Notes from Teacher’s Convention: Engaging your Brain for Learning

I just got back from the 2013 Palliser District Teacher’s Convention in Calgary. I work for Alberta Education in Edmonton, but I am seconded there so I still have to attend my school district’s annual Teacher’s Convention in Calgary.

It was a great visit to Calgary. Tom had to take time off work to be home with the kids so I brought them all along with me to Calgary. They had a great time exploring downtown Calgary, especially Chinatown and the Calgary tower.

The Calgary Tower at Night
The Calgary Tower at Night

Tom and I celebrated his birthday with a fantastic dinner at Charcut Roast House. We got to sit at the bar in front of the kitchen and watch the chefs working as we ate (the best kind of dinner theater.)

Dinner at Charcut Roast House in Calgary
Dinner at Charcut Roast House in Calgary

It was great to catch up with my former co-workers from Innisfail. But this was not my strongest professional development experience this year. I have blogged previously about my frustration with the lack of wireless access at the convention (2013, 2012) which keeps me from back-channeling when I am in sessions.

I think my friend Dave put it best when he described these conventions as relics from a different era when there was very little professional development available for teachers. Now that there are so many ways for teachers to develop their own professional learning networks and learn on-line, I think we would be better off spending two days on professional development of our own choosing. I would have preferred to spend my time on my current chosen professional development, etmooc, instead of traveling to Calgary.

Convention Highlights

There was a very funny keynote address by Will Ferguson who won the Giller Prize for his most recent book 419. His stories about the Canadian experience had me laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face.

All of the sessions I attended this year had to do with the brain. I attended a session by Judith Cobb called “How to Get Smarter as you Get Older”, her presentation can be found here. She didn’t say much that I hadn’t already heard, and drove me a little crazy by reading every word on her slides but one of my co-workers really loved her presentation. She learned that the flavour packages that she was adding to her water were almost all sugar and is going to stop using them.

I also attended a fantastic two-part presentation by Terry Small called Engaging the Brain. It could have been called engaging the audience. Terry was an excellent presenter, who kept us laughing and moving as he talked about how the latest research about neuroscience can help you learn (and teach) better.

Brain Fact #1 Your Brain’s Primary Job is to Keep You Alive and Comfortable

Terry talked about how the brain’s state is more important than circumstances and how you can change the state of your brain. He pointed out that the brain’s primary job is to keep you alive and comfortable, and tied all everything else he talked about to that. I knew that exercise was important to your brain, but I didn’t know that it needs 10,000 steps a day. Good thing I walk and take the stairs so much.

He talked about the brain’s internal/external cycle, which switches back and forth about every 20 minutes (if you are younger than eighteen years old it is your age + two) and stressed the importance of recognizing that cycle in yourself and your students. If your students are 13 years old, standing up, sipping water or eating raw unsalted walnuts, almonds or dark raisins every 15 minutes will double their productivity. The brain works 10% better when standing up, another good reason to hold stand-up meetings.

He also said that cross-lateral function (engaging both sides of the brain) increases attention and showed us some simple movements to do when standing up to increase cross-lateral function. He showed us something he called Super Brain Yoga where we crossed our arms over our chests and grabbed our ear lobes and then did ten knee bends. I am going to try it the next time I find my mind wandering after sitting a long time facing my computer screen.

Brain Fact #2 Your Brain Thinks in Pictures

The brain thinks in picture, which is why we never say to someone I know your name but I can’t remember your face. When you turn what you have to learn into a picture, or connect it to a picture that is already in your brain, memory goes up 800%.

The brain makes connections. The first thing that your brain does when you experience something is to try and connect it to something you have already experienced (to pictures that are already in your brain.) Terry did a magic trick to show that magic works because the brain is wired to see what is essential not what is real.

Brain Fact #3 Changing the Pictures in Your Brain Can Change Your Behaviour

Your behaviour follows the pictures in your brain. If you change the pictures in your brain you can change your behaviour. Terry told a story about a first year teacher whose students got fantastic marks after she mistook their high locker numbers for IQs. She thought they all had above average intelligence and so she expected that they would do well in her class, as a result she challenged them more than she would have if she hadn’t thought they were all so smart.

Between stimulus and response in your brain there is a gap, this gap holds the potential for changing the brain. Your brain needs to hear something 19 times before it even starts to think about changing the picture it already has stored (which is why he had us turn to a partner at least 20 times during his presentation and say “You are a genius.”)

He talked about Bruce Lipton‘s work as a cell biologist and his findings that your genes and DNA can be changed by your beliefs. He challenged us to spend the rest of the year changing the photos in the brain of our most challenging student to increase their self image, as these are the students who often need our support the most. “Encouragement is pouring courage into the brain.”

Brain Fact #4 Stories Change the State of the Brain

The number one way to change the brain is by stories. This dovetailed nicely with the work that we have been doing about Digital Storytelling in etmooc. Stories change our physical state and provide opportunities for the brain to make connections. Terry called this narrative transformation.

The window to the brain is the most open in the first and last 32 seconds of class. It only takes 32 seconds for students to decide if they are going to be critics or co-learners, so grab their attention by telling stories. Questions can also change the state of your brain. My new Tweep Christina Hendrickson has been exploring changing the format of her lectures into stories.

Terry talked about the tripod of his teaching strategy: State, strategy and content. State is the state the brain is in (he called it the weather in our student’s brains), strategy is how you are going to teach, and content is what you are going to teach.

Brain Fact #5 Your Brain Learns Best with Baroque Music

Your brain learns best when it is in alpha brain wave state. Baroque music with beats of between 55 – 70 beats per minute puts the brain into alpha state and keeps it there. Suggested composers included Vivaldi, Bach, Scarlatti, Pachelbel and Handel. Listening to Baroque music can increase learning 24-400%.

This two part session was one of the best sessions I have ever attended at the Palliser District Teacher’s convention. I would love to learn more so I have signed up for Terry’s Brain Bulletin.

I am happy to be home and reconnect with my Personal Learning Network. I am disappointed that I missed Will Richardson‘s etmooc session The Challenges and Opportunities of Modern Learning while I was disconnected at the convention. I have been a big fan of his since I read his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts. I became a bigger fan while participating as a 21st Century fellow and Team Leader in the Powerful Learning Practice that Will co-founded with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. I am going to schedule time to listen to the archive this week and catch up on my chosen professional development.

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