In Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain Janet Nay Zadina, neuroscience researcher and teacher, describes what we know about how the brain works and the implications for teachers. In each chapter, Zadina focuses on a neural pathway; e.g., sensory-motor, attention and memory, or frontal lobe executive functioning; and outlines first “What the Research Says”, then “What it Means for Educators” and finally, “Leaping into the Classroom”, which outlines instructional strategies that are based on the research. Here are a few examples taken from the book and from Dr. Zadina’s newsletters.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Dr. Zadina explains that our brains are not only unique but are plastic; that is, our brains change as a result of experience. Plasticity is not limited to critical developmental windows or to any age group. That’s great news! New neuronal pathways are created and strengthened when the same brain cells communicate frequently. This knowledge that the brain is able to rewire itself, or that “cells that fire together, wire together,” is called long- term potentiation and was first described over 50 years ago by Donald Hebb. What are the implications for teachers? In her September 2014 newsletter, Dr. Zadina says, “Give practice tests and daily quizzes. Research looking across many studies reveals that this is the best learning strategy.” These tests and quizzes don’t need to be graded; the point is to give students multiple opportunities to retrieve, assemble and restate important information, thereby strengthening those neural connections.
Teach handwriting. Handwriting is an important skill for the brain, even in this age of digital devices. Studies like those by neuroscientists James (2012) and Berninger (2006) provide strong support having students handwrite letters and compositions from early on. Handwringing involves multiple sequential strokes for each letter, as opposed to keyboarding with one stroke per letter, and Dr. James found that these sequential finger movements result in strong activation of areas of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory. Dr. Berninger’s study similarly found that children in grades two to five who handwrote essays produced more words more quickly and expressed more ideas than they did when keyboarding.
“A good frontal lobe means a good life.” Dr. Zadina tells us that frontal lobe functions, also known as executive functions, are critical to academic and life success. In fact, she says frontal lobe executive functioning in childhood is a better predictor of school readiness than IQ. What are these critical skills? Things like knowing how to set goals and monitor your own progress towards achieving them, budgeting time, organizing yourself and your materials, and being able to think and strategize about how you learn. We can’t assume students know how to do all these things, so we need to explicitly teach them strategies for planning, self-monitoring and approaching a new task.
Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain has many more examples of how neuroscience is informing our knowledge of effective instructional strategies. To learn more about this, you can also visit Dr. Zadina’s website at http://www.brainresearch.us/.
Berninger VW, Abbott RD, Jones J, Wolf BJ, Gould L, Anderson-Youngstrom M, Shimada S, Apel K. (2006) Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), pp. 61-92.
Hebb, Donald. (1949). The Organization of behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.
James, KH & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), pp. 32–42.
Zadina, J. (Sept, 2014). Four essential teaching strategies to raise achievement. Retrieved 6/22/15 from: http://myemail.constantcontact.com
Zadina, J. (2014). Multiple pathways to the student brain. CA: Jossey-Bass.