Friday, 19 April 2013

Dr. Kathie Nunley Part 1: A Student's Brain

     Today all the teachers and support staff in "T-Division" had the opportunity to attend a PD session with Dr. Kathie Nunley, an educator and brain-image researcher from the eastern US. I was immediately excited because I have always been really interested in how to engage different parts of our student's brains and differentiate instruction to best meet their individual learning styles/needs. I can definitely say that I was not disappointed by this PD session! Dr. Nunley is not only just extremely knowledgeable about her subject area but is also a very humorous and engaging speaker (I spent a great deal of the day laughing!). Our day was divided into two broad sections:
- A Student's Brain (morning)
- Layered Curriculum (afternoon)
As such, I want to do a two-part reflection to ensure I am able to cover ALL of the great information that was covered throughout the day.


     Have you ever heard that in order to truly master something you need to have at least 10,000 hours of experience in it? My fiance is a Phys-Ed teacher and this was a statistic that he often heard in his classes throughout his time in university. Personally, 10,000 hours always seemed like an incredibly large number to me. Dr. Nunley, in comparison, defined mastery as the point in which you can complete a task while fully engaged in something different. Have you ever pulled into your driveway, turned off your vehicle and then realized you have absolutely no memory of actually driving home? Perhaps you were thinking about what you needed to do that evening, what you were going to prepare for supper, or the trip you are going to take on the weekend. Regardless of what you were preoccupied with, your brain was able to go into "auto-pilot" and allow you to complete the task of driving even though you were engaged in something completely different. Dr. Nunley shared that this means that the skill of driving has been internalized in your brain and has now become a skill that you have mastered. A new driver, however, still needs all of the steps for driving a vehicle in their cortex which means that they need to fully think through each action that is required to operate the vehicle.
multitasking, student multitasking
If your students can complete their assignments while
engaged in other tasks, it is time to move on!
What does this mean for teachers and students? Do you ever have students who are able to fully complete the assignments that you give them while listening to their music, texting another student AND talking to their peers around them? If so, your students have already mastered that specific outcome and are no longer being challenged. If this is something that we are noticing with our students we need to move on, if it is the entire class, or think about differentiation in order to challenge those specific students who have mastered that outcome already.


     I've always heard lots of statistics thrown around like, "Video games have ruined children's attention spans" but have never actually looked into any of the facts behind these statements. The truth is though, that today's children are interacting with electronic devices when they are as young as one year old; infants are placed in front of televisions, toddlers have their own tablet devices, and children know how to use computers before they can write their own names. This means our students grow up surrounded by high-stimulation situations and are used to being presented with A LOT of information in a very short amount of time. Does this sound like the classroom setup that you are used to? Unfortunately for our students, many classrooms function at a significantly slower level than the super-speed electronic world that they've interacted with since infancy.

     To help ensure student success, it can be beneficial to look into the brain's Reticular Activating System (R.A.S) which controls motivation and helps determine what our students are going to be focusing on while in the classroom. The R.A.S has what can be termed a Hierarchy of Novelty which features three tiers:
1 ) Physical Needs
- If a student's physical needs are not addressed (hunger, thirst, sleep,
  safety, comfort, etc) they will not be able to focus on their learning.
* This is where Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs would come into play.
2 ) Novelty
- Anything that is new, different, and exciting for students will catch
  their attention and hold it until that novelty wears off.
- This can be seen at the start of the year when the teacher, classroom,
   subject material, etc is all new and exciting for the students.
3 ) Self-Made Choices
- Once a student's physical needs are taken care of, and the novelty of
  a situation has worn off, a student is going to be most interested in
  activities that they have chosen themselves.
- We see this day-in and day-out with our students and once they have
  picked what most interests them (whether that is classroom material or
  their peers) it is hard to move their attention to something else.
* This is why Layered Curriculum focuses around student choice (in
   Part 2 of this post)


     When in the womb, our brain has approximately 520 billion brain cells. At birth this number is down to 200 billion and by the time we reach adulthood that number is down again to 100 billion. Growing up we heard all the time, "Don't do _____ you'll kill your brain cells"! Your level of intelligence, however, has nothing to do with the number of brain cells you have. Intelligence is directly linked to the number of dendrites, or branches from neuron to neuron. Dr. Nunley described brain cells and neurons like the process of gardening and pruning. It is not about the number of carrots that you have in your garden. It is necessary to thin out the row and get rid of some of the carrots in order to allow others to grow to their full potential; brain cells are the same way. It is necessary for some brain cells to be destroyed in order for others to develop and build extensive branches (dendrites).

     The wonderful thing about these branches is that we can use them again and again in different contexts. For example, something we learn in math class might branch off and be used for something in music class or something in shop class. In fact, it is said that students will only ever directly use 7% of what they will learn while in school. If this is the case, why bother with school at all? What is being used, however, is the millions of dendrite connections which allow students to consistently use all of the skills and networks that they've developed while at school. The example that Dr. Nunley shared was her football-playing students that spend their lunch hours in the fitness center lifting weights. Do they lift weights purely to have the skill of moving around heavy objects? No, they lift weights in order to develop their overall gross motor skills so that they can perform better at football so that they can further their playing careers. It is exactly the same with dendrite development. Students learn information that develops their dendrite connections that allows them to make further connections which allows them to be successful in a variety of situations.
     This is only a small sampling of the amount of information we received in the morning portion of this PD session. To learn more about Dr. Kathie Nunley, and her work with brain research and education, please explore the following links:
- Brain-based Learning, Ideas & Materials
- Dr. Kathie Nunley's Layered Curriculum Website for Educators
- Brainsorg YouTube Channel
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this reflection on Layered Curriculum!

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