Using Our Brains to Improve Teaching

By Elizabeth Rubenstein

Center for Childhood Creativity Educators are finally getting scientific validation for things they’ve intuitively known foryears: We all learn better when our bodies and minds are engaged together. One of the best parts of being a teacher is that I get to learn new stuff myself. In the Building Blocks of Creativity Workshop, we examined the structures and functions of the brain, then learned dozens of fun ways to make even the most mundane school tasks into engaging learning opportunities. After learning the anatomy and functions of the brain, we got right to “work” examining our teaching practices to incorporate playful entry points to topics.  We learned new strategies by employing them: we put on skits, did handstands and gambled with someone else’s money.

Much of teaching and learning in schools today focuses on analytical processes and memorization in spite of the fact that current scientific research in brain function shows that the best learning takes place when students are challenged to use multiple modes of experiencing the material. Sitting, listening and writing have their place, but all children benefit from learning information through a variety of modalities.

Singing, moving and playing are all valuable teaching strategies that are largely forgotten after preschool. When teachers create activities that employ multiple brain functions, students are more engaged and make more meaningful associations. When we play, we develop fine and gross motor skills, develop social and emotional competence and naturally foster an environment where mistakes are not failures.

So when there are facts to memorize, we can sing them. When we need to practice arithmetic, we can toss a numbered ball around the circle or jump along a number line. When we need to cover a lot of material, small groups can become experts, then teach the other students what they’ve discovered. We can adapt familiar board games to any topic, creating question cards for a variety of learning levels that kids play together. We can take the class outside to write or even just daydream for a minute. We can create investigative homework assignments instead of photocopying another drill worksheet. And we can help students reflect on their own learning process, so they become attuned to their own strengths and challenges.

By teaching playfully, every interaction can be an opportunity for engagement. Teachers and students can flex their creativity muscle throughout the day. We are giving ourselves permission to use what works and throw out what doesn’t. It’s so exciting to teach in an era where we finally have the data and research sources to support what great teachers know intuitively: the best learning doesn’t always look like work.

Elizabeth Rubenstein has been a teacher of adults and children since 1990. She received her Art Teaching Credential and Masters of Education at Dominican University while teaching in a variety of private and public school settings. Her years at teaching the Nueva School greatly reinforced her pursuit of creative approaches pedagogy and curriculum development. Elizabeth is a founding parent at Brightworks School in San Francisco, which is pioneering new approaches to integrated, student-driven learning. 

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