Friday, June 29, 2012

Pat Wolfe - Mind Matters (Resource)

Can't believe it is the end of June already! Time flies...

We have already posted Pat Wolfe's "Mind Matters" site on the right-hand side of our blog, but here is a page within her site that posts brain research related articles:

Happy reading!!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Creative Problem-Solving - A Whole Brain Activity

In this article, Ben Johnson talks about the Common Core and how the new standards address problem-solving. How is this related to brain research as it applies to our students? Creatively solving problems is a whole brain activity. And just what does problem-solving entail? According to Johnson, "a problem must be compelling enough to require a solution. The solution to a problem must be believable, plausible and doable." And furthermore, "a solution to a problem must be so integrated (like the brain) that the parts and pieces cannot be separated." He ends with a question: How do you get students to solve problems in your classroom? And I would add, what are some of the most compelling problems that your students have solved and what were the resolutions?

Here is his article for further reading:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Brain Research and the Bilingual Brain

Dr. Judy Willis is an authority on brain research and how it relates to learning. Here is some of what she says about the "bilingual brain," and some of the implications of the research.
A selective attentive focus and the ability to block out distraction are seminal executive functions that are minimally developed in youngsters. These functions gradually become stronger throughout the years of prefrontal cortex maturation, which last into the twenties. It is with regard to these executive functions that research about the "bilingual brain" is particularly exciting.
The research refers to children raised with a language at home that differs from the dominant language outside the home, such as in school. Compared to monolinguals, the bilingual children develop greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated fMRI scans of these children reveal more activity in the prefrontal cortex networks that control these executive functions.

Exercising Their Thinking Brains Early and Often

The leading explanation for this correlation is the need of bilinguals to frequently "select" which language is needed, what words fit the linguistic criteria and how to convey their intended meaning each time they communicate. To do this, the brain must actively evaluate between the competing language systems and deliberately focus attention on the chosen language.
The research interpretation of the fMRI and cognitive tests is that the ongoing evaluation and selection process in bilingual children exercises brain circuits which regulate attention control and block distraction. This neural network activation of the executive functions is one suggested explanation for the higher performance in cognitive tests by children who have had five to ten years of bilingual exposure (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007). Further studies are investigating whether similar benefits are found in children who have exposure to a second language later in life.

Implications for Brighter Starts

The incoming research supports encouraging parents to retain use of their native language in the home. The implications also raise considerations of what other early exposures and in-school experiences can be designed to promote these executive function activations in all children. What other planned learning activities can be so engaging as to promote the activation and strengthening of young children's developing networks of attentive focus? Should second language instruction begin earlier in elementary school?
I'll keep you posted as further research becomes available, and I look forward to your contributions to this dialogue.

Read the rest of the article at:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Practical Ways Brain-based Research Applies to ESL

Here's Judy Lombardi's article on Brain-based research and how it applies to ESL learners. 


These are exciting times for ESL teachers. We are in the midst of a revolution in new teaching and learning strategies, i.e.,

“…accelerated learning; action research; applied learning; arts in education; character education; cognitive coaching; cooperative learning; democratic classrooms; emotional intelligence; environmental education; environments for learning; graphic tools; instrumental enrichment; keeping fit for learning; learning styles; literacy; multicultural education; multiple intelligences; service learning; teaching for understanding; technology in education; thinking skills”(, 2002

ESL faculty are infusing nontraditional types of instructional strategies, from portfolios to case studies to gallery walks, into their teaching.

Brain-based and second language acquisition research has taught us, thankfully, that the old school method--assign a chapter, take a test, and discuss the test—will not result in quality and depth of thought. Our ESL students are not tape recorders, waiting eagerly to receive our golden nuggets of wisdom. Instead, they are multi-taskers who can play video games, talk on cell phones, and listen to music, all without missing a beat.

ESL teachers who want to update, refresh, and rejuvenate their teaching should apply mind/brain learning principles, as described by Caine and Caine (1994). These principles can become the basis of second language teaching and learning at the highest quality levels:

Principle 1. The Brain Is a Complex Adaptive System.

The brain can function on many levels and in many ways simultaneously. A complex and multifaceted task, learning should be approached in a variety of ways. For an exciting, new way to look at learning styles and strategies for second language learners, visit Andrew Cohens work at the University of Minnesota ( profiles/CohenPapers/LearningStylesSurvey.pdf, 2003). In Levines pivotal work, A Mind at a Time (2003), he recommends transforming a verbal into a visual task, and a visual task into kinesthetic one. Challenging the brain, not numbing it with overload, keeps the mind happily humming and is essential to the ESL classroom. Activity shifting and teaching around the wheel of learning styles stimulate thought and action in second language learner classrooms.

Principle 2. The Brain is a Social Brain.

John Donne got it right in 1684: no man is an island. The brain likes and responds well to social engagement and oral sharing. Witness the best-studied of all educational strategies, cooperative learning. Structuring the task, assigning roles and teams, sharing of materials, and requiring interdependability of team members are all essential to quality cooperative learning in the ESL classroom, breathing life into subjects and classes (Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec,1994; Kagan, 1997). Cooperative learning has an essential role in ESL instruction, especially in regard to listening and speaking, and in providing support mechanisms for anxious learners.

Principle 3. The Search for Meaning Is Innate.                                              

The brain not only wants to make sense of what it learns, but also wants to know that learning has purpose and value. Adler believes that people learn things, when they need to know them (1998). The search for meaning extends from deep-seated philosophical questions of the Eriksonian crisis (Who am I? What do I want? Where am I going?) to the rationale students demand for making sense of assignments. Simply put, the brain likes explanations. When ESL teachers share with students the why of what they are doing, not just the what and the how, the brain appreciates it and more deeply values the learning.

Principle 4. The Search for Meaning Occurs Through Patterning.             

When the brain encounters a new idea, it searches for prior knowledge and experiences similar to the new concept.  Effective ESL teachers use frontloading, by integrating graphic organizers, using prediction strategies, introducing vocabulary, conducting pair-shares, and presenting video clips, to prepare the brain for the new knowledge to come. Helping second language learners ground new ideas in current knowledge makes learning meaningful, as they climb the ladder of Blooms Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.

Principle 5. Emotions Are Critical to Patterning.                                           

The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990. The principle of EQ, or emotional quotient, is described in Daniel Golemans pivotal work, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1997). The premise of emotional intelligence is that optimists with effective people skills are more successful than individuals  with  only  high  IQs  or  book  smarts  but  poor  interpersonal  skills.  Emotional intelligence also champions the concept of impulse control, the ability to delay gratification for a greater reward. In the ESL classroom, a warm, supportive, encouraging educational climate is conducive to successful learning outcomes, i.e., using a variety of teaching strategies and creating lessons that are engaging and exciting to second language learners.

Principle  6. Every Brain Simultaneously  Perceives and Creates Parts and Wholes.

Left-right brain research is only the beginning of understanding the way the brain divides learning  tasks  between  verbal  and  visual,  analytical  and  global,  logical  and  creative. Successful ESL instructors engage learners in tasks that require both sides of the brain to engage, e.g., using art to teach a math lesson or music to teach physics. In ESL classrooms, crossdisciplinary approaches embrace the multifaceted aspects of the brain and recognize the interaction of both hemispheres in meaningful learning.

Principle 7. Learning Involves Both Focused Attention and Peripheral Perception.

The brain absorbs direct information, but also pays attention to what Ruggiero calls  fringe thoughts (2000). Think of a bulls eye on a target: the brain focuses on the central target but also notices the rings around the bulls eye. Frequently, it is the off-handed remark, the subtext of a speech, and the nuances of a lesson that ESL learners respond to, as the mind perceives subtleties.  The  ESL  instructors  belief  systems  and  attitudes  toward  subjects  also  come through, no matter how well the instructor thinks they are hidden from students.

Principle  8.    Learning    Always    Involves    Both    Conscious  and Unconscious Processes.

In this iceberg principle of learning, much of what is learned lies beneath the surface. At the surface level of awareness, ESL learners discuss and take notes. Deeply ingrained learning comes later, when students digest what they have learned, connect it to life experience, or apply the knowledge to life events. To bring invisible, unconscious thought alive in the classroom, ESL instructors use reflection and metacognition, through questioning and application of learning. How does this knowledge apply? relate? work in reality?

Principle 9. We Have at Least Two Ways of Organizing Memory.

Theories on long-term and short-term memory have been around since the 1960s. Caine and Caine (1994) refer to the neuropsychology of memory systems described by O’Keefe and Nadel (1978) as taxon/locale and spatial/autobiographical. Taxon/locale memory, motivated by rewards and punishments, recalls seemingly unrelated information. Spatial/autobiographical memory recalls experiences instantly, such as the shirt you wore yesterday (Caine & Caine,1994). These two types of memory help ESL learners record completely all their experiences, as important and unimportant details get categorized and stored differently. ESL instructors can attend to both types of memory by organizing activities into meaningful parts, placing ideas in context, and infusing a range of learning styles and multiple intelligences into classroom practice.

Principle 10. Learning is Developmental.

While the brain is hard-wired by genetics and certain environmental aspects, the good news is that Scheibel and Diamonds dendritic fireworks theory of the 1980s links brain enhancement to environmental enrichment. Learning something new actually helps the brain to grow by building  new,  neural  pathways  and  connections.  ESL  instructors  take  advantage  of  this research by applying a myriad of new learning strategies to their second language learner classrooms, including all the modalities of learning.

Principle 11. Complex Learning Is Enhanced by Challenge and Inhibited by Threat.                                                                                                            

At what level should we teach our ESL students? If we teach beneath them, they are insulted and understimulated. If we teach at their level, we teach them in their comfort zone, where they do not learn much. Teaching at a slightly elevated level, challenging but not impossible, encourages our students to strive. Todays learning climate in the ESL classroom is more effective as a partnership, not a them vs. us situation of intimidation and gamesmanship.

Principle 12. Every Brain Is Uniquely Organized.

Levines The Myth of Laziness (2002) chronicles the frustration and attitudinal problems that stem from unaddressed dysfunction in learners. Gardners multiple intelligences theory (1993), which challenges traditional notions of a single, fixed IQ, emphasizes not how smart the learner is, but how the learner is smart. Given the right kind of assistance in organizing their learning through work plans, alternative approaches, and assignment previews, ESL students can improve their skills and attitudes.


Today's ESL students have little patience with long-winded lecturing and a lack of dialogue in the classroom. ESL students must be invited into the excitement of learning, through strategies that honor the amazing power of the brain and the unbridled energy of the human spirit.

            (References are listed in the original article.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Teachers As Brain Changers - Great Article!

Published Online: December 20, 2011

Complete Coverage 

Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning

By Wendi Pillars

I'm an armchair neuroscientist, or at least I love  learning about the brain, how it functions, and what
recent findings mean for my practice as a teacher.

Bridging research findings to the realities of the classroom, however, is far easier said than done. In addition to navigating the daily challenges of our work, we must distinguish trendy "research-based" claims about the brain from those grounded in legitimate neuroscientific findings. And then we have to figure out how to apply what we've learned. Sifting through these claims to understand their origins is precisely the goal of my current research.

Remember when conventional science wisdom claimed that the average person could learn and
retain about seven chunks of information at a time? (Hence, our seven-digit phone number protocol.) Well, recent neuroscientific findings have determined that our cognitive capacity is actually just three to four items.

This can be good: It forces us as teachers to narrow and hone our objectives, and to determine what is most important as we make decisions throughout the day. But it can also be overwhelming—like how can we possibly help students master an extensive body of content when they can only learn it in such small chunks?

In keeping with this particular finding, here are three critical takeaways that I keep coming across as I explore the literature on neuroscience and teaching.

#1. Teachers are, in essence, brain changers.

We are the only professionals whose job it is to physically alter a child's brain daily. I like how Judy Willis, accomplished neuroscientist-turned-teacher, refers to a teacher's work as a form of "bloodless brain surgery."

Here's how it happens at a basic level:

If a child takes in information through her sensory pathways and her brain makes the decision to keep that knowledge, the integrative process takes over and makes sense out of that
learning as she sleeps.

This consolidation occurs when neurons transmit messages to one another. The messages
must cross microscopic chasms between the neurons—laboriousl at first, and then more quickly with each subsequent moment of access.

Eventually the learning is connected to several points within a denser and denser web of neurons, easing the information retrieval process for the conscious learner.

As teachers, we must understand that a neural pathway is like a new path in the woods. The more frequently that a neural pathway is traveled, the fewer the obstacles, the greater its capacity, and the smoother and faster it becomes.

This means that we must help our students make connections to prior experiences, knowledge, and learningand connections to other curricular areas. The more connections we make in class, the more we are physically altering our students' brains by creating and strengthening neural pathways.

Knowing this, it becomes all the more crucial to maximize learning opportunities during the
1,260 hours our students are with us during the school year.

Studies show that we as teachers spend 90 percent of planning time ensuring our lessons make sense. We tend to spend far less planning time (about 10 percent) on establishing the relevance of the lesson to previous and future learning. But neuroscientific findings indicate that relevance
—linked to connections and emotion—is particularly important.

Reflecting on my own teaching, I see that it's important to engage a range of sensory pathways more consistently as I provide explicit and implicit opportunities for the students to recognize and make connections.

#2. The one whose neural pathways are changing is the one doing the learning.

Self-evident, right? I admit that, initially, I just thought, "Well, duh!" But as I reflected honestly on my own classroom, I began to see that my mindset needed to shift. I was doing too much
of the wrong kind of work—making too much explicit too quickly, rather than planning for opportunities to help students make connections themselves. So many areas of learning could be owned by the students, yet I was robbing them of that experience, either in total or in part.

What is the best way to support that ownership, to design ways to turn over the learning to the students, according to neuroscience? Two big ideas supported by the findings are that the brain is a pleasure junkieand a pattern junkie. So, I'm finding more ways to bring laughter and pleasure into my classroom and creating playful ways to explore and learn. I'm also integrating more opportunities for students to work with patterns, sorting and interacting with the relationships among data, concepts, and experiences.

#3. Critical thinking is more important than ever—which means we expect different results from learning.

Scholars like Tony Wagner, Daniel Willingham, and others say the innovators of the future

will be students who can formulate the "right questions," sift through overwhelming amounts of information, and clearly communicate knowledge they have recombined in original ways. What can neuroscience show us about developing students' critical thinking skills? About changing the way we approach teaching and learning?

As I mentioned, learning develops an ever-expandin network of neural connections within the brain. When students practice higher-order thinkingwhe they question an initial assumption or answer and explore it further—more connections and pathways are created in the brain. This also occurs when students are able to recombine their new knowledge with what they've
learned in the past.

I've realized that I need to provide more opportunities for my students to explore the inquiry process: to take their learning to the next level, wherever that may be. This necessitates teaching them how to inquire and how to be comfortable taking risks. Technology can help us create these opportunities. But information is useless unless shared and explored effectively, so we teachers must continue to foster communication skills and relationships in all we do.

Reading about all this from a neuroscientific perspective makes the learning process seem more concrete and reassures me that we don't need to scrap everything we know about effective teaching. In fact, many of us already approach teaching in ways that are consistent with neuroscientific findings—but knowing more about how our students' brains function can help us fine-tune what we do, and remind us to be consistent with those ideas that are brain-friendly. This perspective also emphasizes the learner, rather than the teacher—a reminder that we
would all do well to heed.

As Willis, the teacher-neuroscientis says, "This is not about me, it's not about you, it's about the mission of teaching in a way that changes brains for the better."

Wendi Pillars is a National Board-certified Teacher in English-languag learning, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She has 15 years of teaching experience, both overseas and stateside. She has previously written about neurotoxins and their impact on the learning brain.