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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Got Fun? Libraries As Affective (and Effective!) Learning Environments

Have you ever had one of those experiences when something you KNOW to be true, (something you  hold sacred, in your heart of hearts; something your gut and and all of your experience tells you is correct), is suddenly proven RIGHT by science, research and/or forces far more reliable and empirical than teacher's intuition???

I know.  That sounds pretty rare to me too. BUT this very thing happened to me a few months ago.  And then AGAIN a few days ago. (If it happens again, I'm gonna start buying lottery tickets, because this kind of luck can't be ignored!)

Original Image by Library Girl
The first incident of cosmic affirmation occurred when I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Dr. David Rose - the co founder of CAST, UDL expert, neuropsychologist and all around education guru. In the interest of full disclosure, let me first admit that prior to walking into the room where about 20 of us would get to have a candid discussion with him about how the brain works and how learning environments can (and should!) be changed to maximize learning, I had no idea who David Rose was.  I mean, I knew what UDL was and I'd heard of CAST, but while I was happy to attend the meeting, I was no fan girl.

Of course, all that was about to change.

As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Rose knows the brain. And during our conversation he talked about the different areas of the brain and how they are activated during different types of learning.  For example, basic knowledge creation (like learning that 2+2=4) activates the front part of the brain - which is also the part that is most easily damaged and which actually retains information for the least amount of time.  Affective knowledge creation, on the other hand,  (like learning that you're not good at math) activates the core of the brain - which is the area that is the most difficult to damage.  What's more information learned at the core of our brain is not only stored for much, much longer but that information is also a) the most difficult to unlearn and b) has the greatest influence on behavior and future learning.

This is a powerful thing to think about.

cc img src:  http://bit.ly/UMqSnK
Imagine the brain as a 3lb collection of electrical impulses blinking on and off all of the time, but in specific and particular ways when we are learning stuff.  Now think about the child who has *learned* that he/she is not good at a certain task, a specific subject or at school in general.  During classes or activities that include *that* thing, impulses in the core of the brain are so active and so powerful they, literally, overpower the impulses in the front of the brain trying to collect new knowledge.  In addition, impulses in the core of the brain often result in physiological responses. For example, if the impulses are positive, pleasure sensors are activated and we, quite literally, FEEL good.  On the other hand, if the impulses are negative, our blood pressure can shoot up, we sweat, tremble, or experience other indicators of stress.  In other words, we FEEL bad.

Again, this is powerful stuff.  Especially when we think about our students - particularly those who struggle in school and the behaviors they exhibit.  Are we mislabeling a physiological reaction to stress as "bad behavior?"  Not in all cases, of course, but it's certainly something to think about.

Anyway, for YEARS, I've been saying that helping kids see themselves as readers, mathematicians and as learners in general was just as important as helping them find the "right answers," because in my heart of hearts, I knew it was right.   But on that day, for the first time, I had a neuroscientist declaring to the whole world that science was on my side.

Suddenly, I went from being the crazy librarian who *believed* teaching needed to be more customized and less standardized, who *believed* connecting with kids was just as important as covering the curriculum and who *believed* sometimes it's not the child with the learning disability, but the instruction - to being a crazy librarian who had neuroscience to back up those beliefs.

Needless to say, when I left that meeting I was thrilled!  Almost immediately, I sent a "Hey Tell" to some of my teacher buddies to tell them that I was ready to conquer the world! (Truth be told, they get these kinds of messages a lot, but on this day, I was particularly inspired!)  Although I have no idea what my rambling messages said exactly, I'm sure they were full of words like "affirmation" and "core beliefs."

Then, a couple of weeks later I had the chance to retell the story of this meeting, and the powerful message it contained, in person.  And, naturally, words failed me.  As much as I tried to channel my inner David Rose, I fumbled the ball.  And while I did my best to introduce my colleagues to my knew BFF neuroscience, I left feeling like there wouldn't be a second date.

THEN, last week, I ran across this article titled The Neuroscience of Joyful Learning - and again, I found myself wanting to shout "See??  I told you so!!!"  Not only is this piece full of affirmations like "The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage," but the author also provides some practical suggestions for how to create learning environments that are joyful spaces that promote affective learning.

What's more, these suggestions have libraries written all over them. What follows is the list of tips from the article along with my take on how the library is the perfect spot for affective learning.

Make it Relevant:

"...relational memories appear to enhance storage of 
the new information in long-term memory."

  • The library is the perfect place for extension activities that can make classroom instruction feel more relevant.  
  • The library is, literally, full of resources for further learning.  If a student's interest in a subject has been sparked, what better place than the library for them to find out more?
  • Librarians can create programming/groups/clubs focused on linking learning with real life.  Poetry, engineering, photography clubs, writers workshops, tech teams etc, are great ways to help kids connect with the content.
  • Librarians can create interactive curriculum based displays that challenge kids to dig deeper, interact with information and create their own works.
Give Them A Break:

"Any pleasurable activity used as a brief break can give the amygdala 
a chance to cool down and the neurotransmitters time to rebuild."

  • The library is the perfect place for kids to pursue interests, interact with their peers and just hang out.  Not every second of their day needs to be structured and while classroom teachers often are unable to provide much needed "down time," the library is a space where students can be allowed to recharge their mental batteries.
  • Additionally, the library should be a sanctuary where things like reading, learning and creating are done for pleasure.  If reading is the core skill for all learning, we should show that we value it by allowing kids time to do it for *gulp* fun.  

Create Positive Associations:

"...when stress activates the brain's affective filters, information flow to the higher 
cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt."

  • The library should be a spot associated with "epic wins." 
  • Whether using video games to help kids collect data to be used later in math class, opening the library during lunch or after school for a student created film festival based on the greatest mysteries in science or dressing your patrons up in period costumes to reenact an historical event, the library is the perfect place to help students create a story in their minds that a) is forever linked with their understanding of a specific concept and b) triggers a joyful memory in which they were both successful and the star.
(Help Kids) Prioritize Information:

"Helping students learn how to prioritize and therefore reduce the amount 
of information they need to deal with is a valuable stress-buster."

  • The library is the perfect place to help kids gain control of their lives as students.  
  • Librarians can offer study skills workshops during/before/after school.
  • Librarians can lead "lets get organized!" mini-sessions during lunch period that help kids take control of their trapper keepers, create a to do list or update their student planner.  
  • Librarians can offer notetaking mini-courses or expose kids to apps that can help them manage their academic lives - you can even offer "certificates of completion" or virtual badges to kids who attend your sessions.
  • Librarians can add an "effective habits of teens" title to their book talk list - in additional to the latest fiction title, why not share some titles that could help kids reduce the stress of being a student?

Allow Independent Discovery Learning:

"Thanks to dopamine release and the consolidation of relational memories, 
students are more likely to remember and understand what they learn if 
they find it compelling or have a part in figuring it out for themselves."

  • The library is the perfect place for inquiry based instruction.  
  • With the wealth of resources available in the library and the creation of open, collaborative places, the library offers a unique space where kids can work together to dig into big problems, answer important questions and solve real mysteries.
  • The library is also the perfect place to couple the idea of the "maker space" with opportunities to engage kids in doing social good. Why not create spaces where kids can work to tackle social problems, create public service announcements or hold impromptu "TED style" talks about issues facing the world.  While providing kids with spaces where they can build robots, create art and construct models is valuable and will certainly engage them in affective learning, "maker spaces" can also be about making a difference.

Provide A Safe Haven:

"When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional 
environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and 
at higher levels of cognition. Brain-imaging studies support this relationship."

  • For a lot of our kids, the library is the ultimate (if not the only) safe haven at school.
  • The library should be a place where all kids are welcome, all voices are valued and everyone can be successful.
  • The librarian should lead the school's anti-bullying efforts.
  • The librarian should highlight materials that celebrate diversity and explore different, sometimes opposing, points of view.
  • The library should be open and welcome while the atmosphere should make it okay for kids to be themselves.
Today, my friend Kate reminded me that "you cannot change people, you can only inspire them."  In education, we spend a lot of time trying to change people - especially kids - when we should really be seeking to inspire them.  

Libraries can be a part of lighting that spark.

While, we absolutely must continue to be as concerned with delivering the curriculum and promoting student learning as our classroom teacher colleagues, I believe we must also take advantage of the flexibility of our spaces, the depth and breadth of our resources and the quality of our pedagogy to provide kids with opportunities for affective learning.  

When I think back on my time in the library, I believe I spent a fair amount of time providing these opportunities for kids. But if I ever go back, I'll do more of it.  My library was a noisy and messy place, but I always had my eye keenly focused on the learning objective.  Next time around, I'll keep the learning objective up, but I'll focus some of my attention on creating experiences that activate that core part of the brain where kids learn the important stuff about themselves and the world.  I'll do it because, finally, I've got the power of research and science on my side!  But mostly I'll do it because, in my heart, I know it's right.

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PS:  the title of this post was inspired by my PLN Pal Charity Harbeck and used with her permission.





3 comments:

  1. I love it! I agree whole heartedly and plan on reading more about this. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. As usual, an amazing, inspiring, and incredibly useful post on librarianship today! I can't wait to share this with librarian and teacher friends! Thank you for summarizing the research and making such clear connections with best practices, Jennifer!

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  3. Thanks! Palpable passion that will prod me to do more!

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