* Gaming plus a ZAP?

sticky notesWill playing video games improve working memory?  Neuroscientists are examining the claims made by a number of cognitive training programs, with an eye to improving working memory in aging adults as well as youngsters with learning challenges. Why working memory?  It is a strong predictor of educational success.  (And it helps me remember why I trekked upstairs.)

A recent article in Brain in the News (written by Lisa Munoz for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society) reports that scientists have shocking news: apparent long-lasting benefits in working memory when a mild current (tDCS) is passed through the brain.  John Jonides, one of many researchers exploring how video games might improve working memory, reports that they tried the tDCS current “as a lark, not expecting to find much, but the fact that the training effect lasts as long as months is both surprising and very provocative because it opens up the use of tDCS for long-term learning enhancement.”

Jonides’ team is now studying two currents “to boost plasticity in the underlying brain cortex.”  His goal is to “accelerate the learning process that occurs during game play, especially for those individuals with damage.”  This is encouraging news, giving me hope that some day, weaknesses in working memory may be addressed efficiently and permanently.

Sign me up!  I am tired of wandering around, wondering what I was doing in the first place.  I might even start playing Hearts again!

* Brain-friendly teaching #2

In my last post, I mentioned “neuromyths,” or ideas that we have commonly accepted as true but which have no basis in fact. In Mariale Hardiman’s book, “The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools,” she discusses the myth that classical music can influence learning.  There is simply no truth to to “the Mozart effect.”

brain-targeted teaching modelI do remember when teachers first adopted variations of this myth.  One hopeful variant was that playing classical music would create a soothing environment.  Kids would be less likely to act out if those orchestral chords were playing.  The novelty effect did impact some kids, along with teacher directions that no one was to interrupt the music.  As a resource teacher, I was chastised for breaking the classical music spell as I came to the room and gathered my little squad.  In that classroom, the teacher was more influenced by the music than anyone else.  And to be fair, she stopped playing the music as the novelty wore off.

Despite faulty strategies, the underlying goal of using music was to create an optimal environment for learning.  Current brain research indicates that stress interferes with effective learning, while positive emotions enhance learning.  Hardiman states that “setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.”  What a marvelous goal!  If we set about to create a positive and joyful classroom, our students’ brains will be much more ready to learn.  If we help students make positive personal connections with information, they are much more likely to derive meaning from learning activities.

Hardiman cites a study in which students were surveyed to determine what emotions they experienced throughout the course of a school day.  Anxiety was the most frequent emotion reported.  Our daily experiences as teachers confirms that kids are stressed at school.  Music may not be the key to stress reduction, but the relatively widespread use of it indicated our awareness of strong connections between emotions and learning.

Some effective strategies I’ve used for setting a positive tone in a class:

  • Before the kids arrive, review your own emotional state.  Acknowledge that you may be tired or frustrated about something, but deliberately set that aside.  You can (hopefully) take care of those issues later, on your own time.  Your first priority must be the kids who are entering your classroom.
  • Take delight in the opportunity you have to impact so many young lives!
  • Greet each child with a sincere smile and/or comment.
  • Adhere to morning routines that create a sense of safety and familiarity.
  • When students arrive, provide a quick way for them to share their current emotional state (such as rating their feelings on a chart).
  • Start with an overview of the day’s schedule or refer to a written (or picture) schedule.
  • Praise kids specifically for their behavior, especially those who are more vulnerable.
  • React calmly to crises, which reassures the class that you are not threatened.

We are privileged to create a fresh start each morning.  Make it a joyous one!