Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Brain Breaks: Every age person needs them


I used to teach multiple-day workshops for adults and facilitate multiple-day negotiation sessions for small groups in conflict.  It’s hard to sit still that long.  It’s even harder for the brain to stay focused for that long.  Until I learned about brain breaks, I just knew that my adult participants would start behaving like children right around 3 pm.


There’s actually neuroscience theory to support the use of brain breaks.  First, our brain uses 20% of the body’s energy when resting, more when doing difficult mental tasks like reading and listening.  The brain works very hard, especially when we’re concentrating trying to learn something new.  It needs a reset sometimes (as often as every 10  minutes for small children and 30 minutes for adults, if you’re really trying to memorize something).  The idea is to switch neural activity to non-learning networks, so the setting-memory networks can rest a little. 


Some experts also suggest that we try to engage both hemispheres of the brain (generally, the right hemisphere controls the left side of our body, and vice versa) during brain breaks, and help them to work together.  I like to think of this as “windshield wiper-ing” the brain, helping it to clean out the detritus and start again with full focus.


So what does a brain break look like.  In my experience, the sillier, the better.  We’re trying to get the two sides of the brain to do opposite things, which is not so easy to do.  So, there’s a little bit of frustration at first and (hopefully) a lot of laughter.  These are a few of my favorite brain breaks:


·      Start with what most people know:  rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.  After that feels doable (2-3 min?), switch what the hands are doing (i.e., tummy-rubbing hand now pats head, head-patting hand rubs tummy).


·      Wink and snap:  wink left eye and snap right finger; wink right eye and snap left finger; repeat, getting faster and faster (until you’re laughing so hard you can’t continue!).


·      Forward and backward circles:  Make circles, starting with both arms fully extended toward the ceiling; one arm makes forward circles, the other arm makes backward circles.  Once you’re pretty competent with this combination, switch directions for each arm.  (Hint: it’s easiest to get started one arm at a time).


·      My favorite brain break if you have adult foreign language speakers in the group:  Act out the children’s game of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, naming the body parts in another language.  This is another one that gets adults laughing hysterically.


There are many more brain breaks to be found here and here.  If you think these brain breaks are just for little kids, you’re wrong.  Every age person/student has the same neurological constraints in their brain.  Working with the brain, instead of against it, will maximize every student’s learning.  My adult workshop participants loved brain breaks. Really.


So, try one of these fun and silly activities next time you’re taking part in a long online learning session.  If you’re a teacher, incorporate regular breaks (as in, leave the screen kind of breaks) and brain breaks, and see if your students don’t stay focused a little better.


And, today on New Year’s Eve, try a brain break activity to help the long wait for 2021 pass by more quickly.  Let me know how it went, or send me some additional brain break activities that you like.  I’ll publish them in a future blog post. 


Happy New Year!


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Students’ Attention During Online Learning


A recent article in the Washington Post captured my attention.  Entitled “Why are teachers’ faces covered in stickers? To get kids engaged in remote school – and it’s working,” it highlights some of the challenges of keeping students’ attention in a 100% virtual learning environment. 


In the article, a middle school math teacher had tried all kinds of tricks to encourage her students to actively participate in online class.  Thinks that apparently did not get the students to answer questions or otherwise be engaged in the learning process:  calling on students randomly by name, creating small group discussions in breakout groups, enticing students to earn extra credits through competitions, or breaks called movement or brain breaks.


What did work?  Something very silly (and perhaps not exactly age-appropriate for middle schoolers); the teacher promising to put a sticker on her face every time a student answered a question or participated in a class discussion.  The middle school students initially responded because they thought it was hysterical.  But the competition between the teacher’s three classes to see which class could end up with the most stickers on the teacher’s face was the most effective strategy to foster class participation.


The article gave examples of teachers using the sticker method for students of all ages.  One successful example was a professor of an online college-level introduction to psychology class, who reported that more students than ever had participated in class discussion when he rewarded them with stickers.


So, that got me to wondering what other strategies have been effective to get and keep students’ attention during online learning?  Here’s a quick list of some strategies I’ve learned about:


·      Create an expectation of surprise.  A teacher of students in grades 3 through 8 asks a different class each week to pick which color he will dye his beard that day.  If the vote results in a tie, he’ll dye the beard in both colors (it’s a pretty long beard).  I am assuming that the students in each class need to meet some minimum participation requirements to be included in the weekly voting.

·      Nurture curiosity through mystery.  Present the students with a mystery (an information gap), and send them off to find the missing information.  The example given was to have students find out how dolphins can stay awake and alert 24/7 for 15 days.

·      Encourage exploration by having some assignments done away from the screen or the desk.  For online learning, this may mean assigning students to take virtual tours of museums (see this blog post for some suggestions) or giving hands-on assignments (e.g., ask students to survey their family and friends, ask them to design something).

·      Be clear about the real-world meaning of the lesson.  It is much easier to listen to a long lecture, or to study somewhat tedious details, if the student knows why the content matters.  How the learning is going to be applicable to their current or future life.  The teacher can speak to this point by explaining why the studies are relevant.  A strategy perhaps bringing the point a little closer to home is journaling – asking the students to write a journal entry giving their suggestions of a real-world problem that could be addressed by whatever the day’s or week’s lesson was about.


What’s the moral of these stories and strategies?  Teacher creativity, even silliness, can help students of all ages rediscover their enthusiasm for learning, both in person and online.  If they tune it at first to see what crazy thing the teacher is going to do next, they can’t help but learn while they’re tuned in to class.  If the students are asked to apply the learning, rather than simply regurgitate what the teacher says, they may actually learn to love learning, whether that learning is in person or online.