The Brain Research Behind
the Importance of Teaching with Interactive Multimedia
an article by Neil MacQueen originally posted at www.sundaysoftware.com
with implications for teachers and preachers
This article summarizes the book “Brain Rules” by Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist (and guy with the brain over his head here). Brain Rules is an entertaining summary of the latest brain research that’s especially relevant for educators. It’s also a NYT Bestseller.
There is now an extensive body of peer-reviewed brain science supporting the reasons why interactive learning media should be an important part of our teaching tool kit.
Ignoring the data is ignorance, hubris, or stupidity, take your pick.
Interactive computer software attracts the learner’s attention and promotes better retention of content because it delivers content the way the brain is WIRED to learn and love it. And as new research continues to unlock the secrets of how the brain learns and remembers, the case for multimedia-based learning only gets stronger.
[Aside:] I understand people are concerned about “screen time” but let’s get this straight. Not all screen-time is created equal. Time spent on social media, texting, and vacuous games should be controlled, if only to make more room for what actually promotes learning with the medium. [/Aside]
For teachers, the only real question is this: how can we take advantage of this tremendous opportunity? This is the question I encountered when I first began teaching with software in 1990. I could see that the kids (and adults) were fascinated. In each version of my book, Teaching with Computers in Christian Education and numerous articles and teaching guides at this website -I have continued to refine my insights based on classroom experience and the research. This article is about some of the latest research.
Some of the latest Brain research is summarized in an easy-to-read entertaining book by Dr. John Medina titled:
“Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.”
It could have been titled: “12 things you need to know about how the Brain really works.”
Dr. Medina, is a developmental molecular biologist, University of Washington professor, and award winning brain researcher, with a special interest in explaining and applying the brain research to benefit teachers, students, and parents. His website, www.brainrules.net, is also very informativeand graphically rich.
Outline of this Article
1. First, I want to mention how as a minister I got interested in Brain research, and how it has affected my ministry.
2. Second, I will summarize the 12 Brain Rules and highlight the insights for Sunday School teachers and those who teach with multimedia software.
1. How a minister got interested in Brain Research
I first got interested in how brain science informs and enhances our teaching and preaching while serving as a pastor for Christian education at a Chicago area church in the early 90’s. The Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles on the early brain research coming out of the the University of Chicago, …much of it being funded by Alzheimer’s research. Like many teachers, I intuitively knew that creative teaching wasn’t just “entertainment,” it was essential, and the research was beginning to put good science behind it. I was particularly interested in how our memories work –mostly because I was tired of my students forgetting half of what I taught them! But also because I was interested in how we remember things like sermons and Bible passages.
While at that Chicago church, I designed a new model for Sunday School called The Workshop Rotation Model. The Rotation Model is a multimedia informed re-design of the traditional program, which also addresses how teachers can get better at their teaching. At about the same time I read about Harvard University professor Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking work in the theory of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s insights and research into how we learn provided the scientific basis for our leap into the Rotation Model. In that model, one story is taught through a series of different media over several lessons in several different rooms with several different teachers. The Model has now spread to thousands of churches. (to learn more go to www.sundaysoftware.com/rotation.htm or www.rotation.org)
Then in 1996 I started a company to help churches learn how to teach with computers and software. Some churches DIDN’T CARE “why” or “how” –they just wanted to see the kids “happy.” But “happy” wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know “why” they couldn’t leave the computer alone, and how we could better harness the computer’s attention grabbing power to improve our teaching. So I continued to read the research, and I began to examine more closely my own software teaching experiences.
In 2000, I began designing a whole new kind of Christian education software, —applying what I knew from experience and from the research. And that quest continues. I also continue to write. (Text and the spoken word are not dead. They simply aren’t the only way our brains are wired to learn.) And now here we are almost two decades later and still the Philistines cast aspersions. *shakingmyhead*
2. So what DOES the research say?
Brain Rules summarizes what the research is telling us about how the brain works, learns and remembers. Much of the research is very recent due to the advent of new brain scanning technology and increased funding (due, in large part to Alzheimer’s Research). And there is a lot of it. Dr. Medina’s 12 Brain Rules are not the conclusions of one study, but of many.
Some of the conclusions are surprising, but… others only confirm what creative teachers have known for years and can now say “told you so.” But rather than only say that, we also should be using the research to improve our methods, as well as, using the research to address critics in the church who think some of our creative methods are superfluous “entertainment.”
So here’s a summary of the 12 “Brain Rules”. You can see them creatively presented at www.brainrules.net. The following are excerpts, and I have modified some of the wording in order to condense or explain them here in this short format. The book is much more expressive and full of stories and examples which illustrate the points.
Note: My own take on the particular Brain Rules are in BLUE.
The 12 “Brain Rules”
…what the body of research says -so far
Brain Rule #1: To improve your thinking you must move. Our brain organ evolved for a walking animal not a sedentary one. Exercise is required to bring your brain the large amounts of glucose it needs, and the oxygen it requires to soak up toxic electrons. Exercise also stimulates the proteins that keep neurons connecting to one another. Aerobic exercise twice a week cuts the risk of Alzheimers by 60 percent.
Getting the kids moving in the morning is a good thing. The case for active learning and for recreational breaks continues to grow. Sitting and listening to someone talk is not what the brain likes to do.
Brain Rule #2: We have three brains in our head, not one, and each has a distinct structure, with rather distinct functions. And each competes to a certain extent with the other. The “lizard brain” handles automatic functions, such as breathing. The “mammalian brain” handles the four “human needs” ::: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction. This second brain includes the amygdala and hippocampus which are critical processing centers, especially for memories and emotions. The Cortex is the third brain –where logical, creative and symbolic thinking happens. All three parts of the brain have evolved to help us survive in a complex world.
Smart teaching recognizes the total student. When we lead a class, each student is processing the experience at many different levels, -with different parts of their brain recording and reacting. Traditional approaches have over-emphasized cognitive-cortex learning, and underestimated the degree to which other parts of our students’ brains were ALSO forming opinions.
As a child, my mammalian brain wanted to flee Sunday School. As a youth minister, I saw the tug-o-war between my students’ brains cortex and their reproductive hormones. It made me a much more sympathetic teacher.
A great lesson plan in a bad smelling room or threatening environment doesn’t work.
Brain Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently. Even twin’s brains. What we do and experience and learn constantly changes how are brains are wired. The various regions within the brain develop at different rates in different people. No two people’s brains store the same information in the same way or in the same place in the brain. We have a great number of ways of being intelligent (more than even Gardner’s 7 intelligences), many of which don’t show up on IQ tests.
The current educational system is founded on a series of expectations that certain learning goals should be achieved by a certain age. Yet there is no reason to suspect that the brain pays attention to those expectations. Students of the same age show a great deal of intellectual variability. pg 67
These ‘variations’ are why I’m a proponent of the Rotation Model…where we teach the same story several weeks in a row but through different media each week, and with a different teacher. This provides our students with multiple ways to connect over an extended period of time, rather than shoving one lesson into one time period with one teacher with a limited number of activities.
It’s also why I like smaller class sizes, and as many teachers and helpers as we can put in a computer lab –to work with “individuals” and not just groups.
Rule #3 also points up the folly of “8th Grade Confirmation Class.” No way they are all ready or at the same place.
It’s one of the reasons I like software too… students can work in groups at their own pace. There’s some individuality to it, and differences the way a program presents its material appeals to various parts of each learner’s brain. Some response to the interactivity while others pick up on the music or animation a little better.
Brain Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things. Emotional arousal helps the brain learn. Audiences check-out after about 10 minutes, and you must grab them back by telling stories and creating events rich in emotion. Emotional content gets our attention very quickly. The brain is better at seeing patterns, changes, and abstracting the meaning of an event -than it is at recording details. The brain is built to grasp the meaning of story more quickly and memorable than the details of the story. And with regard to multi-tasking and distractions… the brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Studies continue to show that the brain cannot multi-task and is easily distracted from content -if the content isn’t engrossing.
What we pay attention to is profoundly influenced by memory. We use previous experience to predict where we should pay attention. Different environments create different expectations. pg 75
A person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. pg 87
The brain needs a break. (We have a) need for timed interruptions. pg. 88
It’s key that the instructor explains the lecture plan at the beginning of the class, with liberal repetitions of “where we are” sprinkled throughout the hour. pg 90
Every ten minutes in my lecture I give my audience breaks from the firehose of information and sent them a “hook” (a story or joke) pg 91
When a student is focusing on content, we need to make sure we are reducing distractions from other students, other activities in the room, or other computers.
Software is certainly “fun” …but it’s more than just that. Sometimes people ask us why we make some of our software using 3D game engines, or drop mini-games into the middle of content (like Bongo slinging bananas at “surf mummies” in Bongo Loves the Bible, or Super Kenz flinging donuts in Attack of the Sunday School Zombies). These playful game elements break up content and give the brain a mini-break, -which rather than interrupting learning, refreshes the mind.
You’ll notice that most of our software programs are broken into smaller lesson pieces, rather than one long presentation. And the pieces are varied in terms of how they look and how the students interact with them, After seeing a story presentation, they may find a quiz or a set of pop-up study questions, or a game about content.
Text can actually be quite attractive IF certain conditions are present:
1. The reader has a compelling interest in the subject. Take for example, your favorite novel.
2. Or in lieu of “compelling interest,” the text is presented in an interesting way, such as, the kind of text you often see in a TV commercial or in a piece of software.
Text is a great way of conveying a lot of information very efficiently, but it can fatigue the brain if overdone. The wonderful exception to this is “story” …which is the text painting pictures for the brain.
Brain Rule #5: Short-term Memory: Repeat to Remember. Our brain has many types of memory systems. Your ability to remember something grows the more often you retrieve the memory. A memory is stronger if the event was meaningful, elaborate (rich in detail) and the context of learning was rich. Memories are more easily retrieved if the context of the original memory is recreated.
The majority of forgetting happens within the first few hours after class. pg 100
The more elaborate we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory. …especially if we personalize it. pg 110
Making something more elaborate or complicated should be more taxing to the memory system, …but in fact, complexity means greater learning.” pg 111
Recreating original context is helpful. Learn something when you are sad, and you will better be able to remember it at retrieval if you are sad. pg 113
Information is best remembered when it is elaborate, meaningful, and contextual (learned in a rich environment). pg 114
The more a learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding (into memory) is processed. pg 114
Introductions are everything. pg 116
Yes, we’re trying to grab their attention…because that’s what the brain needs in order to learn. Many of our programs have eye-catching introductions, elaborate openings, music, key animations at the beginning. You’ll also see us “salting in” extra content at key points in a story. The pop-up study notes in Jonah or in the Creation Story (Awesome Bible Stories CD) ADD/elaborate on content.
The complexity of some of the software environments…the navigation and hunting for things on the screen… these help create that emotional connection (I wanna do this, I wanna win this!)
We need to train parents to “go over what happened” in Sunday School that day. Such rituals are important to memory storage.
Brain Rule #6: Remember to Repeat: Most memories disappear within minutes unless they are complex or have emotional content. Memories which survive this fragile early period of time strengthen over time if they are recalled. Long term memories are formed by the conversation between the hippocampus and cortex as the memories are periodically recalled, and can take years to become “fixed.” This periodic recollection at regular intervals is essential to long term memory development. Memory is dynamic: our brains reinvent/rewire past memories each time they are recalled or mixed with new knowledge. Memorization for the long-term requires recall spaced at periodic intervals, rather than ‘studied’ in one short period.
A great deal of research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event. pg 131
The probability of confusion is increased when content is delivered in unstoppable waves poured into students as if they were wooden forms. pg 132
You must deliberately expose yourself to the information (again) in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want to retrieve it later. pg 133
So apparently all that testing and quizzing when we were kids was very important. It is important to remember specific information. But what’s also true, is that information SHAPES our brain much like waves shape a beach, though the individual waves may not be remembered in detail. In other words, we are the sum of our experiences even if we can’t remember every experience or bit of information that shaped us. As Medina points out, the brain is better at concepts than details. But concepts are shaped by details.
Details are important. And now you know why many of our programs have quizzes, and why we often recommend “going back” to your previously taught-with software… because the kids need to have this information in their brains to shape their concepts. And they will gladly “do it again” on the computer, and it’s VERY important to their long-term memories. If you’re only teaching things ONCE, then it’s not important enough to teach at all because the odds a very much against your students remembering such. Not that I think remembering every specific bit of detail or answer is important, but rather, –we strive to let this information stick “enough” to help shape their thoughts and experiences.
It’s like the sage once said, “I don’t remember every sermon any more than I remember every meal, but I’m sure that I was nourished by all of them.”
Brain Rule #7: Sleep well, think well. Numerous and extensive sleep studies show that sleep loss negatively affects: attention, executive functions, working memory, moods, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity. Sleep appears to be the brain clearing and organizing itself. People vary in how much sleep they need, but there is a universal biological drive for taking an afternoon nap. 20 to 30 minute naps (and no more) significantly improve post-nap higher brain functions. It’s not just a matter of “getting rest” …it’s about giving your brain a chance to rest and clear itself. This process does not happen if you are awake and just resting.
Two things that don’t help our kids’ learning: Kids having late-night sleepovers on Saturday, and Sunday School that’s too early on Sunday morning.
Brain Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way as non-stressed brains. Stressful events are not conducive to learning because the brain goes into a stress mode. The presence of adrenaline in the bloodstream inhibits certain types of memory and learning functions. Chronic stress, such as hostility at home, deregulates the brain’s system which has evolved only to deal with short-term stress through the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Chronic stress scars blood vessels which can lead to plaque build-up. The regular release of cortisol (a stress chemical) damages cells in the hippocampus which can cripple learning and memory. This is why the testimony of witnesses to a stressful event is often considered unreliable. This is why children having trouble at home most often have trouble in school.
A student coming into your classroom who is under pressure, unhappy, experiencing (or expecting) peer problems, having separation anxiety, and other such stressful problems, will not be able to participate, learn and remember lessons nearly as well as those who are happy to be there.
Students who create stress for others in the classroom bring everyone down.
Yeah, we knew this…but here’s the research!
These are some of the reasons why computers are such great teaching tools:
The kids want to be there and use them. The computer gets them looking at a screen, rather than feeling like others are looking at them. The intense focus on the computer helps them to forget some of their problems for a while. i.e. it removes distractions.
Brain Rule #9: To Improve learning, Stimulate more of the senses. Our senses are not separate, but rather, they have evolved to work together. Vision, for example, is influenced by hearing. Smells have an unusual power to bring back memories because they bypass the thalamus and tie into the supervisor of emotions called the amygdala. Past experiences affect how we perceive current sensory information so that two people can perceive the same event quite differently.
Groups in multisensory environments always do better than groups in unisensory environments. pg 208.
When touch is combined with visual information, recognition learning leaps forward by almost 30 percent. Simply put, multisensory presentations are the way to go. pg 208
Cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer’s rules for multimedia presentations: pg. 210
1. Students learn better when words and pictures are combined, rather than just words alone.
2. Students learn better when words and pictures are presented at the same time (like a movie with subtitles), rather than successively (like in an old silent movie).
3. Students learn better when words and pictures are presented near to each other rather than apart from each other on the page or screen.
4. Students learn better when extraneous/unnecessary visual and auditory material is excluded rather than included.
5. Students learn better from animation and narration, rather than just animation with text.
The brain connects associates smell with emotional memories. This is known as the “Proust Effect.” pg 211
Brain Rule #9 is a commercial for why interactive multimedia software WORKS better than sitting around a table listening to the teacher talk. It also stresses the importance of the learning environment. How well do we learn in a MUSTY BEIGE Sunday School room?
Brain Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses. Vision takes up over half the brain’s resources. Study after study shows that we learn and remember best through pictures and not written or spoken words.
If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent when tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture. pg 234
Reading creates a bottleneck of pictures,….choking our cortex. This happens not because text is not enough like pictures, but because text is too much like pictures! To our cortex, there is no such thing as “words,” or “text” versus pictures. (Text is just another form set visuals which the brain must interpret). pg 234
This is why especially to many young learners, reading is NOT as helpful to their understanding of a Bible story as “seeing” it. When we ask them to struggle with Bible text, especially text not written at their reading level, their cortex is focused on trying to read, rather than trying to comprehend what they are reading. And to those who are stressed by having to read in front of others, we know from Brain Rule #8 that the stress of reading in front of others releases brain hormones that can dampen learning and memory. What they will remember will be the stress.
Simple two-dimensional pictures are quite adequate; studies show that if the drawings are too complex or lifelike, they can distract from the transfer of information. pg 238
Pictures are a more efficient way to glue information to a neuron. pg 239
And now you know why we like to create rich visual environments in our software.
#10 also explains the attraction of cartoon characters. Animated Bible characters get “glued” in our memories because they are not “just like” every other person we see throughout the day.
Brain Rule #11: Male and Female Brains are different structurally and biochemically, but the jury is still out on the significance of these differences. Men, for example, process serotonin faster. Men and women process acute stress differently. Under stress, women activate the left hemisphere’s amygdala (the seat of emotions) and remember the emotional content of events more vividly. The research suggests that both nature and nurture are at work in the differences.
There is on-going research into the need and results of same-sex learning environments. Girls appear to perform better in math, for example, when taught in an all-girl setting.
Is there an application of some of these preliminary findings for Sunday School? Perhaps. What Sunday School teacher hasn’t noticed the difference between how boys and girls interact in the classroom. Some of it is nature, some nurture, but regardless, the differences need to be addressed by our teaching methods and environments.
Brain Rule #12: The Human Brain has evolved to make us powerful and natural explorers -from birth. Babies are the model for how we learn throughout our lives: actively testing our environment and relationships by observation, hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion. Some parts of our adult brains stay as malleable as a baby’s brain, so we can create neurons and learn new things throughout our lives.
Many of our software programs function like explorations…or what I have called scavenger hunts. Clicking on an object to make something happen helps feed our need to explore and manipulate environments to see what happens. When we do this: the brain focuses and remembers. Flying over the Galilee terrain in Galilee Flyer or Exodus Adventures, or meeting Pharaoh in Joseph’s Story CD (pictured) i.e. … trying to discover how to make things happen, how to open up things… these things can frustrate a teacher who has limited prep time, but they EXCITE the EXPLORER’s mind.
Rule #12 also points out the importance of having high quality infant and toddler care at the church. The children ARE learning whether the church is good place to be, -or not.
Summary for Teachers:
More individualized instruction
Repetition during the lesson, and afterward at spaced intervals for long-term memory.
As an occasional preacher, here are my thoughts on the book and research’s “Implications for Preachers”
Create compelling introductions. That’s what brings the listener’s brain on-board. I’m particularly aware of how fresh a sermon introduction comes across when the minister walks out front to introduce the sermon, often segwaying into scripture and then heading into the sermon.
Stories! …because they speak with images and emotion.
Don’t be afraid of eliciting emotional responses in your listeners. Emotions help them remember content.
Be visually interesting as a speaker. MOVE! (the eye and mind is built to pay attention to whatever moves)
Emphasize meaning over details. Details are harder to remember and have a limited shelf-life. You want to leave your hearers with a strong impression. Like many good speeches, we don’t remember all that was said, but we remember being moved in a certain direction.
Break up your sermon into more digestible parts for the brain. According to numerous studies, the brain seems “wired to wander” after ten minutes. It needs a cognitive break, moment of refreshment, a changeup to bring it back online. Dr. Medina spends quite a bit of time in his book describing how he structures his lectures to reflect this basic wiring. His advice: Remember to bring the brain back on track with a fresh compelling content “restart” at least every 10 minutes. Sermonizers should plan for pauses to let the brain ponder and have a break.
Craft sermons that reinforce the main point, rather than meander through a shopping list of un-reinforced, unrepeated points. The brain is wired to better remember repeated content, rather than single unrepeated instances of content. Repeat, repeat, REPEAT.
Check out my software! www.sundaysoftware.com
Refer to important points in previously preached sermons in order to force the brain’s memory functions to recall and re-cement the memory of your content more deeply.
Get plenty of sleep before preaching, it will sharpen your mind and delivery. Same goes for the listeners. Be careful not to put their bodies back to sleep with a room that’s too warm, or a stretch in the service where they have gotten a little too comfortable or sedentary.
Last but not least, get re-trained if need be. The “preaching” as it is taught in many seminaries, is more about writing than delivering.
As mentioned, the www.brainrules.net site has a lot of this info presented quite visually.
Here, for example, is a good summary for PRESENTERS….