Brain-Compatible Learning Environments: Classroom Enrichment|
by Kim Tracy
There is much debate among
educators on classroom environment. Some educators feel that the appearance of the classroom and teaching students to make learning fun should only occur in the primary years, and some agree that learning should not be fun at all in any grade level. Others agree that learning should only be fun in the elementary years but definitely not at the middle school years. However, neuroscientists concur that by not stimulating those synapses and neurons during the school age years, it will undoubtedly prune off those valuable knowledge carriers in the brain. The age in which the stimulation is more invaluable is debatable even among the brain experts.
Harry Chugani, a neuroscientist at Children's Hospital and Wayne State University in Detroit, states that the key years for learning are between the ages of 0-10. Those are the years to hook students into learning and to introduce them to a vast amount of different subjects and topics. When they start pruning their neurons, the "use it or lose it" mentality takes affect. The brain decides what to use therefore becoming the middle school teacher's responsibility to hook into those beginnings taught in earlier years to build life-long skills. New learning experiences were imperative to keep the brain active during the students' secondary education. Other researchers believe that critical hooking period is even shorter than Chugani suggests. Yale University's neuroscientist, Patricia Goldman-Rakic, believes that the critical period is even before the formal education years.
Brain research suggests that it is imperative that educators grasp this knowledge and build a strong child-centered environment with little stress in order to enable productive learners to work to the brain's natural learning ability. Educators are more in tune than ever in creating environments in the classroom that are conducive to what the brain feeds off of as opposed to a teacher mandated environment. There are several ways to provide stimulating classroom environments. These are divided into two categories, the actual classroom atmosphere and the curriculum that is taught. Enriching the classroom atmosphere is the focus of this article, with a follow-up in October of enriching the curriculum in school.
What is needed in an elementary classroom is quite different from what is needed in a high school classroom but some general guidelines are conducive for any level taught. All the brain research shows that the brain is eager for novelty, needs challenges, thrives on emotional input, and begs for intrinsic motivation (Intrinsic Motivation, July 2000). Room arrangement, temperature, color usage, affirmations, water consumption, plants, lighting, and music are just a few ways teachers can look at the atmosphere in the room to promote a stimulating brain environment.
Room arrangement is often debated among educators because some educators feel that students need stability and should not be moved. It is also easier to not have to constantly make seating charts, and to learn student's names if they are in a permanent seat. However, the brain needs novelty and that includes changing where students are sitting. Optimal arrangements are desks with separate chairs or tables so it is easy to move. Students should move on an average of every two to three weeks. This creates novelty and makes the brain more aware of what is going on. An example of this is when you drive to work each day. Most of us take the same route each day and often wonder when we get to work whom we past, or have to even think if the lights were all green. It becomes a procedure and does not require much thought! Changing the route on the way to work every once in a while requires the brain to think in a different manner. You notice things that are around you while you are driving. The same holds true for the classroom. Coming into class and seeing things in the room from the same, perspective becomes procedural and is not a challenge to the brain. The brain does not have to think then. Therefore, the brain begins to shut down the parts that are not being used, which means that during lessons the brain is not working to its full potential.
Unfortunately, temperature is not something many educators can control. Personally, my classroom is either too cold or too hot; there is not a happy medium. Keeping that in mind, people can enter a room and feel completely different about the room. Somewhere between 68°-72° provides the brain with a stimulating temperature. Those temperatures might seem frigid to some students and warm to others, however for the majority of the brains working in the room 68°-72° is the most comfortable. A Brain Compatible Workshop participant shared once that her district wanted the temperature to be set at 76°- 78°. Sometimes those in charge of paying the bills are concerned more with the money aspect, as opposed to what is best for optimal learning.
Recently an educator said that bulletin boards and use of the "cutesy" stuff is not important or needed in the middle school or high schools. Does the brain shut down after elementary years to color or novelty? Of course not, therefore using color in the room and decorating with motivational posters and curriculum related posters is imperative. Red, black, blue or purples have shown to cause less aggravation on the human brain and lowers blood pressure (Jensen, How The Brain Learns Conference). Use these colors when writing on self-made posters, white boards, or overheads. Try background colors of yellow or orange for posters or to brighten the room. Studies have also shown that neon colors affect ADD/ADHD students in a negative way so be weary of using those colors in the classroom. Allow students to use various thin point markers when taking notes to help with recalling the information at a later time. The brain can recall something written in a certain color, and then can remember the written information at a more rapid rate by making connections. Is it of importance that the student be mandated to write in pencil? If not, then use some variety to help encourage the brain's natural learning abilities.
Unexpected affirmations make everyone feel positive. Opponents have taunted that the world is not a touchy, feel good place therefore we should not impose this way of thinking on our students. "Nurturing our students will only promote positive self-esteem but lacks in problem solving skills," state educators who have been subjected to hours of training of inadequate character education programs. There is a fine line between throwing up a word of the week and promoting a positive learning environment for our students that does nurture educational growth. Writing statements in first person will directly influence the person/student reading the message. However, like other aspects that become procedural, these messages need to be rotated often. A strategy is to find a partner to switch motivational signs or posters with in your grade level, department, or school.
Water consumption is imperative in our students. The human brain is over 80 % water. When becoming dehydrated, the brain starts to shut down. Educators often have access to something cool to drink during the day or even in workshops. If that is not available, educators are antsy about sitting in a two-hour conference and often are thinking of other things such as, what ballgame the kids have to be taken to that night, or what is on the grocery list. Students operate in the same manner. Reducing some of those feelings of searching for a basic need, such as water, the student will bring learning back into focus. Allowing students access to water bottles or jugs of water with small cups, helps the brain's physiological need respond in a productive manner instead of an adverse manner. As with anything in the classroom, modeling the appropriate ways to have a water bottle at the desk, or modeling how to handle pouring water correctly, and showing students what is acceptable is the key to positive implementation. Many educators often respond that the usage of the bathroom will become a problem, however once implementing this strategy, educators find that the novelty of the experience and the privilege of water access outweigh any other deterrent (Brain Compatible Learning, Another New Program or Is It?, May, 2000)
Plants reduce toxins in
the air therefore producing a cleaner environment in our classrooms. This is relatively inexpensive and does not require much planning or hardship on behalf of the teacher. Some educators are natural green thumbs while others of us can kill plants by being in the same room! Assign a student to water the plants or if students are taking medication with water have the student dump the access water into the plant. How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office by B. C. Wolverton offers an array of ways to help purify the classroom. Plants such as spider plants, fichus, and dracaena can all help reduce toxins in the classroom. Many local high schools sell plants that classes have grown in greenhouses or ask parents to donate a plant to the room.
Lighting is another area that teachers have very little control over. Natural lighting is better than the bright fluorescent bulbs that shine in our classrooms. Some educators have no windows or very little outside light coming into the classroom therefore producing an even more of a challenge. Local fire marshals are sometimes sticklers about what is allowed in the classroom. If allowed, use lamps that are suitable for the room. Full spectrum lighting is better than the fluorescent lights that are in most classrooms. Improper lighting can cause problems with eyesight and cause students to lose focus at a more rapid rate. Poor lighting can also cause poorer working conditions and reduces a person's energy level (Full Spectrum Lighting).
There has been much research about the effects of music on our learning environments. Neuroscientists have shown that the brain has a stronger activation when music is played. Music has proven to improve balance and coordination. It promotes novelty in the classroom. The brain's natural hormones and opiates are released with the stimulation of music. Match the music with the atmosphere that you are trying to promote at that moment. In the mornings as students enter, play something peppy because you want them to be active and prepared for the day. During transitions, try a tune such as "Welcome Back" from the old TV show Welcome Back Kotter. Baroque or Bach is helpful during quiet times such as writing or when they students appear restless. Close the day with a song such as "Take Me Home Country Road." When students have done well on tests, celebrate with Kool and the Gangs "Celebration." Use themes to "Jeopardy" or "Mission Impossible" when assigning a task.
Implementing all of these strategies at one time will bring undue stress on the teacher and the student. Begin by trying to implement strategies that you feel will be easiest to being in your classroom for your group of students. Some students do not respond well to change but for the majority of the students these strategies will help increase brain activity. Educators play a major role in the lives of their students. Providing an environment that is conducive to optimal learning and that stimulates positive brain learning is the sole responsibility of the teacher facilitating the students in his/her classroom. Enriching the environment is a step in producing a more productive classroom.