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Think Big, Start Small: How to Differentiate Instruction in a Brain-Friendly Classroom

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You no longer have to be a neuroscientist to understand how your students absorb knowledge. This easy-to-comprehend guide pares down the vast field of neuroscience and covers the brain basics that affect your classroom the most—attention, memory, emotions, and stress. With a variety of simple brain-compatible strategies, you’ll see a measurable difference in your differentiated classrooms.

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1 - Using Educational Neuroscience to Differentiate Instruction

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1

Using Educational
Neuroscience to
Differentiate Instruction

The argument can be made that schools are again in a time of transition—a period in which it again seems evident that one-size-fits-all approaches to curriculum and instruction are a misfit for too many students, a period in which teachers are once more trying to understand what it means to calibrate instruction based on the varying needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

—Carol Ann Tomlinson

For centuries, teachers have been challenged to address the diverse needs of all learners. As educational neuroscience becomes available to us, we can begin to understand how our students’ unique brains are developing. We can use the emerging information about how learning and memory take place to inform our instructional practices on a daily basis in the classroom. Differentiation and educational neuroscience go hand in hand!

Differentiation in the General Education Classroom

 

2 - Creating a Brain-Compatible Environment

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Creating a Brain-Compatible Environment

One thing that brain research tells us—loud and clear—is that the way we raise and teach our children not only helps shape their brains, but can also influence or even alter the way genes play out their roles. This promising news also means, however, that we have a serious obligation to attend to factors over which we have some control—namely, most things that happen to children at home and at school throughout their growing-up years.

—Jane M. Healy

To effectively implement differentiation strategies, teachers must design and orchestrate a brain-compatible environment. We believe that educators can interpret and apply some basic tenets from neuroscience research to create classrooms that are in line with how natural learning occurs. In this chapter, we offer a variety of simple suggestions that can help transform any classroom into a place where students feel safe, secure, challenged, motivated, successful, included, and independent. As previously discussed, it will be important to determine each student's sweet spot related to a learning environment that is perfect for him or her. For instance, some learners have seating preferences; other students have lighting or sound preferences. Our challenge as educators is to provide the general ambiance with options/nuances to better satisfy each learner's needs.

 

3 - Engaging, Exciting, and Energizing the Learner

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Engaging, Exciting, and Energizing the Learner

One principle that propels the digital revolution is our brain's craving for new, exciting, and different experiences…. Whether excessive or subtle, the instinct to pursue new and exciting experiences frequently drives our behavior.

—Gary Small

One of the more difficult aspects of teaching can be getting students’ attention so that they attend to and ultimately learn the lesson and task. Knowing what types of stimuli will engage the brain can help teachers plan strategies to get their students’ attention. When not involved in survival issues, such as reacting to perceived threats, our brains are most sensitive to novelty and changes that arouse curiosity. New and unexpected sensory input in the environment will immediately get our brains’ attention. Even slight changes in one's surroundings will create curiosity, and the brain will reorient toward the new information. Developing novel situations and using a variety of differentiated strategies can increase a teacher's chances of shifting students from disinterested to excited and energized!

 

4 - Exploring the Learning

ePub

Exploring the Learning

To take advantage of their engaged state of mind, students should have opportunities to interact with the information they need to learn. The goal is for them to actively discover, interpret, analyze, process, practice, and discuss the information so it will move beyond working memory and be processed in the frontal lobe regions devoted to executive function.

-Judy Willis

The five senses keep the body safe. The brain is constantly scanning the environment for interesting, novel, relevant things to pay attention to and ignoring everything else. In the previous chapter, we examined ways to engage learners, capturing their interest and attention so that they may participate in the learning process.

Once attention has been garnered, the information is moved to short-term, working memory. It doesn't have a very long shelf life there (perhaps seventeen to twenty seconds [Wolfe, 2001]), and if the learner is not actively involved in some task, the interest will wane quickly. Teachers are challenged with designing numerous rehearsal tasks that cause students to interact with a particular content or skill until it can move to long-term memory. It is during these rehearsal tasks that students explore and develop concepts and skills that will create lasting memory. With multiple interactions, the pathways that receive more use become stronger, smoother, and more efficient.

 

5 - Extending and Expanding Learning for Every Student

ePub

Extending and Expanding Learning for Every Student

The mission for a school of the future (or the present?) should be to optimally meet children's learning needs. That carries the implicit recognition that every child's brain is unique. And whereas most brains follow a normal developmental trajectory, each is also idiosyncratic in its strengths and weaknesses for learning particular types of information

—John Geake

This chapter will address some common strategies for modifying tasks and concepts for students who are working below the basic expectations or struggling with learning differences. Included are proven differentiated strategies that should be used at RTI Tier 1 every day. Teachers must also add to their bags of tricks a variety of ways to provide lateral enrichment opportunities for students as they meet the standards and expectations. To provide all students with a level of challenge appropriate for their abilities, teachers must learn how to raise the bar and extend the learning beyond the grade-level standards.

 

6 - Evaluating the Learning

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Evaluating the Learning

Frequent formative assessment and corrective feedback are powerful tools to promote long-term memory and develop the executive functions of reasoning and analysis. Frequent assessment provides teachers information about students’ minute-to-minute understanding during instruction.

—Judy Willis

In this high-stakes environment, teachers are striving heroically to help all students be successful. There is a huge push to increase student success and show well in international comparisons such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests. Differentiation is necessary for success because of the differences in the brains of our learners:

 Their prior knowledge and experience

 Their interests and preferences

 Their rate of grasping new concepts and understandings

 The number of rehearsals that are needed to reach mastery

We recognize the need to differentiate instruction, but what does this mean for assessment practices? If students are different and have different needs, then we must also give them multiple ways of demonstrating understanding or mastery over time without penalty for rate of learning. To accurately evaluate student learning, assessments should focus on authentic achievements, genuine products, and creative performances. Assessments must be aligned with how brains learn best.

 

7 - Think Big, Start Small

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Think Big, Start Small

Think big, start small, act now.

—Barnabas Suebu

Good teachers take all they know about the brain, researched best practices, and student differences and creatively plan multiple opportunities for students to be successful. In addition, educators must acknowledge the differences in learners of the 21st century. With the daily use of technology, students’ brains are wiring in new and unique ways. By considering some of the major differences, we may be able to understand how this generation is changing how school must be done. In his book Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott (2009) summarizes eight differentiating characteristics of our students:

1. They want freedom in everything they do, from freedom of choice to freedom of expression.

2. They love to customize, personalize.

3. They are the new scrutinizers.

4. They look for corporate integrity and openness when deciding what to buy and where to work.

 

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