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Special Article

Brain-Friendly Learning Promotes Student Engagement

Kristi McCracken

To cite this article: McCracken, K. Brain-Friendly Learning Promotes Student Engagement. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #58. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Mark Twain said, “Telling ain’t teaching.” Listening is passive. Learning happens faster when students have frequent opportunities to talk. Structured academic conversations engage students in doing the thinking.

Dr. Spencer Kagan, an internationally acclaimed expert on student engagement, addressed over four hundred educators in Fresno about his book, Brain-Friendly Teaching. Dr. Kagan’s book condensed his extensive brain research into six principles that enhance student learning. Nourishment, safety and socializing are covered in this article—while emotions, attention, and stimuli are covered in article #6. In essence, numerous strategies are offered that promote teachers talking less and working efficiently while getting students talking more and working harder.

Aligning how educators teach with how the brain works, boosts retention for students, and maximizes teachers’ impact. Several research-based principles emerged as more brain-friendly than those previously used. The theory is that students should work harder than the teachers because those who do the work do the learning. This pedagogical shift requires that teachers talk less while students converse more.

One of Kagan’s brain-friendly learning principles is that the brain needs nourishment. Dendrites that fire together wire together. Teaching is the only profession that is charged with rewiring the brain on a daily basis.

The brain has over 86 billion neurons with about 2,000 or more dendrites for each one. Thus it needs lots of oxygen and nutrients. The brain only weighs about 2 percent of body weight, but it consumes 20 percent of all the nutrients in the body.

In order to function properly, the brain needs to be fully oxygenated. Major muscle movement causes more blood flow which increases the breathing rate and the heart rate. Thus, exercise oxygenates the brain which enhances memory, causing higher achievement and an increase in IQ.

StandUp-HandUp-PairUp is a grouping structure that gets students moving and is often paired with an interaction structure called Rally Robin where students take turns creating a verbal list.

What kids most want to do is talk and move, but at school they are required to sit down and be quiet. Inhibiting these impulses is tiring for students. StandUp-HandUp-PairUp and RallyRobin are disinhibiting structures that allow students to move and talk.

The next principle of brain-friendly learning is that of safety which is critical because stress inhibits learning. The portion of the brain called the amygdala is set off by threat sensors. An angry voice triggers the left amygdalae while a disapproving facial expression triggers the right side. Doing teambuilding cooperative structures help to make friends of classmates and lower anxiety.

Celebrity Interview is a conversation structure that begins with each group member in the team writing two questions focused on helping get to know their classmates better such as number of family members, kinds of hobbies, and free time activities.  All questions are handed to one person who stands up to wild applause, just as any celebrity would receive, and answers as many questions as he or she can in a minute.

“If teaching were the same as telling, we'd all be so smart we couldn't stand it.”
—Mark Twain

The turn circulates to the right so the next “celebrity” stands to another rousing round of applause and is handed the cards. In just four minutes, students become better acquainted which lowers stress and builds community. Teambuilding is a tool for creating classrooms where students feel safe to take risks.

Another brain-friendly principle is that the brain is a social organ. Social interaction is paramount to survival because primates need to know the difference between who is going to groom them and who is going to attack them. Students today are never more engaged than as social creatures especially in this technological world.

The average number of texts sent by teenage males in the course of a month is 2,539 while female teens send on average about 4,050 texts. Over a billion people are on Facebook which is more than on Google. When surveyed about worries, teens are more concerned about not getting along with their peers than about their grades.

Using structures such as Paraphrase Passport gives peers practice at listening to each other. For this conversation structure, a question is posed for teams to discuss, but students must paraphrase what was just said before they can share their idea.

We remember more of what we say, so getting students talking using accountable conversation structures to collaborate allows students to be social and boosts retention. Kagan quoted Mark Twain again, “If teaching were the same as telling, we'd all be so smart we couldn't stand it.”