Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for the Digital Age

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

This lesson will examine the basic principles of brain-based learning, and demonstrate how those principles can be integrated with digital classroom tools.

How the Brain Works

So your brain is the cornerstone of the central nervous system, and the reality is that not much else can happen without it. Your cerebrum, which makes up the bulk of your brain, is divided into regions called lobes. Each lobe has specific jobs to do every time your senses engage in a new experience.

For example, if you are sitting in five o'clock traffic your frontal lobe will help you reason out the quickest route to your destination. As you are driving, your parietal lobe processes the messages on the highway signs, so you know which exit has your favorite restaurant. This lobe is also responsible for the processes involved in handwriting. The occipital lobe handles everything your eyes can see. Memories, both the visual and auditory components, are formed and stored within the hippocampus in the temporal lobe of your brain. When you learn new tasks, the odds are that most of the lobes of the brain are involved somehow.

The comprehensive nature of all the brain lobes working together helps lead to brain-based teaching. What exactly is brain-based teaching? It is a holistic teaching method, inspired by neuroscience research, that focuses on letting the brain learn naturally. This means that instead of traditional learning, where students listen to a teacher, take notes, and memorize those notes, learning reaches out to multiple learning styles, like visual, logical, and interpersonal. Brain-based teaching and learning helps the brain learn and grow efficiently.

Brain Diagram
The Human Brain

Getting the Brain to Grow

It seems ironic, but the reality is the process that happens in the brain when we learn is very simple. You are born with most of the neurons your brain will ever have in its lifetime. These neurons can migrate to different areas of your brain, and once they are there, they can start to grow fibers called dendrites. Every time your brain learns something new, it grows new dendrites from your original neurons, or out of dendrites that your brain has already created.

Dendrites can connect to each other, as new learning attaches onto the prior knowledge. These points of connection are called synapses. When you practice a skill, such as playing the piano, your dendrites actually grow thicker and the synapses stronger. This allows you to retrieve information more quickly. Brain-based learning uses a comprehensive approach so students can connect to prior knowledge and so that dendrites and synapses can grow.

Engaging the Brain in a Digital Classroom

The environment is key in brain-based learning, and in the digital age, that extends to the virtual environment as well. The amygdala, located at the center of the brain, governs emotions, which can facilitate or inhibit the learning process. Therefore, building an emotional climate within the classroom is a key component of brain-based learning strategies.

We live in an age where the students we teach are perhaps more digitally connected than ourselves. Myspace, Facebook, and Instagram alone provide students opportunities to digitally connect outside of the classroom. Students need opportunities to build both face to face and digital relationships within the context of the classroom as well. The first step is establishing a virtual presence for your classroom.

Classroom Website

In its simplest form, this could mean setting up a classroom website that students can access both inside and outside of school. On the website, you can post information relevant to students and parents, such as homework assignments, or a calendar with important school dates and deadlines. Your website can also be more sophisticated, with pages for each unit of study where you can post assignments, study guides, or links to digital resources for your students.

Classroom Blog

A more interactive option for creating a digital presence for your class is to establish a classroom blog. This can be done using a number of free online resources. Using this strategy, you can actually have a digital dialogue with your students about classroom content and assignments. Students can have conversations online about everything from specific course content to a team project they may be working on. You can even link your blog to your classroom website for your students.

Text and Email

Depending on the age of your students, and the resources they have available, texting or emailing is another option for creating a digital classroom presence to develop relationships with your students. Typically your school will provide you with an email address, but you can also create a Gmail address or use services such as Google Voice to be able to send and receive texts from your students.

Digital Classroom Environment
Digital Classroom Environments

The goal of whichever option you choose is to develop a rapport with your students so that they feel comfortable communicating with you inside and outside the classroom. These strategies should be used alongside face-to-face communication with your students in order to engage the brain.

Variety is Key in Brain-Based Learning

The goal of brain-based learning is to engage as many different areas of the brain as possible. In the digital age, this does not mean abandoning face-to-face strategies. Rather, it means finding productive ways to blend different modes of interaction. Using Gardner's Multiple Intelligences is a good way to think about how you approach creating variety for your students in a digital age.

Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

For example, on your classroom website you might create a 'playlist' of resources for your students. Some could be digital videos on the content while others might be readings from different texts or websites.

The content presented as videos will appeal to your visual-spatial learners, while text-based information appeals to those who are more linguistic in their learning style. When you have students who are musical in their learning style, try finding songs or music videos that teach key vocabulary and add those to your playlist.

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