Brain friendly teaching incorporates an awareness of the impacts of stress on learning and an explicit attempt to transition students leveraging what we know about the neurobiology of learning.
Brain-Friendly Simplied: 1) use the senses to calm the body, 2) use social interaction to calm the Limbic (brain) system, 3) students are now ready to process new information.
Step one can feel non-academic to many. But if you launch right into your lecture or new information, then please take a moment to picture your classroom of 35 reduced to about 7 because that’s a rough estimate of how many students arrive in your classroom ready to learn. Without a transition, the other 28 students will likely kick into cognitive mode half way through the class period, if they ever do. Kids who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences, may not even make it through the class period. These are the kids who cause disruptions, ask for the hall pass to the bathroom and never return, or are completely tuned out for the majority of learning even if they are physically present.
Instead think about the first five minutes in your classroom as a sensory oasis. Use sights, sounds, touch, movement or even smells and tastes (chocolate anyone?) to transition students from the chaos of their worlds into an exploration of the topic using sensory inputs. Our brains filter experience through our senses, and we have developed behavioral and physiological responses based on past experiences that we have deemed safe or unsafe. We may have no conscious awareness of these behavioral or physiological responses (unless our teachers have taught us mindfulness skills) and therefore we just keep doing what we’ve been doing and if that’s to space out during math class, then that’s what we do. But if we are awakened through our senses and transitioned into a calm state, then we have the opportunity to learn.
Step two is a pedagogical/technological feat in online environments (but totally do-able!) but easy to do in a physical classroom. Have students move the furniture into circles (step one-done), have students solve a problem, or develop a question that pertains to the reading. You know the drill! Get them communicating. Even if it’s just an informal check-in How are you feeling today? Our Limbic system is hardwired to be calmed by person-to-person communication. This communication prepares us for learning by bringing our attention to the here and now. If we suffer from emotional dysregulation, then these two steps will get us to the place where those 7 students are when they arrived in the classroom: ready to learn.
Step three can begin about 10-15 minutes into the classroom time, so don’t worry too much about spending a ton of time in steps one and two, and if you can somehow incorporate your curriculum into steps one and two, you are a Brain-Friendly expert! For example, play a nature video with sounds of the marine habitat that you covered last time, ask students to circle the desks (or join the Zoom Breakout rooms) to review what they remember about the marine habitat from the last class discussion. Wallah! you have arrived at Step three: ready to learn. Now you can introduce the new information to 35 students who have been primed through the Brain-Friendly sequence to now engage their excecutive functioning capacity in order to learn.
Read more about neurobiology and teaching using the Brain-Friendly sequence here