Research Leads to Active Classrooms
NASSP's "Principal Leadership," March 2002, pg. 53-61.
your own brain-research
is a cautious whisper circulating through the educational
community that we educators shouldn't be too quick to jump
on the brain-based education bandwagon. What we need to do
is wait. Wait for neuroscientists to tell us how all this
new brain research applies to the classroom.
educators don't realize is that neuroscientists don't know
where to start. They are not teachers. Neuroscientists are
not in the classroom. They do not know the questions we want
answered. We as educators, need to tackle our most cherished
classroom questions head-on. The technology is here. The need
to know is now.
are doing just that here in Salt Lake City. As teachers, we
have teamed up with the neuroscientists who pioneered magnetoencephalography
(MEG). MEG works by measuring the tiny magnetic fields outside
the head created by the electrical activity occurring inside
the working brain. MEG allows scientists to see brain activity
in both time and space. This means that not only can we see
the area of activity and we can now see the sequence
of activity. For the first time ever, we can watch the actual
processing of brain activity almost neuron by neuron.
are seeking answers to three of education's most pressing
questions - Are students' learning style preferences visible
in the way their brains process information? What are the
effects of classroom stress on learning? How do extrinsic
rewards effect the learning process?
work began when the two pioneers in MEG technique, William
Orrison and Jeff Lewine, brought their work to the University
of Utah's research park in 1998. They established a center
for MEG clinical work called the Center for Advanced Medical
Technology (CAMT). Upon hearing about this new technology,
my teaching colleague, Gene Van Tassell and I saw a potential
opportunity to research the learning preferences of our students.
As educators we were excited about the possibility of using
the MEG technique to "see" how our students process what is
presented to them. Could we watch them actually think and
begin our project we recruited subjects from our school district
through newsletters and PTA publications. Through newspaper
articles and a website, we widened our subject search throughout
the state. The adolescents, aged 13-19, are first screened
for their learning style preference. Students are administered
the Dunn, Dunn, & Price Learning Style Inventory (LSI).
Although, this LSI uses several categories of style, we categorize
students based on auditory and visual preferences only. After
the paper and pencil test for learning style, the subjects
are sent to the CAMT at Research Park for the MEG imaging
test. During the MEG test, students are asked to perform various
learning tasks. Some tasks required them to listen to information
(process auditory stimuli), other tasks asked them to look
at pictures (process visual stimuli) and some tasks asked
them to process both stimuli simultaneously.
the MEG testing is done, the neuroscientists at the CAMT give
us a picture of our students' brain activity. Squiggle lines
indicate electrical activity in 122 areas of the cortex as
detected by the sensors in the MEG during the testing. The
activity can be stopped at any fraction of a second in time
by taking a "picture" of current activity. The larger and
more erratic the squiggles, the more activity in that particular
results have indicated several important discoveries. Although
we screened hundreds of subjects, we had to eliminate subjects
with any head trauma or emotional disturbance (such as depression).
As we learned, any trauma, such as a three year old falling
out of a wagon and hitting his head, could mean significant
plasticity in the brain, thus distorting normal processing.
So, we discovered that "normal" brains are hard to find.
the MEG scan, if a subject was able to process both auditory
and visual stimuli simultaneously (as shown by having electrical
activity on the MEG scan in both regions) we determined them
to have no sensory preference. However, in some subjects,
when presented both stimuli simultaneously, their brains only
processed one stimuli. The MEG showed activity in only one
sensory region, the other region's activity was flat. These
subjects were considered to have a sensory preference. For
example, in one test, a 16 year old male student was given
information visually on a screen and aurally through headphones
at the same time. The MEG picture showed lots of brain activity
in the occipital region in the back of his cortex (visual
area) but no activity whatsoever in the temporal region(auditory
area). Apparently, at the instant that his brain was receiving
information from both eyes and ears, this student's brain
did not process the auditory information at all, only the
visual. So the brain showed a preference for visual information.
the 25 subject whose brain images have been interpreted so
far, we have the following MEG results:
subjects with a visual preference
subject with an auditory preference
subjects with no preference.
suggests there may be a pre-wired sensory "preference" in
some students' brains. In some people, the brain may prefer
auditory information so that it takes priority over visual
information. These may be the same type of people that have
a hard time reading while background noise is present. In
this type of learner, the brain gives priority to auditory
information so it is hard to filter that out in order to concentrate
on the visual information in reading. Other students' brains
show a preference for visual information. These students may
be the ones who can easily read with background noise present.
Their brains have no problem giving preference to visual information.
However, these students may have a hard time blocking out
visual information in order to listen to a lecture.
far in our research, nearly half of the students' brains show
a sensory preference. Some have a stronger preference than
others. Obviously, diversity exists in how fast students are
able to shift back and forth between processing visual and
auditory information to make sense out of any situation. Most
of us have experience with students who have a very difficult
time processing visual or auditory information quickly.
result from our project is that although these preferences
vary from student to student, they do not necessarily match
with their paper-and -pencil learning style test. When comparing
the LSI results with the MEG results we have the following
||LSI Visual (6)
||LSI Auditory (6)
||LSI No preference (13)
|10 with Visual MEG
|1 with Auditory MEG
|14 with no MEG pref.
above matrix can be interpreted as follows:
the 10 adolescents which the MEG showed to have a visual preference,
the LSI found 1 to have a preferred visual learning styles,
3 to have an auditory learning style, and 6 had no preferred
have found no correlation between MEG sensory preference results
and learning style results as measured by the LSI. A student's
LSI may show that they are auditory learners but the MEG may
indicate a visual preference or vice versa. It may be that
the brain's sensory preference is not the same thing as learning
style. Learning style generally includes social and emotional
aspects of learning rather than the biology of the brain.
Paper LSI tests usually rely on students' self-report of their
learning preference. The MEG looks only at the physical brain
response without regard for social and emotional environmental
preferences. So the MEG results suggest that students may
not necessarily know their brain's preference for processing
to this type of research and these types of brain-imaging
techniques, educators were forced to rely on anecdotal information
for what we know about how students learn. This no longer
needs to be the case. We now have physical evidence of diversity
in how students learn. Neuroscientists are looking for more
areas to apply their techniques. Education is an excellent
area for application. However, progress requires that educators
take an active role in the research process. Following any
research in brain-imaging, educators must then take their
findings back to the classroom for practical application.
the research to your own classroom
have we applied these latest MEG sensory preference findings?
First, by thinking about how classrooms present information
in both visual and auditory forms. Unless students have their
eyes shut during a lecture, they are receiving sensory information
through both senses. In students whose brains "prefer" visual
stimuli, the information coming from their eyes may mask the
information coming from their ears. So the lecture may be
weakened by extraneous visual stimuli around the room or strengthened
though visual displays pertaining to the lecture.
self-reports may not be valid and school systems do not have
MEG machines available for teacher use, assessing students'
learning preference does not appear to be practical. Therefore,
teachers must make sure that instructional materials are available
for every type of learner that may be in the room. We have
realized the "my way or no way" type of teaching will not
work in a general, mixed ability classroom. Traditionally,
many teachers thought the problem was that students just needed
to try harder. It appears that "trying harder" is not the
answer for students, but for teachers.
need to try harder to accommodate the diversity of our students'
learning preferences. Most of us have known for years that
there are no regular students in regular education. Therefore,
the movement toward whole-class curriculum modification appears
to be an answer for teaching in a heterogeneous classroom.
on what education has extracted from brain research, and supported
from our current project, I developed one such whole class
curriculum method I call Layered Curriculum. I call it layered
because it divides the level of study into 3 layers, A, B
and C. In my classroom, students choose from a variety of
assignments, a variety of textbooks, a variety of hands-on
bottom layer, called the "C" layer, allows students to collect
information on a topic from a variety of student-chosen material.
They pick and choose from approximately 20 assignment choices
all worth varying points. Assignments include videos, bookwork
from a variety of text, magazine articles, posters, models,
flashcards, and computer work. Now if Jose' learns best from
hands-on models, and Sara learns best through reading, both
students can learn in their preferred method.
grading or assessment at this layer is done through oral defense.
Every assignment, whether bookwork, flashcards, videos, posters,
models, or computer work has an oral quiz, one-on-one between
teacher and student. I can move quickly around my room during
every class period and spend a few minutes with each student
to check for comprehension, correct errors in their thinking
and help direct their individual learning. I get personal
face time with every student every day. The students get individualized
help for student-chosen assignments. (For more information
on oral defense see my article, In Defense of the Oral Defense,
in February 2000 ASCD's Classroom Leadership.)
middle layer called the "B" layer in Layered Curriculum asks
students to apply what they've learned in the "C" level. Here
again, students are given choices in how to apply, create
or discover more information but this time, of their own design.
In my biology classroom this is done by providing questions
for which students must find an answer through a lab of their
own design. I give several questions for them to choose from
and they must find the answer.
top or "A" layer requires a critical analysis on a topic in
the unit. Students must research one of several topics, summarize
their research and form an opinion on the issue. I list several
controversial topics from which they choose one.
are based on how students successfully complete the C, B,
and A levels. Grading criteria for each type of assignment
is posted on the walls of the room so that students are clear
on expectations ahead of time. It is a completely student-centered
environment and students are in control of their own learning
and responsible for their grade.
have used Layered Curriculum in my classroom for several years
now and it has proved to be a very effective way to personalize
instruction. Two years ago I taught 3 periods of general biology
using Layered Curriculum and 3 periods with my old teacher-centered
method based on the textbook. The Layered Curriculum periods
had less than half the number of student failures than the
other periods. Aside from reducing the number of failures
in my general biology classroom, Layered Curriculum dramatically
increased the number of students on task in all my general
level classes. Several teachers in my school and now several
schools around the county have implemented Layered Curriculum
in a variety of subjects and have reported similar results.
Teachers continue to use it for three main reasons - it reduces
the number of student failures, it increases student involvement
(time on task) and it reduces classroom management problems.
leadership today means educational research
research continues today, both in the classroom and at the
MEG facility. As we finish our current focus on learning preferences,
we want to examine our other questions regarding stress and
extrinsic rewards. Being part of a unique team of educators
and neuroscientists has energized my passion for individualized
education in the classroom.
thing all the research seems clear on - students are all different.
Not just on the outside, but the inside as well, including
how their brains processes the information we present to them.
The more we learn, the more we realize that classroom instruction
must be individualized. Information needs to be presented
in a variety of ways in order to ensure that every student
has an equal opportunity for success.
research is still not clear on many issues. What is the ideal
classroom environment for learning? What effect do the popular
punishment-based classroom management programs have on the
learning climate and student violence? What can we do to further
facilitate learning in all students?
cannot wait for neuroscientists to tell us the answers. We
must join with them to create teams using the latest technologies
to improve the lives of students through active, practical
research that can be applied back to our classrooms.