Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences
we have seen, there are things we can do to create a safe physical
environment. At the very least, we should give serious consideration
to creating a physical environment that respects the physical needs
of our students. Yet, there is much more that we can do. I would like
to suggest that it is worth our effort to go beyond simply creating
a safe environment to creating an enriched physical environment.
Rationale for Creating an Enriched Physical Environment
for Enriching the Physical Environment
RATIONALE FOR CREATING AN ENRICHED PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
Smarter, Jensen and Dabney discuss research that, contrary to
previously held beliefs, shows our brains
continue to grow new brain cells throughout our lives.
landmark study by Ericksson and colleagues (1998) found that the
human hippocampus, the area of the brain linked
to learning and memory, retains its ability to generate neurons
throughout life, even into old age. (Jensen & Dabney,
2000, p. 173)
Diamond's work at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967
shows us the importance of an enriched environment in rats, and by
implication, the importance of an enriched environment in human learning.
Diamond's work also shows that the potential for learning, i.e., growing
new connections, continues throughout life. In speaking at a conference
on aging in March of 2001, Diamond outlined
5 basic factors that will ensure a healthy brain well into old age:
diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and human love. I have
already touched on the importance of diet and exercise in the section
a Safe Physical Environment, and emotions will be considered in
section. Here, I want to focus primarily on challenge and newness.
With respect to challenge, she says, "The brain needs new challenges
if it is to remain a healthy, functioning organ. Translated, if you
have been enjoying working on the same kind of crossword puzzles year
after year, it is time to advance to more complicated puzzles or to
introduce a new game that will challenge different skills that are
lying dormant." (¶ 36) Pushing ourselves to try more difficult
things, especially when multisensory input is involved, is good for
us at any age. Furthermore, Diamond reports, "Because 'newness'
is an important aspect of challenge, we had to change the toys [in
the rat experiments] frequently; otherwise, the brain at first responds
to the enriched conditions but decreases its growth activity when
the newness wears off." (¶ 60) Here, however, Diamond cautions
that too much newness, or too much overstimulation, can cause stress,
which as we shall see, interferes with learning. It's important to
find the right balance. Not an easy task, but we can do it! After
all, teachers also need challenge to remain fresh and to grow, too.
read excerpts from an interview with Diamond and learn more about
her research, click
We are generally not aware of how much the brain is actually capable
of doing. We know that we never use all of our brain's resources,
which are phenomenal. Research tells that our bodies and our brains
form a complex system. Much of traditional education treats
the human body as if it were made up of separate components with one
section for music, one for art, one for physical education, one math
and so on. So we teach academic subjects in isolation one from the
other. But the brain is a multi-function parallel processor,
taking in information at many different levels and processing the
information in different ways. (Jensen, 2000a) The seventh of
Renate and Geoffrey Caine's (2001-2002) learning principles suggests
a rationale for enriching the environment:
core idea is that the brain/mind is immersed all the time in a field
of sensations, images, and input, and continuously has to select what
to attend to and what to ignore. Now attention itself is natural,
and tends to be driven by what is of most interest or relevance to
the satisfaction of wants and needs.
However, even while paying direct attention, children (and all of
us [my words added]) are also absorbing information that lies beyond
the immediate focus. This input ranges from basic background sensations
(sound, color, chatter, laughter) to the behaviors and aspects of
the environment that reflect the beliefs and practices of a culture.
This dual operation of attention and peripheral perception
occurs all the time in every context, including the home and the classroom.
go the Caine's website and read more about their 12 principles,
brains continually take in all kinds of information, much more than
what we are focusing on at a given moment. As we have already
seen, it selects what is most important for survival and focuses energy
on that first. Once survival needs are met, the brain will focus
on things it thinks are meaningful from past experience. However,
the brain has the capacity to focus on much
than what we actually are paying attention to.
Natural learning occurs in complex environments. Observe young
children exploring their world and learning rapidly. Or consider
how we learn outside the classroom. I love to tell me students about
learning how to ski in Austria. The instructor spoke in German, of
course, but I learned so much more than just how to ski. My whole
skiing vocabulary is still in German today. The richer their environment,
the better the learning.
brain is poorly designed for formal instruction. In fact, it
is not at all designed for efficiency or order. Rather, it develops
through selection and survival. ...It is easier to conceive how this
amazing multi-processor, called our brain, is undernourished,
not starved, in the typical classroom. Many educators unknowingly
inhibit the brain's learning ability by teaching in a ultra-linear,
and predictable fashion. The result is bored or frustrated learners
who then perpetuate the underachievement cycle. What this
means to learning is that we understand complex topics better when
we experience them with rich sensory input, as opposed
to merely reading or hearing about the subject. (Jensen, 2000a,
pp. 3, 12, 13)
Learning, Jensen (2000a) reports on an amazing study conducted by
Emanual Donchin and his colleagues at the Champaign-Urbana campus of
the University of Illinois. They have discovered that more
than 99 percent of all learning is nonconscious. The learning
comes from visual cues, sounds, experiences, aromas, and feelings.
Georgi Lozanov, PhD., the Bulgarian researcher, utilized unconscious
learning in developing his concept of "suggestopedia"
with amazing success in the teaching of foreign languages. Jensen says,
"Lozanov's success in the area of suggestopedia (or accelerated learning)
suggests that in a well-orchestrated, positively suggestive learning
environment, student learning can be dramatically improved." (Jensen,
1998, p. 103) Dhority and Jensen (1998) discuss contributions that Lozanov
has made to understanding the role of the unconscious in learning:
believes that the brain, consciously and paraconsciously, receives,
orders, codes, retrieves and utilizes outside stimuli in certain ways.
He maintains that interpersonal communication and mental activity
are always conscious and paraconscious at the same time. Paraconscious
is that which is outside of our conscious attention, like peripherals,
background music and subconscious associations. Because every stimulus
is complex, it is interpreted, associated, coded, symbolized and generalized
in a way that we can understand it. (p. 20)
read how Lozanov explains this, click
call this phenomenon of unconscious learning peripheral
learning and this is the fundamental reason we should consider
enriching the physical environment of our classrooms. By doing so, we
recognize that while our attention may be focused in one area, our brain
still registers items outside the center of focus, and this can be a
valuable learning tool.
A final reason for
enriching the physical environment, in our opinion, is that it respects
different learning styles and intelligences. Although the end product
of student learning may be the solution to a math problem or writing
a research paper, utilizing a variety of materials and activities can
help students who are not verbal/linguistic or mathematical/logical
find an entry into the content of the course.
FOR ENRICHING THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
to Enrich the Learning Space
I need to make it clear that the following strategies alone are not
enough. The focus here is on ways we can creative a rich physical learning
environment, one that would be comparable for humans to Diamond's enriched
environment for rats. But simply placing various items in the classroom
and then not making use of them will not achieve much. Our students
are usually not allowed to explore freely and create their own meaning
out of their surroundings as rats are, nor would they or we teachers
think that would be a good use of our time.
best enriched learning activity is one that is complex and as close
to real life as possible. Francis
Hunkins (1994) of the University of Washington describes a dream environment
see misty outlines of spaces that suggest unity, integration of knowledge
realms, not discontinuity, the atomization of information. I see spaces
that suggest prolonged inquiry under the control of students, with
teachers as consultants, coaches, guides. I see spaces that allow
for emergence and chaos, that give students time and space for developing
patterns of meaning, projects.
see spaces that enable student dreaming teams to collaborate on long-range
see spaces where the concept of synergy, the concept that under certain
conditions the whole can be more than the sum of the parts, is a key
see spaces that allow dreamers to take initiative and responsibility
through reliance on themselves and "colleague teams", spaces
that allow for creating knowledge through mutual deliberation. (Learning
Environments that Foster Authentic Activities, Knowledge Work, ¶
The section on Constructing
Meaning describes what is involved in creating complex learning
activities. The Classroom
Applications section also has many examples of learning activities
that require an enriched physical environment. For now, suffice it to
say that an enriched physical environment is
only a tool to help students and teachers make learning more meaningful,
and thus, more memorable. However, Thomas Armstrong in his
book, Awakening Genius in the Classroom (1998), suggests that
we don't need complex learning programs or tools
to enrich our classrooms. Simple things that come from our every
day lives can stimulate a sense of wonder and curiosity. He gives
an extensive list of ideas including recordings of significant
music, reproductions of great art, historical relics, math puzzles,
fauna and flora, classic movies, prize-winning documentaries, performances
of great theater or dance, readings from great literature, recordings
of the work of eminent poets, simple machines, building supplies, simple
science tools, a Polaroid camera, storytelling, models of cities, inventions,
the human body, guest speakers, personal memorabilia or collections,
materials to smell, taste and touch, a tape recorder, and field trips.
While it seems obvious that some of these will be used in some classrooms,
for example microscopes in a science lab, we need to consider breaking
out of the box of our respective disciplines. What would happen
in a writing class if students looked through a microscope at a bug
or a leaf before writing a descriptive essay? What are the possibilities
if a poem or an excerpt from literature were included in a history class?
How might great works of art be included in a math class? We must
keep in mind that the brain is not organized by disciplines, and that
learning is much broader than the specific disciplines that we are dealing
We have already
seen how the brain responds to color and movement. Now, we can begin
to use these elements to actually enrich the physical environment. Posters,
charts, hands-on working models, videos, cognitive maps, artwork, photographs,
student-produced projects all can be used effectively to take advantage
of peripheral learning. They can anticipate coming content and stimulate
thinking about a topic before it is introduced (priming/pre-exposure).
They can also be left out after content has been discussed allowing
students to review the content almost subconsciously. However, they
need to be changed periodically to avoid familiarization Robin
Fogarty (1997) provides an extensive wish list of things related to
the five senses that would be included in an ideal physically enriched
here to view her list. No
single classroom could contain all of these items, not would that be
recommended. But from time to time, a few of these things might be appropriate
as we seek to provide a rich learning environment. In our brain-friendly
classroom, we are fortunate to have shelving and storage so that we
can keep a supply of creative items on hand for use as needed. But when
we have to be in another space, we make use of "tool
boxes," small plastic baskets filled with various items
to enrich the space wherever we are. You might be worried that bringing
such items into a college classroom might be demeaning to students,
taking them back to their kindergarten days. I have to confess that
at first my students are a bit hesitant to make full use of these learning
tools, especially because I work with international students who are
clearly accustomed to more traditional approaches to learning. But with
a proper explanation and modeling, it doesn't take long for students
to realize the value of using these tools in learning. Jensen cites
studies by Fan and Gruenfeld in 1998 Subhi in 1999 and others that show
that such activities not only help improve problem solving skills, they
can improve the emotional and social climate of the classroom.
(Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 177)
may not realize it, but while having fun with such brain teasers as
the Rubik's Cube, the Tangram, the Tower of Hanoi,
crossword puzzles, various word games, and mathematical puzzle books,
you are actually enhancing your problem-solving
ability, research shows. (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 177)
Many of us are tempted to bemoan the fact that students today seem to
short attention spans. And in fact, says David Sousa, contemporary
brains are being accustomed to a quickly changing environment.
Video games, MTV, advertisements, and just about all other forms of
entertainment today expose us to rapid sensory and emotional changes.
Students growing up in this environment find school
dull, nonengaging, find it difficult to concentrate for long periods
of time, easily distracted
of our success as a species can be attributed to the brain's persistent
interest in novelty, that is, changes occurring in the environment.
The brain is constantly scanning its environment for stimuli.
When an unexpected stimulus arises--such as a loud noise from an empty
room--a rush of adrenaline closes down all unnecessary activity and
focuses the brain's attention so it can spring into action.
Conversely, an environment that contains mainly predictable or repeated
stimuli (like some classrooms?) lowers the brain's interest in the
outside world and tempts it to turn within for novel sensations....The
rapidly changing multimedia-based culture and the stresses from an
ever-increasing pace of living are changing what the developing brain
learns from the world. (Sousa, 2000, pp. 27-28)
Pat Wolfe and Ron
Brandt (1998) tell us "The brain is essentially curious, and it must
be to survive. It constantly seeks connections between the new
and the known. Learning is a process of active construction by
the learner, and an enriched environment gives students the opportunity
to relate what they are learning to what they already know."
(Finding One, ¶
9) So the conclusion is that seeking novelty
is hard-wired in our brains, and that novelty plays a role in the development
of new brain cells.
is one of the most commonly used multisensory teaching techniques
for stimulating the classroom away from habituation and boredom. The
moments of losing enthusiasm and attention in the classroom can easily
be modified with diversion methods that transform an atmosphere of
habituation into attention. A simple change in the pattern of the
voice, the dynamics of expression, or the tempos of speech can alter
the classroom flow. Diversion can also be accomplished by rearranging
desks, changing the typical flow in a lesson plan, or using a different
teaching technique. (Brewer & Campbell, 1991, p. 226)
Sousa (2000) suggests
the following ways to introduce novelty into our learning environments:
Laughing causes more oxygen and glucose to enter the bloodstream,
and thus the brain, providing the brain with more fuel. It also causes
endorphins to be released in the blood. Endorphins are natural "feel
good" chemicals in the body. However, avoid using sarcastic or
"By getting up and moving, we recirculate that blood. Within
a minute, there is about 15 percent more blood in our brain" (p.
Instruction: Using interesting and colorful images and sounds
get our attention.
Quiz games and other similar activities change the pace but also provide
an excellent opportunity for rehearsal and review.
More on this below.
Jensen also gives
some suggestions for the use of novelty.
New activities need to be stimulating and challenging. While novelty
has its place, it's important not to overdo it. With too much novelty,
more cortisol and
, the stress hormones, are released into the blood stream.
(Jensen & Dabney, 2000) Alternating new
and challenging activities with more predictable rituals can help to
create a balanced emotional climate. Whatever activities
we introduce to change the pace and stimulate attention must be meaningful
and related to the content at hand. Feedback is also essential."This
feedback loop enables the brain to extract generalized patterns from
many bits of information." (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 171)
Furthermore, feedback "increases coping abilities while lowering the
pituitary-adrenal stress responses." (Jensen, 2000a, p. 33) The
brain is self-referencing, that is, what happens on one level is checked
by another level. To make feedback more effective, it must be
specific and immediate. Jensen
(2000a) suggests that we can add novelty by increasing difficulty of
the material, varying time, materials access, expectations or support,
changing instructional strategies by using computers, field trips, guest
speakers, games, complex projects, problem solving (p. 32)
In 1993 Frances Rauscher, PhD. at the Center for the Neurobiology
of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irving, formulated
has since become known as the Mozart Effect.
He looked at students who had listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos
in D Major for ten minutes prior to taking a test in spatial and abstract
reasoning. The students raised their scores significantly compared to
students who just listened to relaxation music or had silence. (as cited
in Jensen, 2000a, pp. 246-247) Since then, there has been much
discussion about the validity of Rauscher's research, with some studies
supporting his original claim and others refuting it. A study done by
Nantais and colleagues in 1999 (as cited in Jensen & Dabney, 2000)
report that music stimulates the right frontal lobe area of the brain,
which is where verbal functioning, verbal skills, planning, social conduct
take place. Jensen concludes, "The overall, positive effects of
music on learning, such as activation and stimulation of the brain's
limbic system, stress reduction, and increased molecular energy--all
of what affect cognition and creativity--are well documented."
(Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 78). It seems that there is evidence
that music activates procedural memory, which lasts longer than declarative
memory. (Jensen, 1998, p. 38)
simply, music making seems to activate and synchronize neural firing
patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple cognitive brain sites.
Thus, the brain's efficiency and effectiveness is enhanced. The key
systems impacted are well connected between the frontal, parietal,
and temporal lobes, as well as the cerebellum. (Jensen, 2000b, p.
In any case, music
can contribute to a positive atmosphere in the classroom, creating relaxation
and in turn enhancing learning. Brewer & Campbell (1991)
suggest the following uses of music in the classroom:
create a relaxing atmosphere
establish a positive learning state
provide a multisensory learning experience that improves memory
enhancement of active learning sessions
background sound for learning activities
increase attention by creating a short burst of energizing excitement
release tension by using music with movement
accentuate theme-oriented units
add an element of fun (p. 230)
Quite an impressive
list. When it comes to music, we see that it has an impact physically
on the brain, both also emotionally. The next section focuses on creating
a safe emotional environment, where music can also play a significant
Many of the current
educational theorists whose work is centered in current research suggest
appropriate types of music for various types of activities in the class.(Brewer
& Campbell, Jensen, and Fogarty among others) Jensen and others
go into quite a bit of detail about the type of music, including beats
per second, that are appropriate for learning environments. For
example, music that has 50-70 beats per second has been found to slow
body functions because the rhythm is similar to the heartbeat. (Brewer
& Campbell, 1991, p. 232) Brewer and Campbell identify two major
classifications of music: passive and active, which I find quite helpful.
Passive music, so called because
it induces a passive learning state, is music that has a fairly slow
rhythm. This type of music is appropriate as background music for fairly
quiet activities such as discussions, reading, lectures, or teacher
review. Passive music promotes relaxation and rejuvenation and can help
relieve tension and stress. Active music,
on the other hand, can be used to get attention, stimulate awareness,
or create greater focus. When combined with movement, more active music
can restore flagging energy and promote blood circulation and deep breathing.
In Music with
the Brain in Mind, Jensen (2000b) also suggests two general categories
of music: complex and simple. Complex music, he suggests, increases
activity in many areas of the brain.
that has structural complexity (like the piece used for the Mozart
experiments--Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major) is good to include
in your mix of music selections. Other pieces in this category include
Haydn's Symphonies 42, 45, 56, 94, and 100. Some samples of music
that have rhythmic complexity include Master Drummer from Ghana, by
Mustapha, and Tettey Addy or Trichy Sankaran's Laya Vinyas (in Music
of the World 120). (Jensen, 2000b, p. 33)
the other hand, music with a simple structure is well suited to background
which has structural simplicity is best for background music. Consider
using popular jazz instrumentals like George Benson, Kenny G. or David
Sanborn. Environmental music can work wonders, too. Ocean sounds,
waterfalls, and rain forest soundtracks are usually well received.
(Jensen, 2000b, p. 41)
I would echo Jensen's
(2000b) caution to "do some action research
with your own students." (p. 39) Not all students
will react in the same way to the use of music. When you use music in
your classes, be watchful and sensitive. Ask students to give you feedback
about how the music is affecting them, and be ready to change the type
of music or delete it altogether if necessary.
Classroom Applications, under Strategies I have compiled a list of
specific recommendations for using music for various activities.
here to go to it.
In my classes, I
make use of many types of music. As the semester goes on, I also invite
students to bring in CD's of music they enjoy studying or working to.
Because my class is multi-ethnic, I also try to incorporate music from
different countries around the world. Some Japanese music is wonderful
for work that requires concentration and Caribbean music provides a
great rhythm for moving. I also make use of variety contemporary music,
including movie musicals, jazz, country and western, and recent hits.
My main concern in selecting a piece of music is
the emotional atmosphere I want to convey for a particular activity.
Upbeat music greets my students as they enter the room because I want
to frame an optimistic, fun attitude for the class ahead. The class
often ends with joyful, celebratory music to give the students a positive
feeling as they leave the room. When students are doing small group
work, I like music with a bit of a snappy beat, but not overpowering.
It works wonderfully to signal both the start and end of small group
discussion time. I have found it easier for students to start talking
when music is playing. Otherwise, the room is so silent that no one
wants to speak first. Cutting off small group discussion can also be
difficult, but the end of the music clearly signals that people should
stop talking. Finally, I use slow, calming music for activities that
require concentration, such as reading or writing. Because I teach a
two-hour class, I like to use lively, familiar music during breaks.
At the beginning of every class and whenever I notice attention or energy
are low, I will do a quick half-minute of stretching to lively, active
music. Finally, a quick review activity that I like to do is walk-pair-share
to lively music. During this activity, students stand, take 5-7 giant
steps and find a partner. They then review together the specific content
that we have been studying. This activity usually only takes 3 minutes
or so. In addition to getting the students up and moving, it also gives
me an indication of the level of student understanding of the content
so I know whether to reteach it, review it or go on to something new.
For most of us,
there is not a lot of money available in our budgets to purchase extensive
collections of CD's. Perhaps you have your own extensive CD or tape
collection, but I did not. However, developing a collection doesn't
have to take a lot of money. The Friends of the Library Book Sale in
Ithaca (where they sell used books, records, CD's, tapes, etc. to raise
money to support the public library in Ithaca) is an excellent place
to hunt out inexpensive CD's and tapes, sometimes costing as little
as ten or twenty-five cents. Sometimes department stores and drug stores
will have inexpensive CD's and tapes that probably haven't sold well
in the music stores, but are exactly the types of music I am looking
for. Finally, I look for collections of music, i.e., The Greatest Broadway
Hits, or the Best of Jazz. Some of these are suggested on the page "Strategies
for Using Music" in the Classroom Applications section.
One last word of
caution about using music in our classes. Brewer and Campbell recommend
that music be played no more than 30% of class time. Music does generate
considerable brain activity, as we have seen, and we must remember to
balance the load we place on the brain in any activity. We need to be
sensitive to our students' varying needs. Not all students benefit from
music in the same way. Variety is essential as well as times of silence.
Furthermore, music with lyrics should generally be avoided. I only use
music with lyrics when the class is truly having down-time, as during
a break. I myself find myself singing along if I know the words, which
easily distracts me from what I really need to think about. Finally,
it is not recommended to use music during test situations (unless you
have made an effort to accustom students to music during tests).
to the next section, Creating a Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment