Everyone has a pet theory on how to improve public education: better professional development for teachers, more money, better curriculum, testing for accountability, teacher incentives, technology, streamlined bureaucracy. Policymakers have been trying these solutions for years with mixed results. But those who study the brain have their own ideas for improving how kids learn: focus on teaching kids how to learn.

“The more you teach students how to learn, the less time you have to spend teaching curriculum because they can [understand] it on their own,” said William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University at the Learning and the Brain conference “Making Lasting Memories.” “I think the real problem is that students have not learned how to be competent learners,” he said. “They haven’t learned this because we haven’t taught them.”

Neuroscientists still have a lot to learn about how the human brain learns, remembers and reacts to environments, but there are certain things Klemm said are fairly well documented and not always applied in schools.

TECHNOLOGY AND DISTRACTION

There’s no denying the Internet is an amazing resource for fast access to diverse perspectives and rich opportunities to extend learning. “That’s a good thing because the more you think about something from multiple perspectives, the better you are at understanding it,” Klemm said. But the Internet is also full of false information, and students aren’t always taught how to tell the difference.

For students, it’s easy to get distracted, pulled off track by the many interesting pop-ups, links or videos embedded in any Web post. When this happens, kids multitask, a concept neuroscientists have shown doesn’t really exist. When a person thinks she is doing two things at once, she is really switching rapidly back and forth between individual tasks, eroding the attention and quality of each task in the process.

“The problem with multitasking is it interferes with forming memories,” Klemm said. And while it has become trendy to say kids don’t need to know basic information because they can look it up on the Internet, Klemm is adamant that students cannot build more complex knowledge without information in their working memory.

“We live in a generation where students are doing more and more of this, so they’re messing up their ability to memorize,” Klemm said.

Klemm believes the Internet makes students lazy. “When students rely on the Internet for knowledge, they are programming themselves to look for information on the Internet and not in their heads,” he said. When asked to recall the information they just looked up, they don’t remember it as well. Instead, they remember how to find the same information again on the Internet.

Without memorizing some information, it’s harder for the brain to acquire new knowledge and skills. It takes longer for the brain to process new information, and students are less likely and slower to ask informed and perceptive questions.

“The more you know, the more you can make conclusions, even be creative,” Klemm said. “All of these things have to be done by thinking, and thinking has to be done from what’s in your working memory.”

Distractions of all sorts — whether it’s Friday’s football game or the phone in a student’s hand — are bad for learning, Klemm said. Teaching students to focus will be a crucial part of preparing them to build on the knowledge they’ve gained.

PROTECTED LEARNING TIMES

It’s often assumed that if a kid is paying attention while the teacher is talking, he or she is learning. But there are two additional times when the brain must be protected from distractions that are just as important: the period before and the period after the learning takes place.

When a student has an experience of learning, he holds that new information in his short-term memory while the brain consolidates it and prepares it for long-term storage. The problem is, short-term or working memory can’t hold very much information.

Often students become distracted immediately after learning something, and that new sensory input crowds out the lesson before it can be used for thinking and building new knowledge. “Long-term memory requires physical and chemical changes in the brain,” Klemm said.

Specifically, it requires protein kinase by the brain. If that process is blocked, with a distraction, for example, it prevents the brain from forming a long-term memory of what the student learned.

Neuroscientists are still researching what happens when a memory is recalled, say, for a test. Experimentally, it has been proven that when a student calls up a memory from long-term storage, it is temporarily placed in the short-term memory. At that point, there is an opportunity to enrich that memory before it gets reconsolidated.

“They’ll remember an improved version of the original,” Klemm said.

TAKEAWAYS

There are several straightforward ways educators can start creating learning environments that support what neuroscience has found about how the brain learns best. While many of these concepts aren’t new, they come up again and again in research and bear repeating.

Stress is bad for learning. When students are worried about tests or something in their private lives, they are distracted from what’s going on in the classroom. Chronic stress is even worse. The steroids released when a person is under chronic stress kill neurons, particularly those located in the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for storing long-term memories.

“Anything you can do to reduce a child’s stress will make it easier to be a better learner,” Klemm said.

Classroom decorations can be distracting. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon recently found that overly decorated classrooms were a distraction to students. While no one is suggesting school walls should be completely bare of color, too much can be bad for learning.

Test for a reason. “Testing is a good thing if it’s non-punitive,” Klemm said. “It requires students to recall what they know and process what they don’t know. But high-stakes testing, although probably at some level necessary for official accountability, can be overdone to the point where it makes school unpleasant for the teacher and the kids.”

Spend more time teaching learning skills. Klemm recommends memory tricks like mnemonic devices, and visualizing ideas as complex images, to help students expand their working memory. “If they knew these things, they wouldn’t have to work so hard and school might even become fun,” Klemm said. “Once students start reflecting and become more self-aware, they have the opportunity to become better students.”

“Working memory gets overloaded,” Kleem said. “Most people can only hold four independent ideas in working memory.” But if images are used to represent a constellation of ideas, people can remember much more. Words are hard to remember, but images stick with people. “It’s like a zip file,” Klemm said. “This is a way to get your working memory to carry more.”

Teaching kids about how their brains and memory work can also be a way to help them discover intrinsic motivation to complete tasks. And when educators are attentive to some of the environmental factors that produce good (or less good) learning, they can structure the conditions for kids to thrive academically.

How Memory, Focus and Good Teaching Can Work Together to Help Kids Learn 6 June,2016Katrina Schwartz

  • Diane Noth

    As you mentioned there is growing evidence that multitasking interferes with forming long-term
    memories. The Internet is a powerful tool but it also is interfering very much
    with students learning. I also do agree with the tips you pointed out to
    increase student’s attention of test taking, stress and classroom decorations.
    I have other recommendations I would like to mention that could also improve
    students learning.

    There are two types of teaching practices teachers can employ; constructivist and
    expository. The majority of teachers employ expository teaching techniques
    because this seems to be the most straightforward way to transmit information.
    As Gunter et al. (2007) mentions in his direct instruction chapter on teaching that
    this teaching strategy involves reviewing previously learned material, stating
    today’s objectives, presenting new material, guide practice, provide feedback,
    and assign independent practice. Constructivist teaching techniques involve any
    lesson that the teacher tries to create an environment that the students will
    themselves construct knowledge rather than absorb it. I believe that these two
    teaching techniques should be put in practice to increase learning styles.
    Constructivist teaching helps transfer learning in the long-term memory; it
    also gives student’s more independence and helps them work together. However, many
    argue that teachers are not providing good instruction, and that too much
    independence could generate chaos in the classroom. What I think would create a
    better learning environment in order for children to learn and remember better
    is employing these two techniques at the same time.

    Teachers should find activities, attention getters that are relevant to the matter and
    to students. These activities should be
    interesting and are geared for students to learn what they are supposed to
    learn. Teachers should indeed grant independence to their students but should
    provide enough guidance for them to get the answer. By having students have a hands on experience
    on the matter information will be transferred to the long-term memory easier.
    Teachers should continue to employ expository techniques in the sense of
    explaining difficult concepts, but they should back up their teaching with
    activities. Providing students the knowledge and then the practice of them will
    improve their learning.

  • SMStauffer

    What I find sad is that, after all this research and all the evidence, they are unwilling to challenge that sacred cow of modern education. High-stakes testing is not necessary for accountability. It never has been. It never will be. It is one of the major reasons that children are no longer taught how to think or how to learn. Certainly the other factors they identify also play a role, but when teachers’ and schools’ evaluations hang on a single, high-stakes test, coaching children in how to pass that test will overshadow everything else.

  • Jim Wiedman

    This entire article is based on an interview with one neuroscientist. While much of it matches other material I’ve read on the subjects covered, it seems to contradict others. There is much more to this topic than can be covered in one, simple article.

  • SWozniak

    There are students in community colleges who read and write on the third grade level. Why? Is that the highest level they are capable of achieving? Were they in poorly performing schools? Did their parents not read to them? Did their parents not talk to them? Was too much time squandered on standardized testing?

    I think all of those causes come together to produce an 18 year old who functions as an 8 year old.

    If you were to speak to the faculty at the community college, members would tell you that schools need to return to sentence diagramming in grades 3 through 5. It doesn’t matter if it the Reed-Kellogg system or the tree system or the Montessori system because children must learn how to analyze a sentence. They also need recess. They need to take notes. They need to teach the lessons they learn to each other. They need music and art. When the children return from a mid-day recess, the teacher should read to them from a “chapter book.” to develop their memories, to teach them empathy, to teach them sequencing.

    They then need to write more in grades 6 through 8. Using the prompt method, pioneered by Amherst (MA) Writers and Artists would help enormously. They need to read a book each week. They need to continue art, music and recess.

    They need to conduct non-internet related research and write a minimum of one research paper each year of high school. They need to read a book each month and four books over the summer at the very least. They need to have an hour discussion of current events in small groups one day each week. They need to study literature and not non-fiction. They need music and art and gym. They need to take government and economics and accounting.

    Throughout grade school in the 1950s, my school administered a machine corrected test in reading and math twice a year, in June and January. The test results were for the students, their parents and their teachers. The test simply informed all involved whether the student was on grade level or below it or above it. There was no ranking of schools and no competition. We were blue-collar kids and we enjoyed taking the tests which served as our reading and math mid-year and end-of-year exams.

  • Based on Klemm’s advice and others from the Learning and the Brain conference, I’ve changed my teaching a little to increase their practice with recalling information being as important as putting information in (or constructing new understanding – not thinking of kids brains like empty vessels :-).

    To do this I’m doing a couple of low stress recall strategies: 1. Write the main thing you learned today/yesterday in your journal. This is not graded for content, just for completion. 2. I use ‘Socrative’ with their iPads. It’s a quiz app that lets me write quick multiple choice questions that they can answer and instantly see how they did and the correct answer. Not for credit either. And that means that they seem to enjoy both these activities, they really like knowing how they are doing.

    When it comes time for an assessed test, they are seeming to do quite a bit better this year compared to last. btw I blogged about this for use with students at https://takeactionscience.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/learning-and-the-brain-what-do-you-think/, then they can check their answers at https://takeactionscience.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/check-guesses-about-effective-learning-strategies/.

    • Deb

      Good stuff. I’d also suggest having them write something they learned at the end of the day, before that new learning has a chance to get “overwritten.”

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  • Guest

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  • Very useful stuff, but I wish this material could be applied in 3rd world countries as well.
    خرید تجهیزات دندانپزشکی

  • Lilia Hogard

    Luckly I know the easiest way to get a higher grade for writing task. Writing service provides a lot of academic needs.

  • Larryalobo

    Putting things up and taking them down on the walls of a classroom is better than having them up all semester/year long. You can put things on several poster boards, like a collage, so you can use them over and over for various points in the subject being taught. There may be a couple of things that stay up in a classroom that is your emphasis for the year or that you stand for. Rotting things (images, text, decorations, etc.) helps the brain notice things even if you put them up at the beginning of a year, take them down and put them back up some weeks or months later.

  • meredith

    Images Are Only Better Than Words For Visual Learners. As Always Auditory And Kinesthetic LearneRs Are Getting IgnOred.

    That Being Said, I Use A Lot Of Activities That Require Material THat Would Be Memorized Be Recalled And Used In Order To Achieve A More Fun Goal Such As Winning A Game. It Works Wonders. Taking The Stress Off Of TrYing to Remember Is Very Effective.

    Sorry About The Random Caps. My Keyboard Doesn’t Interface With Your Textbox.

  • Ricky

    This is definitely a significant and relevant issue in public education. As a high school student, I strongly agree that educators should focus more on teaching learning skills, and that students need to be exposed to a variety of learning methods. Discoveries such as the “protected learning times” mentioned in the post would be prime examples of beneficiary metacognition for students; after all, understanding the way we learn inevitably helps us to learn better.Unfortunately, the daily grind — wake up too early, sit in class for six hours, do homework, go to bed too late — is far too common nowadays in public education, and sadly to say innovation has all but disappeared from the “typical” high school classroom. Instead of teaching us to push the boundaries, more than ever I am experiencing teachers who simply reinforce them. To truly enhance and improve the ailing state of public education today, major changes need to be made, and the ones mentioned in this post would be a great start.

  • Robert Miller

    Images Are Only Better Than Words For Visual Learners. As Always Auditory And Kinesthetic Learners Are Getting Ignored.That Being Said, I Use A Lot Of Activities That Require Material That Would Be Memorized Be Recalled And Used In Order To Achieve A More Fun Goal Such As Winning A Game.Altrum Memory Focus reviewIt Works Wonders.Taking The Stress Off Of Trying to Remember Is Very Effective.

  • Larryalobo

    The sage on the stage still reigns in most classrooms – teachers telling and explaining to students ideas they need to learn That some are telling students some study tips here and there does not mean they are doing what will help students learn, just remember things and string them together and remember them for a test. Some kids learn, some learn well and some have lots of gaps of knowledge and struggle. Teachers are taught classroom management and crafting teaching lessons but few of them know how the brain and body learn and schools do not respect the energy needs of kids with all the restrictions they put on kids. We have more information to learn and more complex info to learn and we have more info available to us but no one is really showing kids how to find valid info, how to see info from a variety of sides and how to put multiple pieces of info together. We aren’t in the 1950s any more. Until we really teach kids how to learn, not just some tips, many will still struggle which will hold back the top performers in any class and slow down the struggling students from advancing even more

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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