The Teen Brain Pt 5: Making Learning Meaningful

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By Bobbie Dunn,

“The brain immediately begins a filtering process to determine which data are relevant and need our conscious attention and which are irrelevant and need to be discarded.”

This quote from Westwater and Wolfe (2007) really speaks to the importance of brain-based learning to me.  Our students’ brains do not take in all that they are given each day, and their brains immediately decide what they need to know and what can be thrown out.  If we don’t make our curriculum meaningful, they’re going to remember very little, if any, of what we’re trying to teach them.

One way to make the learning stand out more for our students’ brains is teaching with their emotions in mind.  “Creating learning activities that purposely evoke the emotions of risk, excitement, urgency and pleasure are effective brain-based strategies” (Hileman, 2006).

Now purposely just throwing in a statement that will upset students will have little benefit in the classroom.  If emotions are used as part of a lesson, students will have a more activated and chemically stimulated brain.  If you think about it, emotions drive what we do on a daily basis.  We choose to teach because we have a passion for it; we clean the house because we get so irritated with it looking messy.  If we use these sorts of emotions to encourage students to learn what we’re teaching, they are going to get much more meaning out of it then by simply telling them, “work on this because I said so.”  Eric Jensen (1998) said that emotions help us recall things better, and the more intense the emotion, the stronger the imprint will be for that student.  Just a few of the suggestions Jensen provided were positive role modeling, giving small celebrations by high-fiving or sharing work with others, debating over a controversial topic, and allowing students to be introspective through journaling, discussion, reflection, etc.

Another way to make learning more enriched and meaningful is through problem solving.  Jensen (1998) said, “The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging problem solving.  This creates new dendritic connections that allow us to make even more connections.”  The statement that really blew me away was what he said a little later,

“Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter to the brain whether it ever comes up with an answer.  The neural growth happens because of the process, not the solution.”

It doesn’t matter if they ever get the right answer!?!  Let’s make sure the students don’t find that out!  But the idea here is that students’ brains work very hard and make incredible connections by simply brainstorming and trying to come up with an answer to a challenging problem.  So instead of asking students to continually fill in the blanks on a worksheet, they will find a lot more meaning and brain growth if they’re given a problem that requires many steps to solve, or a project that has to be created.

One activity that I’ve done in the past is to ask students what’s wrong with our country, and then have them, as groups, try to solve their problems.  Though many answers are very impossible to implement, the students spend many days discussing ideas with their partners, and coming up with the pros and cons of different possibilities.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was making their brains work very hard, though many of them did not come up with a reasonable solution.  It’s great to realize that it didn’t matter that they didn’t actually solve the problem; it was the process that mattered!

Have you checked out the previous parts of this series?  If not, the beginning is a great place to start.  Or, stick around for part 6: Memory.

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