How to use the WHOLE brain to learn

Whole brain teaching

Your brain connects experiences to each other through branches called dendrites. Here are some ways to leverage brain research in teaching.

I always thought the brain was kind of like a huge cardboard box.

You know, like those huge wardrobe-size ones you use when you move. The ones you can actually hang clothes in so they don’t wrinkle.

I thought that, when you learned something, you just pitched it into this huge box, this memory receptacle, for use later. In my mind, some people were a little better at digging through the box than others. (My wife’s box, in this analogy, must have shelves and be color-coded and organized with the Dewey Decimal System. Her memory is like a steel trap.)

Chris Biffle proved me wrong.

I’m just getting into his fascinating book, “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids.” Well, it’s fascinating so far in that it has already shaken my beliefs about learning in the first few chapters.

Chris’s research into how the brain works during learning shows that there is no single part of the brain dedicated to memory. The hippocampus region of the brain “processes memories and then sends that information back to the region where it originated,” he writes.

Repetition makes permanent in the brain, so the more a person makes connections to an experience in a part of the brain, the stronger that memory is in the brain.

Our goal then, as teachers, is to help our students form strong memories by engaging as many sections of the brain as possible. Hence the name, “Whole Brain Teaching.

As Chris listed the different parts of the brain in his book, it got me thinking of how each could be engaged in learning. Here are a few thoughts for different regions. (Remember, I’m brand new to this, so my ideas might not accurately connect to the right regions of the brain. Fair warning!)

Prefrontal cortex (reasoning, planning, decision-making): debates, explaining why something happened or the logic behind it, “show your work”.

Motor cortex (movement): gestures in learning vocabulary, flash card activities, acting ideas out.

Visual cortex (sight): pictures, video, creating art.

Broca’s area (speaking): reading aloud, practicing conversational language, think-pair-share.

Wernicke’s area (language, hearing): listening to authentic recordings, music, performing poetry.

Limbic system (emotions): talking about our desires, connecting new content to our senses, discussing controversial topics.

Whole Brain Teaching is a new concept to me, but the ideas associated with it will sound very familiar to educators. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences instructs teachers to play to students’ strengths in learning. His visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical feel similar to the different regions of the brain described above. On a more basic level, teachers have played to the three modalities — visual, aural and kinesthetic — for centuries.

Whole Brain Teaching has me thinking about how to create “dendrites,” or the branches that come from neurons in the brain to connect them to other neurons. Biffle says, “Repetition equals dendrite growth equals learning.”

What thinking does Whole Brain Teaching stimulate in your brain? How have you taught to the different regions of the brain? Share your thoughts in a comment below!

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