Firing Up Brains! #ASCD

I went to a pre-conference seminar led by Jane Pollock called, “Teaching Thinking; Teaching Innovation.” It was a wonderful session, filled with times of learning, of sharing and of hearing via from teachers who are employing her strategies to advantage in their classrooms. There were a number of ideas that “squared” with me, as Pollock would say. They stuck.

The first is that it is part of our job to keep our students’ frontal lobes firing once they come into our classrooms. When we look at our students in the hallways, before class, they are totally engaged. Their brains are taking in and processing information. They are making decisions and acting on them. They are evaluating evidence and building meaning. They imagining new worlds and telling stories. To be a human being interacting with other human being calls for brain activity in many ways and students are doing that with each other and as they enter our classrooms.

Then they put down their books and settle in with us.

What happens? In too many cases, the teacher takes over, and as Pollock put it, “they retreat to their cerebellums,” the part of the brain that acts on instinct and doesn’t need to make choices. It is the pack animal part of the brain. It is the part of the brain that acts as one of the sheep in a herd or fish in a school. It is the part of the brain, when we are asked, “Where shall we go for dinner,” that responds, “Oh, I don’t care. You decide.”

This part of the brain doesn’t want to make choices, doesn’t want to take the lead, doesn’t want to engage. It wants to follow, so when the teacher takes the lead and makes the choices, the easiest place fot the student is to retreat to the cerebellum. That is not a place of learning; it is a place of following.

To keep our students engaged, Pollock proposed, we need to make sure that they are active and making decisions. When that happens, we will keep their brains firing away. They won’t be able to retreat into passivity. Great goals for every teacher. I want to think more about those first few moments of class. Pollock suggested stating the goals and having the students respond to their level of control over the skills and ideas of the

My second takeaway is that we must actively be involved in the teaching of thinking. We can not assume that students simply know how to do it. If we want them to make comparisons, we need to show them how to go through the steps involved. If we want them building arguments, we must model it and allow them time to practice it before we assess them. The assignment often assumes that they know how to do the thinking required without the teacher actually teaching how to do it. As Pollock outlined the different parts of learning, it made me want to redo many of my lessons to be more intentional about it.

One lesson where I know that I have a beginnings of this is one on how to write a paragraph in history. The students learn and memorize 12 steps to follow to create an effective argument to answer a question. All of my questions ask the students to prove an argument. They have to make a decision from the facts and defend it.

I realized, as I compared it to what Pollock was saying, that I needed a few more steps to help them figure out strategies for building arguments. That is always the part where they struggle. They gather and organize the facts. They think of their point of view and identify it in the topic sentence, but they struggle to use the evidence to prove their point. I want to add a lesson that focuses of this.

The most important aspect is that students’ brains need to be alive, firing and lighting up! What are we doing to make that happen every day?

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