Practicing Brain-Based, Student-Centered Learning

Focusing on brain science to understand how students learn best

By: Charlene Wilton
Director of the Center for Advancement of Learning (CAL)

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that something so small controls everything that makes us ourselves. Weighing about three pounds, our brains make up just two percent of the body's total weight, yet it uses around 20 percent of its energy and oxygen. Our brain is composed of roughly 86 billion neurons (nerve cells) with each neuron having hundreds to thousands of synapses (connection points). Scientists have estimated that a three-year-old brain has one quadrillion connection points! A supercomputer takes 40 minutes to map one second of brain activity. Roughly the size of your two fists side by side, this small organ determines what we see, taste, do, remember, and feel—all that makes us uniquely us.

What has interested me through the years is how our different brains learn best. I’ve spent my career assisting students with finding the best pathways for each individual child to learn. With the use of functional magnetic resonating images (fMRI), scientists can now watch the electrical impulses as they travel throughout the brain; it is the movement of those electrical impulses that actually constitutes learning. Brain science is exploding as researchers attempt to measure the best ways to learn to read, write, do math, and develop the emotional regulation and social skills needed to be happy and productive citizens.

Brain research has proven that some of the things we thought about best practices in education are in fact true—exercise and movement benefits learning, people need time to be quiet and reflect in order to consolidate their learning, too much stress impedes the brain’s ability to learn, and that imaginative play in children forms the basis for deep thinkers later on. Research has supported the common sense belief that the more deeply we are engaged and interested in a topic, the deeper and more extensive the learning will be.

Research on the brain is also helping to “debunk” beliefs about the brain. Acclaimed Stanford psychology professor and author Carol Dweck, with her work on the growth mindset, has helped debunk the traditional belief that IQ is fixed at birth. Although people are born with different capabilities at birth, every experience that a person has shapes and changes the brain by forming new connections or strengthening old ones. She believes that a person’s “true potential is unknown and unknowable.” Providing a rich variety of experiences and opportunities for children to think deeply about topics that they value increases a child’s ability to think deeply about the next topic. Providing the right balance of stretch for students builds resilience and confidence to take on further challenges.

There are several topics of research our students need to know. First, cramming does not work if they hope to retain the information long term. Distributed practice over a period of time interwoven with different types of problems or information works better to solidify concepts and facts. In order for most people to master concepts and information, highlighting and rereading are not as effective as the strategies of summarizing, explaining it to yourself, and taking mini quizzes periodically to check your knowledge. Finding ways to connect new information to what we already know by using analogies and metaphors increases memory. Creating visual images of yourself doing what you are reading, or listening to, can increase your memory threefold. And one of the most powerful concepts for me is that you can’t learn if you don’t believe that you can. As 19th century business titan Henry Ford said, “Whatever you think you can or think you can’t do, you are right.”

During my many years here at Steward, I have watched the school grow in its commitment to the types of educational pedagogy that is proving to be most effective for learning. Kindergarten students are being taught system’s thinking, Middle School students learn science in an authentic “work” environment, and Upper School students are involved with real research on topics that are meaningful to them. Our students learn from an early age to care for themselves and their classmates. Our emphasis on collaborative learning activities and commitment to service within the community develops citizens who will care about more than themselves.

Having committed teachers who encourage students to work hard at a task and to find connections increases both students’ knowledge and the stamina for students to handle new challenging tasks. Having a student-centered curriculum increases engagement, which deepens learning. At Steward, students choose many of the books they read, their expert project in third grade, and their product to make and sell in the fourth grade mini-economy; they make choices throughout their years, ending with their capstone senior project and senior speech. Providing a foundation of knowledge and skills, while allowing students choice in what they learn, ensures that students will be ready for learning throughout their life—whether in an educational setting, a workplace, or even in their pursuit of new recreational activities. Being comfortable with the struggle needed to master challenging concepts builds the tolerance for risk that our world will need if it is to solve the thorniest problems.

I’ve been fortunate to attend several national conferences with leading researchers. While interacting with educators from around the country, I have always been proud of how many of the brain-based strategies are already in place at Steward, and I have been able to share our successful implementation of children’s engineering, design and systems thinking, student choice and innovation, mindfulness, etc. We are ahead of our time in our emphasis on small classes with hands-on learning and deep relationships with teachers; with a curriculum rich in problem-solving and innovation. Steward’s tradition of having high expectations of all students, and of seeing students as individuals—with our emphasis on student-centered learning that engages them to dig deeply into topics—puts us ahead of others who may be mired by the myths of old-style education.


Steward Voices

Steward is an atmosphere that fosters confidence—something we have seen in all three of our kids. Whether it is playing a new sport, running for a seat on the Honor Council, or singing a solo on Talent Night, they have been encouraged to try, to experience, and to grow.
- Dan and Kathi Campbell, Parents of Abbie ’19, Emma ’17, and Ben ’14

Steward Voices

Steward is the right place for Micah and Kiri because they are able to develop strong connections with their teachers, which in turn facilitates confidence and resilience in their learning. Everyone at Steward knows your name and makes you feel so welcome.
- Paul and Janet Yoon, Parents of Kiri ’27 and Micah ’26

Steward Voices

Steward helped me develop the skills I needed to succeed in college and the courage and confidence to set competitive career goals for myself. But, these skills weren’t lessons I learned just in Steward’s classrooms; they came from the athletic fields, in the hallways, and during Honor Council meetings, too.
- Grace Henderson ’10

Steward Voices

Steward provides Andrew with a nurturing environment which fosters his individualism, develops exemplary character traits, and continuously provides him with creative learning experiences. Consequently, Andrew ‘loves’ school and anticipates each day with joy, enthusiasm, and excitement.
- Betsy Jollay, Grandmother of Andrew O’Leary ’25

Steward Voices

I love all that The Steward School has done for Trace. Steward has uncovered Trace’s talents, celebrated his individuality, and strengthened his belief in himself. The faculty and staff offer an amazing balance of challenge and comfort, encouraging the best from all students. I can’t imagine Trace being anywhere else. Thank you, Steward School.
- Ron Coles, Father of Trace Coles ’19 and Grade 5 Teacher

Steward Voices

Being a member of The Steward School international program has been an awesome experience. The community has helped me tremendously along the way.
- Bowen Chen ’15


Copyright 2014 The Steward School

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