Friday, January 20, 2012

Know Thy Learner: Finding Each Learner's "Sweet Spot" (Part 1)

In our recent book: "Think Big, Start Small: How to Differentiate Instruction in a Brain-Friendly Classroom,” (Solution Tree, 2011) Gayle Gregory and I share ideas about how to use brain-compatible strategies and student profiles to maximize learning! We know that each learner’s brain is wired based on the various life experiences he or she has had. We believe that learning can be maximized when the perfect intersection of high interest, focused attention, prior knowledge, and positive emotions occurs for the student. This “sweet spot” can be elusive for many students and teachers, but when found – on accident, or with purpose – the student is engaged and learning just happens. Finding each learner’s unique sweet spot can be a game-changer in the classroom.

Teachers can find the sweet spot by gathering information about the learner using a formal student profile, collecting informal anecdotal observations, or simply executing a trial-and-error approach.  By determining how success was achieved in the past, and by using a “best guess,” “common sense.” approach – teachers may be able to orchestrate a learning experience that will engage each learner.  This entry point of interest might possibly be the tipping point and maximize learning.

We believe teachers can determine and target each learner’s sweet spot by investigating four areas of prior experiences. The areas to consider are:

1.  Affective: Does the learner have positive feelings and memories about the type of task or activity to be done? Does the learner have a history of prior successes with learning and school?
2.  Attention: What types of stimuli are most likely to attract and engage this particular learner?
3.  Interest: Does the learner have adequate prior knowledge? Will he or she find the concept or content to be relevant? Is it personally meaningful?
4.  Prior experience: Has the learner had prior positive experiences with the type of task or activity to be completed? Has the learner demonstrated a preference for particular choice activities or processing opportunities -Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic or Multiple Intelligences?

Knowing what your students are involved with, and what activities they engage in outside of school can be a valuable resource when trying to hook students’ interest and promote engagement. At professional development sessions with middle and high school teachers, I ask them do a Round Robin Brainstorm activity using the chart below.  How much do you know about your students? How many of the prompts can you answer? Doing the brainstorm in a group helps teachers create a repertoire of ideas, pop culture terms, and a knowledge base of what many of the kids might me into.

A teacher’s job is to see how and when these terms and experiences might be used to get a student’s attention. Integrating Lady Gaga’s name into a math problem, analyzing the idiomatic expressions used by the Jersey Shore characters, or using the Angry Bird’s game to illustrate trajectory… will let students know that you are paying attention to who they are and what kinds of things are interesting to them.

In his book, “Why Students Don’t Like School,” (Jossey-Bass, 2009) Daniel Willingham says that catering to students’ interests promotes positive connections between student and teacher.  Do you “know thy learner?’ Make a commitment this week to embed their interests and pop culture references into a few lessons. See if they smile and appreciate the connection!