Friday, May 29, 2009

Brain Rules: Rule #1: Exercise.

I recently read an absolutely fantastic book called "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School," by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. (Get more info at So much of the information in this book is relevant to teachers-and in many cases, confirms what savvy practitioners have seen for years in their classrooms-that I have been inspired to (re)share it with the world. Or, at least that small sampling of the world that reads this blog. I'll try to summarize one rule each (one chapter of the book) in a series of 12 posts to this blog.

I'll start with Rule #1: Exercise. It's probably the easiest rule to explain and to understand, and it really connects with common sense. The rule is: Exercise boosts brain power.

To think well, we need to move. Our bodies and brains evolved to exist in nearly constant motion. A sedentary lifestyle just ruins our ability to think and learn. If you want one simple way to improve your students' performance, get them up out of their chairs and moving. Even low impact exercise (walking or bouncing up and down on an exercise ball) can produce major improvements in creative thinking, attention and memory - and thus learning. Studies with children have shown that simply adding physical activity to a school routine improves outcomes in core content areas (reading, math, etc.). 30 minutes playing dodgeball may actually do more to improve kids' math scores than 30 extra minutes working word problems. Obviously, you have to have the lessons too. But exercise releases chemicals in the brain that make the lessons stick.

This doesn't just apply to children. To remain life-long learners, exercise is key. It wards off dementia and can halt or even reverse age-related declines in mental performance. In educational settings, there is every reason to believe that adults' brains benefit just as much from exercise as kids'.

One reason for the improvement in mental function among elders may be that exercise encourages the brain to grow new neurons. Yes! That old idea that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have (and simply proceed to lose them as we age) is just plain wrong. You can grow new brain cells, and exercise might be the best way to release the chemicals that will set that process in motion. At the very least, regular exercise significantly reduces the chance of stroke. And stroke, if it doesn't kill, can cause serious brain damage.

The long and the short of it: sitting still in a chair is not a good brain environment for attention, memory, thinking, or learning. Get your students up and about! A parked butt signals a fuzzy brain.

And on that note, I think I'll go for a brisk walk around the office before turning my attention to my next project!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reading Rockets Videos from PBS

"Reading Rockets" is a series from PBS that focuses on issues of children's literacy, including brain research into reading difficulties, teaching strategies that work, and ways to empower parents.

Although the series does not deal directly with adult literacy issues, much of the information is valuable to the adult literacy community. Adults who struggle to read were once children who struggled to read. As adult educators, we can learn from our peers who work with children.

Of particular interest to adult educators might be the episodes on Reading Comprehension and Becoming Bilingual. Many of the ideas that these successful teachers are using with children and parents could be adapted to work for adult learners.

Take a look!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mmmmm... Lots of Teacher Videos

Here's something new that might catch the eye of teachers, program coordinators, volunteer coordinators, trainers and others: a site specifically dedicated to ABE/GED and Adult ESL teacher professional development videos. It's at and is definitely worth a peek.

In-service teachers can learn about teaching methods and strategies they may not have tried before, and trainers and coordinators can find videos that effectively demonstrate strategies they want their staff to use. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a video worth? Anyone who's ever tried to describe how to do something in the classroom will understand the great value in being able to show it instead. We humans are visual creatures (any idea how much of your brain's processing power is dedicated solely to vision?) so seeing a demonstration can be a powerful way to learn. Which is not to mention that watching a 5-10 minute video takes significantly less time than reading a chapter in a teaching methods textbook.

So, see for yourself. You'll get the idea faster than if I write a whole chapter here!

Make sure to check out the "Other Adult Learning Videos" link to see a list of related videos on other sites.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Creating with CLEAR

CLEAR (the Center for Language Education and Research, based at Michigan State Univ.) has a number of sleek, easy-to-use online language teaching tools. Most allow you to build speaking and listening activities for your students - a real rarity among teacher-friendly tools for building online activities. There is also a nice process-writing service for writing teachers called "Revisions".

Teachers can sign up for a free account to build activities. Students can work on those activities without an account (except for the Revisions service, which they do need to register for and be added to their teacher's class). Teachers will need someplace to place their activities for students to access them. That could be a blog like this one, a class wiki page, or a standard web site.

Here is one very simple example: the Audio Dropbox. Intended as a place for students to "drop off" speaking assignments (like they might drop a writing assignment in your mailbox), the audio dropbox takes about 5 minutes to build and embed in a web page. Please feel free to leave me a comment.

Check them out at:
And thanks to Barry Bakin for posting about CLEAR and leading me to their stash of goodies!