As a teacher, it is impossible to not be aware of the recent wave of influence that neuroscience is having on our profession. Everyday you see articles on the web, often in respectable magazines, about the role of emotions, for example, or the importance of social connections for learning. A whole new world seems to be opening up, one that has a direct impact on our professional lives.
Brain-friendly teaching–it sounds vaguely alchemistic and scientific at the same time. If you search for it at Amazon or some other bookstore, you find more books than you could possibly read, with titles that sound more like they belong on the covers of magazines near supermarket cash registers. It’s hard to decide which ones are solidly based on research, written by real experts, are understandable, and have practical applications for the classroom.
Rather than the bookstore, a better place to look is online for programs or initiatives set up by groups of researchers or institutions. In a post back in spring, I mentioned several that I’d stumbled across and found useful. There’s the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom. Mariele Hardiman is the director of the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University. They do research, provide resources, and run programs for teaching development. And out of that has come this book:
It comes with a slightly steep price tag, that’s true. And one might be tempted to give it a miss and just browse around on the many websites mentioned above and assemble the bits and pieces of rationale and practices. But that would be a mistake. This book is written by someone who knows her stuff–and knows her audience and their needs. It is comprehensive, it is well-explained, it makes a very clear case for introducing the model into your classes, and it gives you lots of examples for how this can be done and how it is being done by other teachers. The book is organized as a model for addressing 6 brain targets: emotional climate, physical environment, learning design, teaching for mastery, teaching for application, and evaluating learning. In each unit Ms Hardiman explains the target, gives ideas, and then turns over the last part to two teachers who are applying the model in their classes. One teacher is a literature teacher making her way through a novel, and the other is a biology teacher going through a series of lessons on genetics.
Along the way, other teachers of other subjects and age groups are given sidebars to talk about what they are doing and what the results are. It’s an appealing structure and the clear connection between theory and practice is certainly one of the strengths of this book. It also feels more like a course than a book at times with so many perspectives included. Unfortunately, this is also a weakness for some teachers of some disciplines–EFL for one–that are not as well represented. One of my own lingering concerns is that some of the theory here may not be so applicable to EFL in different cultural contexts. It will take time to sort that out, but in the meantime, Ms. Hardiman gives us a lot to think about and a lot of ideas for how we can make our classes more brain friendly.