her content expertise, encourages, motivates, and helps students develop skills, confidence, and competence (Boss, 2018). In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares the following regarding engaging and coaching students (pp. 160-161):

  1. Know your students. Use your knowledge of students to engage them in their learning.
  2. Define learning goals together with students. Let students be part of the planning process and include them in developing the assessment rubric.
  3. Share the work with students. Students will develop a sense of ownership in the project process.
  4. Use student questions to drive and sustain inquiry throughout the project.
  5. Give students a voice in articulating expectations for the project.
  6. Create multiple avenues for meeting student needs. Teachers, peers, community experts, and students themselves can contribute to meeting the established learning goals.
  7. Reflect intentionally and often. Celebrate accomplishments.

Consider these suggestions as you plan for upcoming projects in your classroom. You might find you really enjoy a coaching role, and you might find your students really grow in such a student-centered environment.

Scaffold for Success

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scaffoldStudents need an environment rich in content, skill, and resource supports to help ensure that they meet the established learning goals. These supports, along with the prior experiences of students, are designed to enable learning. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares a number of examples of scaffolds that help all students (pp. 139-143:

  1. Model learning strategies: Let students see learning in action by using activities such as fishbowls, think-alouds, and gallery walks.
  2. Apply prior knowledge: Have students generate hypotheses, share their guesses, write questions, and make KWL (know-wonder-learn) charts.
  3. Structure discussions: Generate norms for classroom discussion, use Socratic seminars, and provide discussion starters to open dialogue.
  4. Create teams: Carefully create student teams that create opportunities for peer-to-peer tutoring and growth.
  5. Pre-teach key vocabulary: Use pictures, drawings, metaphors, analogies, and drawings to reinforce vocabulary before it is fully needed.
  6. Apply visuals: Graphic organizers, word walls, and other non-linguistic representations of knowledge are powerful tools for the learning process.
  7. Use technology: Presentation tools, spreadsheets, group-generated documents, and screencast can be used to further strengthen student learning.
  8. Present workshops and mini-lessons: Create opportunities for students to select workshops or mini-lessons on the content they need to be successful.

As you prepare for next week, think of ways you can employ these techniques to help students learn. Your students will benefit greatly!

Assessing Individual and Group Learning in Projects

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student teamworkStudents, teachers, and parents commonly question how individual students will be assessed during project based teaching. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares the following suggestions related to assessing individuals and groups throughout the project period (pp. 116-118):

  1. Clarify which components are assessed at the individual level and which components are assessed at the group level. Make these determinations as you plan your projects, and communicate with students. Give individual assignments greater weight that group tasks.
  2. Reinforce peer accountability. Use team contracts to identify roles and responsibilities, and use those contracts to empower student-to-student accountability. Provide opportunities for students to assess everyone’s contributions to the team. Make sure students know from the very beginning of the project that they will be asked to assess the work of every team member.
  3. Encourage reflection about teamwork. Throughout the project, ask students to journal or share about how things are going. This will allow you to “see” inside the team and make adjustments as needed.

As you prepare for upcoming projects, plan for assessment of individual student learning and group work. Share your thoughts with students even as you plan and ask them for feedback. Your overall assessment system will be richer, and your students will benefit greatly!

Project Management Tips

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project management toolsProject based teaching requires a considerable amount of planning in order to keep students on task and moving forward in productive ways. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares the following suggestions to help manage time and maximize learning (pp. 98-101):

  1. Remove bottlenecks. Create many avenues for students to find answers during the project, so that work doesn’t halt because there are questions to be answered.
  2. Differentiate.  Some students will be able to manage their own time and tasks; others may require greater structure and chunking of tasks. Provide for all types of learners in your room.
  3. Go with the flow. Develop a system whereby students visibly note what they are working on during a given class period. Then you, the teacher, can walk around the room and see that students are engaging in during the class without interrupting their workflow.
  4. Use group work time strategically. Meet with students, observe, facilitate conversations, and/or offer mini-lessons to help students move forward in their projects. Plan how you will use your time while they are using their time.
  5. Build in reflection: Make reflection a natural part of the work taking place. Students can pause at regular intervals to think about what is going well, what is not going well, and question their next steps.
  6. Build in breaks. Mental breaks throughout a project period are important. They decrease stress and provide opportunities for additional creative thought.
  7. Flip your classroom. Provide instruction via video clips to be viewed as homework, and use the classroom time to provide feedback and help during student work time.
  8. Develop a “workshop” model. Have students present snippets of their project at regular intervals (once a week or once every two weeks) throughout the process. Give them the opportunity to gather feedback from others.

As you plan for next week, think about incorporating some of these tips into your classroom practice. Your students will benefit greatly!


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child singingCollaboration is an integral part of project based teaching and learning. At times it is difficult for students to find their place within the project team. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares a simple assessment – SING – students can use (with the help of a teacher as needed) to determine an appropriate fit within the team (pp. 86-87):

  1. Strengths – What are your strengths? What can you do really well that could help the team?
  2. Interests – What are your interests? What things do you really like to do, read, research, and talk about?
  3. Needs – What are your needs? What do you help doing within the team environment or project environment?
  4. Goals – What are your goals? What do you hope to learn from this project? What will you do with what you have learned? Do you have a bigger vision of how this project fits within your learning path?

Teachers can use the information from the SING self-assessment to assign students into teams. Students can use the information from the SING self-assessment to help each other and assign necessary roles within the team.

As you prepare for end-of-the term projects, consider using the SING self-assessment with your students. It may be awkward at first, but you will learn much about their perceptions of their own skills and abilities, and you can use the information to build learning teams that will be successful. Your students will greatly benefit from your efforts!


Getting Started with Project Based Teaching

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StartingLine-1Some teachers struggle with project based teaching, because they are unsure of where to begin or how to generate ideas for projects. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss suggests the following as potential project starters:

  1. Headlines.  The items that are making the news often interest students and provide opportunities to create projects. Scan your favorite news site for stories that might pique an interest.
  2. Popular culture. Listen to your students talking before and after the bell. What are they talking about? What movies are they seeing? Who are their favorite musicians and performers? These items provide great opportunities for projects.
  3. Real requests. Many students have connections with local employers via after school jobs or family relationships. These employers have needs that could be addressed through project based teaching. For example, a community reorganization committee may need to website to share information with stakeholders. Students could become involved in that type of project.
  4. Your own passions. Sometimes you as a teacher have interests that would engage students and become great projects. Share yourself with the students and see what kind of response you get.
  5. Collaboration.  Schools are filled with opportunities for collaboration and offer opportunities to address problems that impact students and staff alike. Be attentive to these moments. A few years ago, students at a nearby college became concerned about how much water was being used and how much waste was being generated from the dining hall. The students and faculty joined forces to examine the issue, gather real data, and make recommendations for improvement. The college accepted the student recommendations and reduced water use and waste in their dining halls.
  6. Existing projects. Many ongoing projects exist and are readily accessible via the internet. Enabling the Future, the International Education and Resource Network, the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, and Out of Eden Walk offer ongoing project collaborations for students.

As you plan for next week, explore the opportunities you have for projects. Work with your students to select a project that will engage in new and exciting ways. You and your students will benefit greatly!