Our ancestors were constantly on the move to find new food sources, which meant they frequently encountered new predators and new physical dangers. Our brain became the most powerful of all species in the world under conditions in which it had to sort through information according to what was most critical for survival (Medina, 2008). To deal with this selection, the brain has a sensory filter called the reticular activating system (RAS), in the lower brain. After the information is selected by the RAS, it passes through the amygdala, which decides if the information enters the lower brain for primitive functions, or the upper brain for cognitive functions. Patterning involves the brain to categorize and organize new sensory information in a meaningful way that is based on past experiences. If the information is threatening it will pass to the reactive, lower brain. If not threatening, it will pass to the upper brain, the prefrontal cortex, where logical thought and executive functions take place. It is a way to respond to ongoing input of information to make sense of the world (McTighe & Willis, 2019). One of the ways the brain makes sense of the world is by constantly making predictions, a survival mechanism allowing us to foresee what will come next. It is one of the brain’s best problem-solving strategies. Making accurate predictions stimulates the release of the neurochemical, dopamine, which activates a pleasure response (McTighe & Willis, 2019); thus explaining why we have a need to be correct all the time. We are guided by our sense of pleasure, so we seek out patterns in order to make correct predictions and receive a healthy dose of the pleasure drug. The following strategies ensure dopamine release.
Patterns are drawn between old and new knowledge. It is therefore imperative to activate students’ prior knowledge. This can be achieved by inviting them to construct a graphic organizer to highlight the key concepts and their relationships. For example, students could be invited to use a mind-map to answer the question, “What is chemistry?” Students would draw different laboratory instruments, pictures of chemists, the structure of common molecules, as well as common chemical reactions. This is an excellent activity at the beginning of the semester, as it allows an educator to gauge students’ prior knowledge and any alternative conceptions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, by drawing lines and circles to illustrate relationships between key concepts, the students are creating a neural network on the paper to resemble their brain activities. This is an example of a diagnostic tool (i.e., pre-assessment), which is formative in nature.
This is another way of utilizing students’ prior knowledge. Instead of learning facts in isolation, educators should guide students to integrate the new learning with other (old and new) learnings. As the senior chemistry teacher, I have the luxury to draw knowledge from physics, biology, mathematics, geography, and history. To cite a few examples, I borrow theories on conservation of energy from physics in order to teach students about the transfer of thermal energy between various systems in chemistry. I also embrace the urinary system from biology when students explore the formation of kidney stones in chemistry class. When discussing rates of reaction, I kindly borrow the normal distribution theory from mathematics to illustrate the probability of effective collision between molecules. In collaboration with the geography curriculum, I am able to raise awareness of the erosion of coral reefs due to the acidification of the oceans. Lastly, students are invited to better appreciate the role chemists had on historical events. For instance, investigating the Haber process (the production of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gases) allows students to better understand how the two World Wars were influenced by chemists. From all these connections, students’ brains make new and deeper connections, which, in turn, allows them to better appreciate the importance of studying chemistry. This is the most important task of any educator—to allow students to see the importance of the subject matter.
Another way for students to better appreciate the importance of the subject matter is by applying textbook concepts to the real world. For this, we must start with a question. These questions should go beyond simple “yes or no” responses and evoke higher-order-thinking-skills (HOTS) (Bloom et al., 1975). To nurture these skills, I developed a series of problem/inquiry-based- activities (PBL/IBL) for senior physics and chemistry students. For example, physics students were invited to investigate, “Why is the bottom vertebra of humans bigger than the top?” This question explores the forces exerted on human vertebrae during various movements. Alongside physics, chemistry students were encouraged to investigate, “How do kidney stones form?” and “What is the unknown concentration of an acid?” These questions explore the effect of chemical equilibrium on the human body and nurture sound acid-base titration techniques in students. These PBL/IBL activities required students to explore a question/problem, using either a structured or a guided inquiry approach. The answer to the question is then displayed using a variety of means including graphs, visual models, oral presentations, and scientific reports. These are examples of summative assessments.
To ensure that new knowledge is stored in their long term memory, we should invite students to monitor their own learning (Buoncristiani, M., & Buoncristiani, P., 2012). Throughout the semester, my students are invited to reflect on
“what they have learned,” and “what is still unclear.” This way, students can refer to these notes throughout the year and monitor their progress. Reflections are another example of formative assessment that could be part of their portfolio. A portfolio can also include other assessments and activities, such as notes made from reading, and test scores. This not only helps to track progress but also facilities communication between three education stakeholders (teachers, parents, and students), which is critical to ensuring that the needs of the whole child are met (Wu et al., 2014).
Another way to monitor one’s learning is through peer-evaluation. Students in my class are invited to peer-evaluate all major projects, from presentations to reports. The criteria of the peer-evaluation are identical to the ones used by the teacher. Students assess their peers’ work by commenting on the “positives” and “improvements,” which enhances their brain patterning skills. From this process, students are enlightened on how to improve the quality of their own work for the future. These are formative assessments.
These strategies illustrate how educators can arouse their students’ brains in a positive way, allowing information to reach the upper brain for cognitive function, instead of the reactive lower brain. By arousing their interests, learning becomes more meaningful and enjoyable, which not only promotes long-term memory and higher-order-thinking but also reduces classroom management issues, thus ensuring better learning outcomes.
Bloom B., Krathwohl D., Masia B., eds. (1971). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals- Handbook II-Affective Domain. New York, NY: David McKay Company, Inc.
Buoncristiani, M., Buoncristiani, P. (2012). Developing Mindful Students, Skillful Thinkers, Thoughtful Schools. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin.
McTighe, J., Willis, J. (2019). Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Wu, R., Wu, R., & Lu, J. (2014). A practice of reading assessment in a primary classroom. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4(1), 1-7.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Antik K. Dey
Antik K. Dey is a high school science teacher from Guelph, Ontario. Over the past eight years he has been teaching at a Canadian International Program in China, teaching a wide range of courses from English to Chemistry. He is also currently serving as the Science Department Head. Previously, his work has been published in the STAO (Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario) Blog and STAO Connex.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2021 issue.