A web site for the developing language teacher

A brain-based approach to teaching
English as a second language
by Tanju Deveci
- 1

The information about how the brain works is accumulating continuously. It seems like there is no end to this information, and we will be having even more information about the way(s) the brain works as the science of neurology develops. It goes without saying that learning is dependent on the way our brain works. Therefore, we, as teachers, need to adapt our teaching techniques according to the brain research.

Maybe one of the most important findings of the brain research is that the brain is much more malleable than previously thought. The specialized functions of specific regions of the brain are not fixed at birth but are shaped by experience and learning (Genesee, 2000). Here, the word 'experience' is the key word, and when we consider that learning and teaching provides individuals with new experiences, the role of learning experience aided by teaching and teachers seems clearer. That is to say that teaching and teachers can actually make a difference in brain development.

However, experience should be purposeful and meaningful if we want the brain to change in a desirable fashion. The importance of meaningful learning appears to be crucial in Caine and Caine's (1994) twelve principles of learning as well. They assert that the search for meaning is innate. We cannot stop this search, but channel or focus it. The human brain survives by searching for meaning, and responds to meaningless and meaningful information and situations differently. Therefore, if we want our learners to use and develop their brains we need to teach for meaningfulness. Before going any further, I believe that it is essential to mention Caine and Caine's all twelve principles, which, I feel, contribute to the search for meaning in one way or another:

1 -The Brain Is a Parallel Processor: The human brain is always doing many things at one time. Therefore, teaching must be based on theories and methodologies that guide the teacher to make orchestration possible. Teachers need a frame of reference that enables them to select from the vast repertoire of methods and approaches that are available.

2 - Learning Engages The Entire Physiology: The brain is a physiological organ functioning according to physiological rules. Stress and threat affect the brain differently from peace, challenge, boredom and happiness. Everything that affects our physiological functioning affects our capacity to learn. Stress management, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation, as well as other facets of health management, must be fully incorporated into the learning process.

3 - The Search For Meaning Is Inborn: The human brain tries to make sense of our everyday experiences. This is in its nature, and we cannot stop it at all. Therefore, in our classes we need to exicite our learners, and arouse their curiosity. Our learners need to discover information themselves. In this way, they will be challenged.

4 - The Search For Meaning Occurs Through Patterning: Patterning refers to the meaningful organization and categorization of information. The brain is designed to perceive and generate patterns. "Meaningless" patterns are isolated pieces of information. Learners are patterning, or perceiving and creating meanings all the time. We can influence the direction.The information should be organized in a way that allows brains to extract patterns.

5 - Emotions Are Critical To Patterning: What we learn is influenced and organized by emotions. Emotions are crucial to memory because they facilitate the storage and recall of information. The emotional climate in the school and classroom must be monitored on a consistent basis. The environment needs to be supportive and marked by mutual respect.

6 - The Brain Processes Parts And Wholes Simultaneously: There are significant differences between left and right hemispheres of the brain. However, the two hemispheres are interactive.

7 - Learning Involves Both Focused Attention And Peripheral Perception: The brain absorbs information of which it is directly aware and to which it is paying attention. This means that the brain responds to the entire sensory context in which teaching or communication occurs.

8 - Learning Always Involves Conscious And Unconscious Processes: Students need to review how and why they learned. This will let them take charge of their own learning and they will develop personal meanings.

9 - We Have At Least Two Different Types Of Memory: A Spatial Memory System And A Set Of Systems For Rote Learning: We have a natural, spatial memory system that does not need rehearsal and allows for instant memory of experiences. However, facts and skills that are dealt with in isolation are organized differently by the brain and need more practice and rehearsal. We, as educators, need to know that teaching devoted to memorization does not facilitate the transfer of learning and actually will interfere with the development of understanding.

10 - We Understand And Remember Best When Facts And Skills Are Embedded In Natural, Spatial Memory: We learn languages through multiple interactive experiences involving vocabulary and grammar. Our language is shaped both by internal processes and social interactions. Therefore, success in learning a second language will depend on using all the senses and immersing the learner in a multitude of complex and interactive experiences.

11 - Learning Is Enhanced By Challenge And Inhibited By Threat: The brain downshifts under threat, and it learns optimally when appropriately challenged.

12 - Each Brain Is Unique: Systems in every individual brain is integrated differently, which means that we need to provide choices to attract individual brains.

As pointed earlier, long-lasting language learning can only take place when the instruction is meaningful for the learners. Dhority & Jensen (1998) also accept that the brain is a natural meaning-seeker and meaning maker. New information entering through the brain stem will pass through the thalamus to the hippocampus. Here a search is conducted for matching information. If a connection is made, the information will go to working memory. However, for the brain to store this information in the long-term memory, the information needs to be relevant and meaningful to the learner. Meaningfulness can be achieved in contextual learning, where natural learning environment is created.

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