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English Language Teaching Global Blog


Brain-based learning: teaching that reflects how the brain likes to learn

Sarah Phillips, co-author of Incredible English second edition, talks about teaching students how the brain likes to learn.

What do we know about the brain and how it learns? Well, what is clear is that we’re still only scratching the surface but we know some basics. We know that brains are designed to learn! In the past 20 years we’ve found out a lot about this and there is still a lot more to learn. The more we know about how the brain learns, the better we will be able to match how we teach (input) with how children learn (intake).

We know that experiences shape the brain and those that involve strong feelings are more likely to be remembered. This can be both an aid and a barrier to learning, depending on whether the experiences were positive or negative. To state the obvious: as teachers we need to create positive learning experiences for children. If children enjoy the tasks we give them, it is more likely that they will learn and more than this – remember the learning.

We also know that learning and remembering happens through different channels; it is multisensory. Our brains are literally shaped by our experiences. In addition, children are designed to make sense of the world around them and making sense is fundamental for learning and remembering. So, if children use their different senses when they are learning something, they are more likely to remember it later. It gives them different channels for recalling.

All this should influence what goes on in the classroom. We can use it to guide us when we develop materials and lessons that are brain friendly for the children.

We learn more efficiently if we know what we are meant to be learning. We learn less effectively if we are kept in the dark. So, it seems like a sensible idea to tell children what they are meant to be learning at the start of each lesson. Make a list and point it out to the children.

We process information through three different channels, the visual, the auditory, and the kinesthetic. (We also process information through our sense of taste and smell but we will leave that to one side). There is some evidence to suggest that everyone has one channel that is stronger than the others. If we plan classes that deliver the content in a variety of ways we will engage all the learners in the class. We can also take into account the theory of multiple intelligences in our efforts to reach as many of the children as possible.

Music has a profound effect on many of us. It can influence our moods and evoke memories. We can use this ancient response when we are teaching. If we can link language (words and structures) to rhythm and music we help children remember it. Using songs can have a beneficial effect on learning and in our case, language learning.

Learning is more difficult when it is in isolation. We learn and remember far more efficiently when new information is linked to already learned information. The more links there are from the new to the old, the better our remembering will be. We need to ensure that our lessons are linked together. Reminding children of what we did before and where we are going next will help them make links. This is called ‘linked learning’.

Many children enjoy a challenge. The brain thrives on being challenged. Material that makes children think, develops the capacity of the brain. We can help children by showing different ways, different strategies, for solving problems.

Finally, children need time for feedback and an opportunity to reflect on what they have been doing. This will help the learning process to flourish. They need to be able to evaluate themselves, to think about what they have done effectively and less effectively. They need to think about what they can change. And finally they need to think about what they are going to do next and to set themselves future goals.

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