Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites
20 Instructional Strategies that Engage the Brain
Dr. Marcia L. Tate
Visualize the following two scenarios. Mrs. Martin teaches 11th grade British literature at George Washington High School. Lecture is her primary method for delivering instruction. Oftentimes the lectures last for more than half the period. Today the lecture is about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Some of the higher achieving students are paying close attention since they know that much of the information will appear on the next exam. Other students are looking at Mrs. Martin while thinking about everything except the play.
Mr. Abraham teaches the very same course at Northside High School. He is the favorite teacher of most of the students in his class. He has very few, if any, behavior problems. Mr. Abraham must cover the same curriculum as Mrs. Martin; however, the two classrooms bear little resemblance to one another. Mr. Abraham is also teaching Romeo and Juliet. Last week, he completed a graphic organizer on the board that accompanied his seven-minute minilecture, comparing and contrasting the traits of several of the main characters. His students began working in cooperative groups rewriting five different scenes from the play into dramatic presentations. Students have been assigned parts and today they will grade one another’s presentations according to a rubric which they developed themselves.
Which teacher would you rather have? Which teacher would you rather be? Over the last 15 years, I have studied the research of learning style theorists (Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 2000) and examined brain research (Jensen, 2008, 2009; Sousa, 2006) and synthesized it into 20 strategies (Tate, 2003) that appear more effective for understanding and long-term retention of information than do worksheets or long lectures. The 20 strategies are summarized in the paragraphs which follow. As you peruse them, determine which ones you consistently use during instruction and which ones you would do well to add to your repertoire.
(1) Brainstorming and Discussion
(2) Reciprocal Teaching
In many classrooms students are discouraged from talking with one another at any time and yet, the brain research is telling us that students learn 90% of what they say or discuss as they complete an activity and 90% of what they teach to others.
(3) Drawing and Artwork
The strategy of drawing and artwork serves students well in the real world as they become artists, architects, sculptures, and engineers but is often discounted in classrooms. Yet, many students, particularly boys, are off task during class drawing superheroes, cars, and people. Teachers should put the visual-spatial intelligence to work by allowing students to draw what they are learning in class. The brain also remembers what it writes down which is why people who make lists have a better chance of remembering.
(5) Field Trips
(6) Project-based and Problem-based Instruction
(7) Work Study
Brains grow better in the real world than in artificial learning environments. The more relevant a teacher can make instruction to the world of students, the easier it is for them to understand and retain content. When students are traveling to places in the real world to achieve a content objective, the brain remembers the trek. When they are solving a real-world problem or completing a real-world interdisciplinary project, the learning sticks to the brain. The strategy of work-study or apprenticeships enables students to apply what they have learned to the context of the real world while learning under a professional who has already mastered the content.
(8) Graphic Organizers
The saying, A picture is worth a thousand words, is true. In fact, in this age of television, video games, and computers, the visual modality is a strong modality for most students. Therefore, pictures on the walls that reinforce the learning, videos, SMART boards, and writing on the board all reinforce the learning. Graphic organizers are effective visuals for addressing both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere can read the words while the right hemisphere takes in the pictures.
When students are laughing with each other, they are not laughing at each other. Laughter not only produces T-cells which strengthen the immune system and improve the quality of one’s health but it puts students’ brains in a state for optimal learning. One way to get students laughing is to play games. Students not only learn more when playing a game but their participation in class and their motivation for learning increases.
Many students possess visual-spatial intelligence which serves them well in the real world of work. They become architects, engineers, artists, and surgeons. However, that same intelligence does not always serve them well in school. When teachers allow students to use manipulatives in math, conduct experiments and labs in science, and build models across the curriculum, understanding and retention of content occur.
The strategy of technology also enables students to use their hands in combination with their brains to actively engage with content. While technology is listed as one of the eight competencies that every graduating senior needs (SCANS, 1991), it is just one of 20 strategies and should not be viewed as the ultimate way of delivering instruction.
(15) Role play
When the body is engaged during learning, the information can be put in one of the strongest memory systems - procedural or muscle memory. That is why people tend not to forget how to drive a car, ride a bike, or play the piano, even if they have not done so in a while. Rather than having students sit while their teachers do all the work, having them up and actively engaged in the content not only goes a long way toward ensuring that they pass any tests but that they will remember the information long after the test is over.
(16) Metaphor, Analogy and Simile
(17) Mnemonic Devices
Since the brain thinks in connections, any strategy that assists students in connecting content together is meaningful to memory. Metaphors, analogies, and similes should be used to connect concepts that are unfamiliar to students to those that are familiar. For example, A main idea is like a text message or The brain is like a chain since it has many links are two similes that help students understand. Mnemonic devices also assist memory since they connect content together using acronyms (HOMES, ROY G. BIV) or acrostics (My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally).
Over 50% of behavior problems can be reduced by creating a classroom environment with appropriate music, lighting, color, aroma, and seating. When they say that Music soothes the savage beast, they are not kidding. Musical performance also appears to strongly correlate with improved academic achievement, particularly in math and foreign language and with a person’s ability to retain information.
When a speaker, minister, or teacher tells a story, everybody listens. Why? Stories use the auditory modality with the frontal lobes of the brain to follow the story’s plot. After a period of intense learning, storytelling enables the brain to relax and facilitates the retention of newly-acquired material. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, therefore, the content is connected together and this helps the brain remember. Many students have had no practice in visualization since the toys they play with (such as video games and computers) provide vivid visuals. Therefore, they assume that reading is too difficult. Good readers have to visualize the action in a story as they read. Visualization enhances learning and retention of information since during mental imagery, the same sections of the brain’s visual cortex are activated than when the eyes are actually processing input from the real world.
Well, there you have it! Those are the strategies. There are three major reasons why these 20 strategies work. They increase achievement for all students, they decrease behavior problems in the classroom, and they make teaching and learning fun! Only 20 strategies but consider the thousands of possibilities for delivering instruction! Make each day in your classroom one to remember!