Spring is my favorite time of year. It’s sunny but not too hot or humid, and a sweet breeze invites me outside. Spring rejuvenates my soul. One spring morning, my two-year-old daughter and I decided to embark upon an agricultural journey; we would plant sunflower seeds and experience nature’s magic revealed before our eyes. We started small, planting seeds in nutrient-rich soil nestled in the bottom half of a milk carton. After a few days of watering the seeds, singing to them (of course), and watching the carton closely, we saw sprouts popping up. This was so exciting! I explained to my daughter that replanting our sprouts in a larger bed of soil would allow the roots to dig down deep and spread wide. Sunflowers grow really tall, I explained, so they need an extensive root system. I showed her our beautiful bushes of peonies and roses. Their root systems fascinated her and sparked questions such as, “How do the flowers know when to grow?” Neuroscientists would also find fascination in the complex root systems plants need for growth. These networks of nourishment share some characteristics with the complexities of the brain.
Patterns and Connections
In teaching, when we introduce a new concept, we are planting a seed. To help that seed grow, the brain seeks patterns and connections, like roots growing out in several directions. When our teaching provides opportunities for students to recognize existing connections and identify new ones, we are working with the brain to maximize learning. To design such opportunities, during lesson planning we can ask ourselves:
  • Does what I’m teaching now connect to anything else I have taught this year? If so, what patterns or similes might trigger recall of critical details? 
  • How does this new content connect to life outside of the classroom?
  • How does this material connect to my students personally?
What are some “power tools” we can use to prompt such connection-seeking thinking? And how can we add these tools to our daily or weekly routines? Sometimes the answer is not in launching new, complex activities but in redesigning familiar, simple ones.
This tool is effectively used as a daily warm-up. It sparks strategic thinking for the rest of a class or lesson. The students fold a sheet of paper so that when unfolded, four evenly-sized areas are defined. The teacher presents four tasks for students to complete independently, and then the concepts are discussed as a whole group. 4 square paper exampleInstinctively, we may want to use the boxes for review of previous lessons by having students define previously-taught vocabulary words, complete a practice problem, or answer factual recall questions. However, if we think about these types of questions, they usually require students to travel down a single “root” to find the answer. This serves a purpose at times, but it can train our students to think in isolation; it constructs “silo thinking.” When we build information in silos and ask students to repeatedly travel the same cognitive pathway to retrieve the information, we are not constructing learning that can be accessed and utilized in a variety of contexts. In Atlanta where I live, there is always traffic. To maintain sanity, native Atlantan drivers know the times of typical highway overloads. To avoid them, drivers have to know back roads that will lead to their destinations. And I’ve learned that I need to know a variety of back roads to avoid thoroughfares clogged by school traffic or by a sudden change in street conditions. Flexibility in problem solving is key! Similarly, we need to help students build multiple pathways to knowledge; students must have several routes so they can access new learning in a variety of environments. Here are a few thought-generating activities for the 4-square boxes that imbue the tool with power. These approaches direct students down multiple “roots”—perhaps finding back roads—and engage thought that forges strong connections:
  • Provide a vocabulary word and have the students list synonyms and antonyms for it.
  • Have the students create a true or false question to ask a partner.
  • Have students compare and contrast thinking about current and past material or about content and a personal connection.
  • Have students create an analogy.
  • Give an “answer” and have students construct a question or list the steps to get to it
By varying the pathways students travel to interact with new learning, we make the simple 4-Square activity a “power tool.” More connections = better retention and accessing of new learning. In the next post, we will explore how to convert Wrap-up and Writing into an instructional “power tool.” References
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain
Brynn Redmond, M.Ed. is a Clerestory Learning Program Support Specialist, a K-12 Reading Specialist, a mom to two beautiful girls, and owner of inspiringliteracy.com. SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave