A brain-compatible classroom is one where a teacher establishes a positive environment and uses instructional strategies which facilitate the comprehension and retention of content. While a variety of teaching strategies should be used when engaging students’ brains, a variety of assessment types must be used during formative assessment when determining how much of the content has been mastered.
At the beginning of your book, you say a lot of educators use the words assessment and evaluation interchangeably, but they shouldn’t. What is the difference?
Assessment encompasses all of the measures—such as tests students’ take and products and performances they create—that teachers use to ascertain if students are learning. Assessment is ongoing throughout the grading period. Evaluation, on the other hand, involves examining the results of those assessments and determining what they show about the effectiveness of teaching and learning.
You feel it’s important for school assignments to mimic what happens in the real world. What are the benefits to designing curriculum that way?
Human beings had brains long before there were formal schools. Therefore, the purpose of our brains was not to make straight A’s or score high on tests; it was to survive. The closer teachers can structure instruction to mimic what happens in the real world, the more sense it makes to the brain. When I work with teachers, I try to help them find ways to relate their lessons to what happens in the real world. If this isn’t the case, students may end up asking, “Why do we have to learn this?”
You ask the question, “How many more students would truly learn if teachers used instructional strategies which address both hemispheres of the brain to teach and assess student learning?” What are some ways teachers can do this?
The brain has two hemispheres. It was once believed that the left hemisphere was responsible for our verbal, mathematical, and sequential abilities. The right hemisphere was thought to be responsible for our creativity and artistic and musical abilities. While people may have preferences, more recent research relates that we actually use both hemispheres of the brain when learning or accomplishing a task. Therefore, teachers should use strategies that address both hemispheres of the brain so many more students will have opportunities to succeed regardless of how they learn best.
Will you talk a bit about how learning is state dependent?
A state is a temporary mood or condition of the brain. Students come to the classroom in different moods or states. A teacher who stands at the door and greets students can often detect the states of students’ brains. State can often determine how much learning will take place since a brain learns best when not in high stress. For example, a high school student who just broke up with her boyfriend may not be in the best mood for learning.
Teachers can use a variety of approaches to change students’ states. The appropriate type of music works well. Establishing positive relationships with students is another way teachers can change students’ states. It helps a lot if students look forward to coming to class. If you know a student is having a hard day, you might not want to call on him immediately during a class discussion. Students need time for a state change. It helps to remember that we are teaching students, not just content. Those students have real needs and wants, and if teachers are not cognizant of that, the content may not get across. A state of relaxed alertness is the best state for the brain to be in when taking a test.
What is backward lesson design, and are there specific steps a teacher would take to employ it?
McTighe & Wiggins’s backward lesson design is a concept that makes perfect sense when teachers are planning lessons. It’s supported by Habit 2 in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which states that when approaching any task, people should begin with the end in mind. The lesson planning begins when teachers ask the question, “What do I want my students to know, understand, and be able to do by the time they finish the lesson?” Then teachers go back and design the lesson to answer the question. Teachers have so much content to teach, and, if not careful, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Backward lesson design enables teachers to determine priorities.
You encourage teachers to ask quality questions. How does a teacher know if her questions are quality questions that will help her to determine with accuracy what students are learning?
Research shows that while most teachers ask many questions of students during the course of a lesson, a majority of those questions require a lower level of thinking where students only have to recall content or comprehend what was taught. There is certainly a need to ask some questions at these levels. In my book, I provide several models regarding how to ask questions or assign tasks at a variety of higher levels of thinking, where students are required to apply, simplify, analyze, evaluate, or create. It requires more than just regurgitating what the teacher has taught.
The book espouses three taxonomies for fostering higher levels of thought. The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy involves tasks from the Remembering to the Creating levels. The SOLO taxonomy, developed by John Biggs, is a mnemonic device which stands for the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. The last taxonomy is Depth of Knowledge, which classifies tasks from the Recall and Reproduction level to the Extended Thinking level. These taxonomies will assist teachers in determining the quality of the questions they ask.
How can rubrics be used to assess student learning?
Teachers will often shy away from assigning products or performances as assessment tasks since they’re more difficult to grade than a paper-pencil test. However, rubrics help to make grading a student’s poster or dance less subjective and more objective. When using a rubric, teachers determine what criteria on which the product or performance will be graded, the rating scale (usually from 1-4) that will be used, and the indicators that will operationalize each criterion. Students know ahead of time what those indicators will be. Therefore, rubrics lower students’ anxiety levels and provide them with specific feedback regarding the quality of their work.
What do you want teachers to know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the book?
By the time teachers complete this book, I want them to understand how to create a brain-compatible classroom conducive to teaching and learning. I also want them to know the rationale for and ways to implement a variety of brain-compatible strategies to deliver instruction and assessment types to determine what students know before, during, and after instruction. When this happens during the formative process, more students will experience success and knock the top off of any test during the summative process.