By Julie Palkowski, Fine Arts & Creativity Education Consultant
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
In Part 1, “minds-on” learning environments were explored. We know that learning is enhanced through brain-friendly activities, which allow for the learner to feel safe, be allowed to explore concepts in a risk-free engaging environment and to develop meaning in their learning pursuits.
What is Happening When Learners Are “Minds-off?”
Aspects that inhibit learning are those activities that bring stress to the brain. Knowing what triggers stress is helpful for teachers to understand in order to avoid these deflating factors. Our hope as educators is to instead offer strategies that create a nonthreatening learning environment that increases the student’s brain capacity to retrieve data, construct meaning, analyze sensory cues, reflect, create new information and apply. These factors are discussed in the Part 1 article. In order to avoid stress factors, let’s find out what happens to the brain when stress is in place.
Stress… What is Going on in There?
Within the brain, stress is the result of a reaction from the amygdale, which naturally responds with fight or flight. The adrenaline glands make heart beats faster, lungs push oxygen, blood clotting elements are released, digestion stops, the frontal lopes (thoughts process) shuts down temporarily, immune system stops, anything not necessary is stopped to help react. Issues in and outside of the classroom can trigger these responses. Students need a physical/environmental, emotionally safe environment to decrease the threat of stress. This does not mean that the students should not be involved with a healthy challenging learning environment. Rigor is still important along with a students need to reflect. Rigor can be in place through the development of risk-free learning and offering students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in multiple ways. Let’s continue to look at the brain and its learning components.
We’ve heard the debates about functions of the right brain and left brain. The most recent research reveals that although each hemisphere has areas of specialty, they work in concert with one another. (Wolfe, 2001)
As activities overlap in use of brain functions, stronger connections are developed within the brain, making its ability to retrieve and retain information more efficient. (Sousa, 2001) This offers us even more reason to offer learners multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in an emotionally and physically safe environment.
For learning to effectively take place, conditions must include a risk-free purposeful activity. Musical development can be explored through brain-friendly opportunities to enhance not only their skills and techniques as musicians, but also through their articulation of musical concepts, verbal and language acquisition within the context of their learning, and physical demonstrations of knowledge.
Picture from Phil McKinney, Right Brain – Left Brain
Learning Functions of the Brain – Keeping it Simple
The visual representation of the brain identifies some primary areas responsible for specific learning functions. Additional areas that are paramount to the functioning of the brain are also shown. These areas may either inhibit or support learning depending on how these areas react. Our ability to understand what supports and inhibits learning will help us build successful “minds-on” learning environments. When functions are stifled, as described with stress, learning is minimized. When brain-friendly conditions are in place, learning potential with retrieval, retention, analysis and application processes increase.
We have a long way to go in understanding the brain’s capabilities; however educators can still tap into successful brain friendly methods already tested. These methods include an initial awareness of learner needs and a focus on creating environments that allow risk-free, emotionally supportive and choice filled activities. Educators need to integrate meaningful learning activities to help learners retain what is relevant and interesting to them. These activities build learning experiences that become ingrained within various parts of the brain, allowing for transfer of skills and knowledge for connected future activities.
The brain continues to fascinate and perplex us with its intricate processing and adaptable and malleable nature. Work to understand and avoid those factors, which trigger “minds-off” for learners. I encourage you to continue your pursuit in creating and implementing “minds-on” learning environments. Please share your stories with me and any questions you may have. We’re colleagues and learners, together working to support arts education across Wisconsin.
“Brain-Based Learning,” ASCD online list of resources retrieved on June 24, 2012 from http://www.ascd.org/research-a-topic/brain-based-learning-resources.aspx
Cleaver, S. (2012). “Hands-on is Minds-on: Want to Engage Every Student? Break Out the Old-Fashioned Scissors and Glue,” retrieved on June 24, 2012 from http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3751901.
Costa, A. L. & Kallick, B. (2000). Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Jensen, E. (2001). Arts With the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
McKinney, P. Right Brain – Left Brain. Retrieved online on June 26, 2012 from http://philmckinney.com/archives/2012/03/the-6-features-needed-in-your-idea-management-system.html/hires
NCREL. (2012). Critical Issue: Providing Hands-on, Minds-on and Authentic Learning Experiences in Science retrieved on June 24, 2012 from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/science/sc500.htm.
Sousa, D. (2001). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, Inc.
Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Julie Palkowski is fine arts and creativity education consultant for Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.