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Educators focus on stimulating students’ senses to keep them engaged

Posted: August 27, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 27, 2012 2:00 a.m.

First-grader Brandon Garcia, 6, works on an exercise at Rio Vista Elementary School in Canyon Country on Wednesday.

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“You say potato, I say potato,” Louis Armstrong crooned through a small stereo as about 30 sets of eyes in Rio Vista Elementary School’s fifth-grade classroom followed Kyle Evans’ language arts lesson.

Evans is using the short musical accompaniment to demonstrate the “big idea” for the day — homographs.

While teaching students about how words spelled the same can have different meanings, he points to a sentence containing the word “bow” and asks the class which one the sentence is using.
As the students stand up, lower their heads and show Evans the traditional sign of respect, he has his first confirmation.

Such is the way of brain-based direct instruction.

“Our goal is for the student to not go home and say, ‘Gosh, I really didn’t understand that lesson in math today,’” said Saugus Union School District Superintendent Joan Lucid. “We want them to want to continue their learning.”

By engaging in activities that keep the brain active through seemingly ever-changing sensory stimulation — listening to music, moving around, and in general, being more active in the learning process — students are kept engaged, she explained.

Repetitions then help reinforce learning concepts broken into understandable chunks students can practice at any time.

And the schools’ results have drawn praise from students, teachers and other districts.

The concept

Saugus Union officials made the decision to try brain-based direct instruction and implement the program four years ago, with Rio Vista being the pilot school. The following year, the rest of the district followed suit.

“(Brain-based direct instruction) is a lesson presentation with strategies that helps us on how the brain learns,” said Isa De Armas, principal at Rio Vista. “It gives the students a structure that’s concise.”

The name refers to lessons being structured around research on the ways the brain learns best.

“What we now know about learning is that when students sit in a classroom where the teacher is the most active person, it’s not the best way to learn,” said Susan Belgrad, an early childhood education professor at CSUN who has written books on the topic and worked with Saugus Union to put brain-based education programs in place.

Lesson plans are meant to be varied with activities but familiar in their structure. Each is defined with a “big idea” and clear learning objectives, which are written on the board and shared with students repeatedly.

“Research shows that the brain will begin to pick things up after 18 to 24 repetitions,” De Armas said.

Taking that into consideration, the teachers try to match lessons with “optimal windows for learning.”

Introducing a new idea during one of these windows, such as when students come right back from lunch, will yield better results, De Armas said.

“We used to bring them in from lunch break and settle them down with a story,” she said. “But we found that that’s the best time to introduce a new idea.”


“When I was in fifth grade, the teacher showed me a really easy way to learn this, so I could practice at home,” said Javier, a sixth-grader, as he went over some pre-algebra steps.

The way the steps were taught made it very easy to understand, he said.
But the methods’ successes are more than anecdotal, De Armas said. Rio Vista has seen its scores rise from an Academic Performance Index score of 793 in 2007, the year before the program was implemented, to an API of 832 last year. The API is a statewide, standardized test meant as a measuring stick for schools’ success.

The learning goals are essentially the same; they come from the state, De Armas said. But how they’re approached under brain-based direct instruction is quite different.

Teachers started their preparation over the summer and collaborated on plans so instructional methods align and remain familiar to students. Familiarity is a big part of the strategy, De Armas said.

“I love being able to teach upon the other teachers,” said Sue O’Brien as she went over orders of operations for a fifth-grade math class. “There’s always a great foundation there now.”

The reason for collaboration is that structure and repetition are extremely important — but so is varying that structure, experts say.

Looking ahead

“Overall, I think this effort holds promise,” said Karen Hunter Quartz, director of research at UCLA Community School. But she added a caution, as well.

“The history of education reform is replete with efforts to sell new ‘proven’ techniques and curricula to schools and districts,” Hunter Quartz said. “We should be mindful of this history.”

But while the field of social neuroscience is a relatively emerging area of study, Saugus Union’s results have been enough to garner local interest.

After looking at Saugus Union schools, Newhall School District officials also are incorporating brain-based direct instruction into their curricula, according to Nancy Copley, the district’s assistant superintendent of instruction.

“We just looked at (Saugus Union District’s) record, and we found it was pretty impressive,” Copley said. “I know the staff at Newhall (Elementary) is looking forward to it.”

The biggest thing to remember is that if something is taught in an engaging fashion and the student wants to learn, anyone can learn absolutely anything, Belgrad said.

“In education, we tend to think of play as a four-letter word,” she said. “If we teach child in a learning environment where they play with stuff or take things in some way that they understand this information, and they can produce something from it, then they’re going to learn it for life.”



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