One's efforts to know more about how a student thinks and learns has been hindered by the fact that we cannot witness what goes on the brain during the thinking process. With the advent of technologies for direct observation of brain function, the brain is slowly giving up its secrets and the ramifications for educators is significant:
Students who learn from flash cards will learn better if the card is round. A circle is the most recognizable shape. Circular cards allow students to better focus because the round shape is less distracting than squares or rectangles (Barron, 2000).
Movement is the only experience that unites all brain levels and integrates the right and left hemispheres. Movement increases heart rate and circulation. It provides students with a spatial reference in the classroom, which improves memory. Movement promotes the release of noradrenaline and dopamine. This energizes keep students alert and enhance attention (Barron, 2000; Jensen, 1998).
Thematic instruction improves learning by helping students to identify patterns and build on prior knowledge. Integrating curriculum areas such as the study of rain forests by combining mathematics, music, biology, and geography into a unit helps students learn more effectively than teaching each of the above subjects in isolation (Wagmeister & Shiffrin, 2000).
* Teach abstract ideas by connecting concepts to students' personal experiences. This helps students link new information into pre-existing neural patterns. For instance, a teacher introduced a lesson on ratios by having students make juice from cans of concentrate (Westmaster & Wolfe, 2000). * Analogies, similes and metaphors enhance learning by linking abstract concepts and visualizations. For instance, the terms million, billion and trillion have no referent in direct experience. Creating visual analogies makes the numbers comprehensible. For example, a four-inch stack of tightly bound $ 1,000 dollar bills would equal a million dollars. A stack that was a city block long would equal $ 1 billion (Westwater & Wolfe, 2000). * The brain is not wired for long attention span. Attention is focused in short bursts. Initially, attention lasts for about 18 seconds. The optimum sustained attention span is roughly equivalent in minutes to the age of these students. A first grader attention span is 6 minutes, sixth grader is 12 minutes, and high school seniors 17 minutes. Individual lessons should include a variety of components to help students maintain attention. For example, teachers presentation could be followed by student discussion, seat work, group project, and feedback (Jensen, 1998).
Emotions and Learning.
Within the past 5 years scientists have learned more about the brain than in the previous 100 years. Gradually the fields of neuroscience and education are finding common ground. One of the major insights is recent revelations about how emotions affect thought and learning. These findings are particularly relevant to the education of children with mild disabilities and high functioning autism. Far more neural fibers project from our brains' emotional center up into the logical/rational areas of the brain than the reverse (Sylwester, 2000). A brain that is faced with a perceived threat is likely to "downshift". This is a biological response that focuses the brain on only what is necessary for survival.
Fatigue, frequent illness, distractibility and defiance are some of the classroom behaviors observed in "downshifted" students. Students who are exposed to a steady regimen of threatening academic work develop habitual avoidance habits often characterized as "learned helplessness".
Emotions are unconscious responses spurred by chemical reactions to environmental stimuli. Cortisol, which is released by the adrenal glands, activates a defensive reaction to stress. A stressful school climate can elevate cortisol and eventually destroy hippocampus neurons that are associated with learning. Activities that put students in positive learning states include class discussion, journal writing, stretching, panel discussions, mind-mapping, reflecting, listening to music, dancing (Jensen, 1998). Endorphins are a group of peptides that regulate emotions along the pain-pleasure continuum. They increase euphoria and decrease pain. Exercise, positive social contacts, fun, camaraderie, and a joyful classroom atmosphere activate endorphins and help students tackle difficult academic tasks. Emotions play a key role in memory retention. Classroom stimulations, presentations, role playing tie learning to emotional contexts, thus enhancing retention of information (Sylwester, 1994).
Unexpressed emotions inhibit learning.Students need opportunities to link their feelings to classroom content. Drama, classroom discussions, singing, writing, music and drawing help build neural connections and inhibit the release of chemicals that interfere with learning such as cortisol, adrenaline and vasopressin (D'Arcangelo, 2000). Students who are emotionally involved will learn better than students who are emotionally uninvolved from the content presented. Even mildly stressful situations support learning better than a neutral state.