A psychologist and educators' collection of stories on 60 years of practice with children, teachers, administrators, and parents. Principles of brain research and cognitive psychology underlie implications for practice.
Motivating and keeping students on task is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, particularly in today’s stimulus-rich tech environment. It’s not easy competing with smartphones, tablets, or computers as social media sites such as instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc… light up screens, tapping directly into the brain’s reward pathway. “Likes”, right swipes, and new emojis give us a sense of satisfaction as these rewarding stimuli trigger the release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine make it true candy for the brain.
Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards humans for behavior necessary for survival. Food, sex, listening to a favorite song, or accomplishing one’s goals all trigger dopamine release and teach the brain that such behaviors are good for the individual and worth repeating. Dopamine is often cited with addictions, and so it goes with such a powerful neurotransmitter. Good or bad, the brain and body respond to dopamine.
Savvy teachers learn early designing lessons which allow frequent student success are more motivational than those with few success opportunities, and the neuroscience behind dopamine explains why such designs work. Each small success towards well-defined goals triggers a dopamine release, rewarding and motivating the student to continue their efforts. Long term projects such as papers, presentations, or other authentic projects are best designed to include measurable and achievable goals and benchmarks that motivate students through project completion. Remember that each small success rewards the student with a little dopamine rush; and that is better than any candy bowl.
Twenty years ago I travelled to Kingman, Arizona to attend a summer institute on Highly Effective Teaching delivered by a true pioneer of brain-based teaching, Susan Kovalik. WOW! would be an understatement for what I experienced in those five short, hot summer days. I had attended Susan’s full-day session on the topic at a National Staff Development Council conference (now Learning Forward) a year earlier, and was intrigued and eager to learn more about applying brain research principles to curriculum development and instruction. Five days at her summer institute was just right to see how such principles looked in the classroom, and transformed how I would later work with teachers and school administrators.
I recently learned while googling Susan Kovalik that she had “retired” for, in her words, the “fifth and final time”. She will be missed, but her remarkable work will live on. “Intelligence is a measure of experience” is one of my favorite Susan Kovalik quotes, and I faithfully identify her ten Bodybrain-Compatible Elements of Curriculum Development and Instruction when working with educators as they are truly foundational for good teaching.
Next generation standards may evolve from previous generations, as will Charlotte Danielson’s enduring Frameworks, but good curriculum and instruction take whatever standards exist and make them work for students. In Susan Kovalik’s model, the foundational Bodybrain Compatible Elements are as follows:
Absence of Threat and Nurturing Reflective Thinking
Being There Experiences
Movement to Enhance Learning
One could spend a semester processing and applying the elements to one’s craft, and another semester exploring the brain research supporting them. Suffice it to say the Bodybrain Compatible Elements work. They engage and excite students, strengthen neural pathways, develop students’ sense of self-efficacy, de-stress the classroom, and create the optimum learning environment. Standards will come and go with our changing society, but the foundations for curriculum development and learning are brain-based and ageless. Thank you Susan Kovalik.
Stress is a fear of the unknown, and whether we like it or not, part of the human experience. Stress is our response to a perceived threat, and can be either good and bad, depending on how prepared we feel to tackle the threat. Good stress readies students for performing at a high level, be it taking a test, giving an oral presentation, or working with others on a complex problem. Good stress is temporary, and alleviated through resolution of the perceived threat. Bad stress is another story, and unlike good stress, is chronic and contagious. Bad stress lingers, eliciting anxiety and other undesirable outcomes.
Rational or not, a fear of the unknown can debilitate students, rendering some as learner helpless. So what can we as educators do to reduce the “unknowns” in our classes, and lower stress levels for our students? It’s really quite simple. Make the “unknowns” known through rubrics, essential questions, daily agendas, formative assessments, prompt feedback, affirmations, demonstrations, sharing of exemplars, etc… Clearly communicate one’s expectations, and give students ample opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings. Offer retakes on exams, extra credit for extra work, one on one time….
People often do their best work when deadlines loom, and we can thank stress for that. However, people can also do their worst work when deadlines loom and they have no clue for what is expected of them. How did we manage our first years of teaching? Our first classroom observation? Our certification exams? We managed by preparing ourselves for the unexpected, and so it goes for students. It’s our role as educators to remove the uncertainties in our instruction and de-stress our classrooms. To clearly communicate our expectations to students and allow them to see failure as part of the growth process. To add levity and lightness to our classrooms through humor and play. We won’t eradicate stress in the world, but we can certainly make it manageable for our students in our classrooms.