Strategies for brain-based teaching with digital natives

Today’s first graders were perhaps swiping at iPad screens before they could string a sentence together, and when they graduate from high school and are looking to enter the workforce or go off to college, it will be 2025. They have grown up in a world of Wi-Fi and smartphones, and the only thing we can count on for the world they enter as adults is that technology will be more powerful than we can even imagine today.

In Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age, Marilee Sprenger lays out the context, evidence, and strategies for how to best teach today’s students, anticipating the vast majority of them to be digital natives. I’ve collected some of her techniques that I can most see myself using in my elementary classroom.

She stresses that there are many crucial life skills that are difficult to develop with a computer, chief among them the ability to relate to, empathize with, and “read” other people (pg. 9). Digital tools provide dozens of ways to connect with people, but they can’t do much to raise our emotional intelligence. For this reason and others, a successful learning environment will include both high-tech and low-tech tools.

Physical movement might seem like the lowest of low-tech tools to use with your students. Exercise gets your heart pumping, blood flowing, and oxygen movingthat oxygen gets right to work increasing your brain power. It also releases endorphins, putting you in a better, more receptive mood, which is better for learning (pg. 22). I knew a first-grade teacher who started every morning by having all of her students run a few quick laps around the playground. Huffing and puffing, the students went back to class with smiles on their faces.

Work to lower stress in the classroom. The brain likes what is familiar, so build that into your classroom. Sprenger offers the strategy of employing rituals throughout your week that students will come to expect and count on (pg. 36). I like the idea of a daily meeting during which we read a morning message, share important news, and introduce the things we’re going to be working on that day.

Have students work in groups often. This will strengthen students’ collaborative and communicative skills as they share information, coordinate responsibility, teach one another, and stretch their comfort zone (pg. 50). Groups should be mixed to represent different learning styles, achievement levels, cultural backgrounds, and so on. Change groups and leadership regularly to magnify the effects.

Introduce students to mindmaps. Digital natives are practiced at quickly processing visual images, and if you give them the tools to visually represent content, they will enjoy better retention and recall of the information (pg. 101). I remember doing this often in elementary school, but the practice dropped off as I got to high school, when content-heavy material would have been difficult to physically fit on a lined notebook page. An online mapping tool like mind meister fixes that problem easily, and low-tech, hand-drawn maps work great for elementary students.

Appeal to students’ desire for options by offering them choices at multiple stages of content acquisition (pg. 47). Let them choose from a variety of research topics; have them pick whether to do their research online or in the school library; allow them to choose their manner of presentation from a list you compiled during a class brainstorming session. The balance between freedom and structure will be different for each student, but by establishing boundaries in advance or as a class and then being flexible as students have new ideas, hopefully everyone will be left satisfied.

Regardless of how you’re presenting new content to your class, in a high-tech or low-tech way, always, always try to link it back to material they’ve previously learned (pg. 28) or connect it to something in their life outside of school (pg. 31). These students are accustomed to the hyperlinks that litter every website they visiteverything is connectedplus information is more interesting and more likely to be retained if you can fit it into a larger picture.

It is futile to resist the tide of technology; there is no returning to typewriters when second graders are taking state reading tests on computers. Better to embrace the change and teach to these brains that have developed differently in response to the digital world they’ve been steeped in. Which of these techniques appeal to you the most? Do you have any other strategies you use or hope to use in your classroom?

Sprenger, M. (2010). Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


Plant unit with the third-graders

Next semester I will be teaching third-graders a unit on plants and trees. We are expecting a new student from Japan at the beginning of the semester; I have heard he speaks no English. Fortunately we have another Japanese student in our class who has made very good progress so far this year; she is in the beginning fluency stage of English. I will partner them up when he first arrives, and hopefully she will be able to help our new classmate when he really needs it. I intend to incorporate a lot of pictures and images in the plant unit, and there are a lot of trees around our campus that will be great for hands-on, multi-sensory learning. Trees and plants lend themselves very well to cross-sectional images with labels, and at the same time are familiar to all children, so hopefully this will be engaging to our new student as well as the other students. The Japanese girl will likely still struggle with some of the more technical language, like photosynthesis and chlorophyll, including in their pronunciation, but with repeated focus on those challenging sounds, I’m confident she’ll get the hang of it. While she is being a helper to our new student, I will still partner her with one of the English speakers so she continues to have support on the content and language.

One of my Salvadoran students has been at our American school since pre-K and has intermediate fluency. She is very talkative in social settings, but tends to clam up when we’re having discussions in class. I don’t think it’s shyness; rather, I’m afraid she’s not very confident in the scientific language. I think it is time to have a private talk with her about creating some specific language goals. I will continue to correctly model this academic language through our plant unit, and she will hopefully be engaged in achieving her goals. I believe she would advance quickly if she were partnered with one of my other high-achieving girls, one of the native English speakers.

I also need to keep an eye on the Hungarian boy in my class. This is his second year at our American school, and he is still in the speech emergent phase. Luckily, he spends many recesses collecting leaves and nuts, so hopefully that will translate into an interest in our plant unit. I’m confident he could do fill-in-the-blank activities, especially if I have them work in their groups. He is another one who would really benefit from very detailed images that illustrate plants and their life cycles.

Final projects for the unit could be one of a choice of reports: students could produce their own detailed drawings, turn in summaries of the different classroom books about plants, or write a report on the life cycle of a plant or tree of their choosing–maybe one that grows in their home country.

Special education referrals in two perspectives

My knowledge of the referral process for special education is extremely limited, but some educator friends were willing to lend their experience.

One friend works at international schools, privately run institutions that use a U.S. curriculum but operate within the confines of the host country. Her assessments of students have to be done with consideration of the multitude of cultures that are represented in international schools, as it is as important there to have the parents’ involvement in the process as it is in America. It usually begins, though, with the student’s teacher. Students are often identified early in elementary school, and it is not unusual, through casual teacher interaction, for a special education counselor to know to have an eye on students from as young as 5. She said that the different schools she has worked at have provided varying amounts of support from the administration staff, but that classroom teachers are typically very involved with each student who needs a personalized learning plan. The classroom teachers, after all, are the ones who have the most contact and trust with not only the students, but also the parents. In these private schools, it is often the case that parents are already very involved, and little is done before parents are called into the conversation.

Another friend who teaches high school English and history at a private school in northern California added from her perspective. She describes many of her students as “delightfully odd” to begin with, which reflects the culture of the community the school draws from. It was rare for her to have to refer any of her students for special education, but she did on occasion have to address learning disorders, including ADHD. These were students struggling beyond simply not “getting it.” In those situations, at the high school level, her first conversation was always with the student. If appropriate, she would consult with colleagues who also had the student in question to see if the student were similarly struggling in their subjects. A coordinated effort by her, the special education counselor, and a school administrator would bring the parents and student together into the conversation about next steps. For the level of personalized education her students have needed, the answer was typically a dedicated tutor or helper for the student.

More often, my high school teacher friend worked with student who already had identified learning disorders or special education needs. Those students were supported by tutors or aides as dictated by their individualized learning plans. Midyear, she was able to keep students on track with regular conversations and check-ins with their tutors. She was fortunate to have never had to remove a student from her class because of special education needs. That is likely because she taught older students, and those with more severe needs did not end up in her advanced classes.

Both of my friends were privileged to be working in private school systems with the resources to provide for students with special needs. Everything about their schools made the referral process easier than it would typically be in a public school. Parents are almost always more involved with their student’s education from the beginning, so when a problem arises, there is already a conversation going on with the family. Teachers in private schools also have fewer students in their class, so mainstreaming a student with special needs is an easier task, as all students are already receiving more individual attention from the teacher. And very tangible resources are easier to come by in the private schools, so more students can have greater access to technology that can be a wonderful tool in a student’s individualized education plan.

It is very clear that things are moving in the right direction for students with special needs. Students in America have legislation that give them resources they need to be best set up for success. They are kept in classrooms whenever possible; consider the practice of institutionalizing people with special needs that still happens in many countries around the world, and happened here in the last century. We understand more and more how much students with learning disorders can be helped with just a little personalized attention and how successful they can be.