Reviewed by Ernie Rambo
Middle School Electives Teacher (NV)
Teacher Leaders Network
For the past several years of teaching, my students have seemed more resistant to the activities I suggest in our drama, media production, and Future City classes. As an electives teacher, I try to offer lots of personal and group choice in deciding what projects students will work on, what goals they will set, and how they will meet their objectives. While it is easy to come to agreement on what the groups will produce, the students and I frequently disagree on how to accomplish their goals and what we should consider a completed project.
One of the main topics where students and I disagree is on the requirement to memorize lines for a play performance. I keep recalling how my peers and I memorized lines when we were in middle school, yet today’s students insist that it isn’t necessary and, in fact, they can’t possibly memorize everything a character is supposed to say in a play. Since one of our goals is to generate high quality performances, I keep searching for strategies that will help students get beyond this resistance — but with each passing year, I seem to be less successful.Enter stage left (with her left brain fully engaged): Marilee Sprenger, author of Brain-based Teaching in the Digital Age. As I read this book over the summer, I wondered whether Sprenger had somehow managed to eavesdrop on the countless conversations between my students and myself as we struggled over memorization — because most of what this former teacher turned neurology expert discusses can be directly applied to my practice.
Sprenger describes how the speed and the use of technology have changed the way that people take in information. Additionally, she describes the rationale for students’ arguments against the tried and true “do this because this is the way I learned” methods that many educators use. As the applications of technology increase, so does society’s expectations. Teachers who are willing to redefine their roles as they use technology in the classroom are likely to discover that more students are ready and even eager to learn.Sprenger points out that today’s students perceive knowledge differently due to a lifetime of instant access to information: the importance of memorization is simply not valued as it once was. As obvious as this may seem after you read it, it’s not something all that many teachers have completely processed.
Sprenger’s discussion of the research about today’s learners helped me understand, for example, why students keep suggesting that we use teleprompters in our drama class. Students of the Net Generation utilize visuals and icons as they process information rather than the written words on which I depend. Learners who are familiar with using computers actually access different neural networks when reading information from a computer than when reading information from a book. As a result, many students are more likely to learn their lines (aka, memorize) using a digital tool like a teleprompter.The differences in how students take in and use digital information is not necessarily better than how Baby Boomers tend to learn, but understanding the differences can help an educator plan strategies that play to the strengths of digital learners while also addressing deficiencies that can occur as a result of living digitally.
Digital learners are familiar with tools, such as texting and social networking applications, that facilitate their collaboration both inside and outside of school. The downfall to such wired communication is that a high amount of online connectivity can deprive students of the many face-to-face interactions common in the pre-digital age. And that can make group work in the classroom quite a challenge.
I was reminded of how students in my electives classes (all collaborative and project-based environments) seem to prefer working independently rather than with their group members. Sprenger suggests that teachers include activities that guide students to become more empathetic “in person” and that help them understand tone of voice and the non-verbal body language cues that are used in face-to-face communication. [Many older adults have the reverse problem in digital environments, where they can’t hear or see colleagues.]
Other “low-tech” skills that continue to impact all learners, regardless of what generation they were born into, are highlighted as important to learning. Sprenger cites research to show how physical exercise, music, acting, dancing, and art still have an impact on learning. Not all digital learners are alike, prompting the suggestion that teachers continue accessing all intelligences when planning class activities.
In summary, Sprenger reviews brain research, provides real-life examples of her suggestions, and presents meaningful information in an engaging style that makes this book exciting to read. She also includes three appendices that provide a review of how brains work, a survey of technology familiarity, and a glossary of technological terms. She offers an excellent reference for teachers while gently encouraging us to cross the divide and become more familiar with the learning tools that many students use outside of the classroom.Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age caused me to say, “Aha!” many times — and to turn down page corners and highlight passages as I kept track of useful insights and examples. This year I’ll be walking into my classroom with a lot more ideas about engaging my digitally proficient students. I’ll be asking them for suggestions of how their cell phones and social networks can help them memorize their lines for upcoming performances. While I’m not quite ready to find room in my budget for a teleprompter, I think we’ll be creating some bridges over the River Technology!
Susan “Ernie” Rambo is a 23-year classroom veteran who currently teaches at Walter Johnson Junior High in the Clark County School District of Las Vegas NV. A National Board certified teacher, Rambo is a member of CTQ’s TeacherSolutions team studying the relationship between teacher working conditions and student achievement.