Changing the Contemporary Classroom

"In 20 years, we'll all see the terrible, terrible toll on society from these bad educational decisions…Smart people got smart not by knowing all the answers, but by being better thinkers and eliminating the bad answer choices. That comes from time-consuming projects, discussions, research, building, designing, reflection, and brainstorming. Tests rarely reflect those items."

An Interview with Eric Jensen

"Until we give kids an absolutely great environment for learning, we will never fulfill their potential."

Q: Your "Teaching with the Brain in Mind" takes a very holistic, common sense approach to learning and teaching: interacting with children is better than teaching to them; good food with plenty of water, sleep, and physical activity all prepare children for learning. Yet these ideas seem foreign to the modern classroom. How did that happen and how can a focus on brain-based learning bring them back?

Jensen: School policy-makers long ago made the decision that schools should become more efficient. That was a mistake. Schools are not efficient, but they ought to be effective. That's also why they made the decision to focus on test scores.

Focusing on long-term neurobiological development, however, is more important. Schools should ask questions like: How do we best support long-term development of our emotional systems? How can we develop better thinking, processing, and decision-making skills? How can we improve stress-responses, teamwork, creativity, and moral judgment? Those skills, not higher test scores, will strengthen the world of tomorrow. In 20 years, we'll all see the terrible, terrible toll on society from these bad educational decisions.

Q: In your book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, you argue that standardized testing, with its requirement of "right" answers, is not the most brain-compatible way to learn. Can you talk more about that?

Jensen: We become more intelligent by learning to think on our own two feet, test out a hypothesis, make mistakes and practice skills and knowledge in a supportive environment. We do not become smarter by being taught a narrow range of responses that will be needed on a test. Smart people got smart not by knowing all the answers, but by being better thinkers and eliminating the bad answer choices. That comes from time-consuming projects, discussions, research, building, designing, reflection, and brainstorming. Tests rarely reflect those items.

Q: What is your opinion of standardized testing?

Jensen: We all need standards and a way to objectively measure how learners are doing. But we learn at least 10 ways (procedural, stimulus-response, sensitization, episodic/spatial, habituation, subperceptual, etc.) But most tests only test our semantic, explicit memories. That subclass of learning may actually comprise less than 5 percent of what a student learns daily. Until we learn to better assess all of the things we learn, we are getting an incomplete, therefore possibly inaccurate picture.

Q: Your book strongly recommends removing all negatives, such as threats and humiliation, from the classroom. How much are these types of negatives a part of the contemporary classroom and why is it so important for teachers to realize how damaging they can be?

Jensen: Most teachers give lip service to removing negatives from the classroom, but they are still there. Teachers use them for two reasons. One is control—that's how many teachers control their students throughout the day. Second, teaching is a very, very stressful, demanding, complicated, and challenging job. It pushes your physical, emotional, stress, and psychological limits. When teachers get pushed, they often make mistakes. The child pays the price.

If I had my way, teachers would only be able to teach four days a week—their time would be limited just as an airline pilot's time is limited. The other day would be for collegial sharing, learning, and preparation.

Q: Nearly everything you talk about in your book about how the brain learns is opposite, it seems, of what happens in most classrooms. Do you agree? Given that, does educating educators feel like a daunting task?

Jensen: Much of what I advocate is not being done, but fortunately, much of it is happening in many schools. Yes, educating teachers is a tough task, but the satisfaction is well worth it. I'm a pretty persistent, tenacious and stubborn soul who is determined to get the word out.

Q: Is there one single most important issue or idea that educators need to know about teaching with the brain in mind?

Jensen: The single most important concept is that we humans (meaning all our intelligence, personality, skills, etc.) are highly context dependent. You can't tell how smart or obstinate a student is until you optimize the environment. In some cases, this may mean getting that student to another teacher or even another school.

Kids are just responding to the foreign country (it has its own language, rules, leaders, and territory) called school. Because the brain is so highly adaptable, it can adapt to ineffective teachers or schools, but the result might be a bad adaptation. Such students might learn to sit in back, never volunteer, and only cause trouble or disconnect. Until we give kids an absolutely great environment for learning, we will never fulfill their potential.

Full text at BrainConnection.com

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