Friday, December 14, 2007

Concrete Experiences and the Brain

How do I get my students interested in social studies? This has been one of the big challenges I have taken on this school year. My efforts have lead me to the book Made to Stick, a book about how ideas become sticky. I've been reading the book for a while now and using the ideas from it to try to liven up material that fifth graders have a hard time getting interested in--history, economics, and geography. Many of the concepts embedded in these topics can be a little abstract--how does one define economy for a 10 year-old--so my students have a difficult time learning them.

One of the six traits that the authors assert make ideas sticky is concreteness. Take an abstract idea and make it concrete, and people will remember it. Concrete messages evoke the senses, and the more senses they call up, the stickier they are.

An article in the December/January edition of the journal Teaching Children Mathematics actually explains how the brain processes sensory experiences. The part of the brain sensitive to sensory input is the sensory cortex. "Sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes and muscle sensations children experience all go this part of their brains" the authors state. So it makes sense to use it as a starting point for learning. What kind of sensory experiences can we use to make learning stick with our students? Below is a list:
  • Manipulatives
  • Field Trips
  • Projects
  • Role Playing
  • Visual Representations
  • Sharing and listening to ideas
Thanks to the above reading, I've been able to brainstorm (and use) new ideas for helping my students learn social studies better. For instance, when teaching about the history of the Southeast Region of the United States, I plan to use cotton balls in some way (not sure yet) and relate them to the region's agrarian economy and dependence on slavery. I've even become open to ideas from colleagues that I may not have used before (a suitcase--what would we pack it with if we were traveling to a certain region of the country).

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Great post. Thinking back to all the things I learned and what I actually still retain many years after formal schooling, I'd have to agree that concrete projects/show-n-tell/role playing were the most effective. I really like your cotton ball idea. How about assigning a "research project" for the students (maybe working in groups or at home with a parent) to bring in one item that is related to the city/region you're studying and tell the story behind it? (could be related to the city's food, language, economy, people, etc) I also hated being in the front of the room all by myself, so maybe make it a roundtable discussion to make it less nervewracking?

I think I'll go get myself the book too. Thanks for the recommendation!