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.

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