Chapter 7 ----- Did'ja Ever Wonder?
johnson - university of alaska
leyden - eiu
rusch - uwisconsin-superior
In addition to controlling all bodily functions, the brain also has the ability to think, to ponder the unknown and to wonder. The study of science is based firmly on this human ability to think and to wonder. Much of your time with students will be spent in promoting thinking and instilling a sense of wonder. When you consider that children spend less than two percent of their middle school years in science classes, the difficulty of the task looms large. Caught between the science knowledge that has been amassed in all history and the concrete operational thinking of most of your students, what can you do to make them wonder about their natural environment? A teacher's goal for any lesson should be to plant the seeds of curiosity that will grow during the 98% of the time when the child is not in science class. This sounds ironic, but we must accept the fact that there is a greater chance for children to think about science when they are not in school than when they are.
TURNING THE BRAIN ON AND OFF
How many times has a teacher of yours commanded: "Think!" Is it possible to simply demand the brain to turn itself on and focus its abilities on a problem? What is it that causes the brain to "wake up" and become actively involved with solving a problem?
Listed below are six situations where the brain will automatically turn itself on, and you find yourself totally involved with thinking. In each of these situations you are beset with a mental tension that aroused the brain. This tension is sometimes called conceptual conflict. Piaget refers to it as disequilibrium. Cognitive dissonance is another synonym.
Are there places in your lesson plans for students to mentally stumble, become curious, make choices, and doubt conclusions?
There are two other common situations where the brain turns on.
Are there places in the science curriculum where students can ex- perience success and become involved with topics that are emotionally charged?
The six situations above have the potential to accelerate student investigation and illustrate that it is possible to turn on the brain. In lesson planning you can design setting that will enhance student interest and participation.
Ironically, one of the ways to turn off the brain involves the use of con- ceptual conflicts. A few paragraphs ago we noted that such settings can turn on the brain, but only if students have been successful in resolving small amounts of conflict with similar problems. Such a back-ground will have provided them with a reservoir of confidence they can tap regarding the new question. However, the insecure student may look at the difference between the expected answer and the real result and sigh: "I'm wrong again. I don't like science because my experiment never works." Even a simple disagreement over the interpretation of an experimental result may cause the student to close his or her notebook, and retreat in silence, thinking "I must be dumb," and refusing to participate.
Have you ever decided to clean the garage, but after inspecting the area, decide to take a nap? Have you ever committed yourself to a night of study for a big test, but once you scanned the material and noticed how overwhelmingly difficult it seems, decided to do other tasks that were long overdue? These are classic examples of flight behavior. Despite your good intentions of cleaning or studying, you gave up before you started. The tasks were so large that you didn't know where to begin. Was your brain stimulated? Yes, but it was so over-stimulated that it shut down, and the outward behavior may have been physical. You find yourself very tired: "I'll clean the garage after I take a nap. You might even get sick: "I was so nervous about the test that I got nauseous.
The more popular term for this condition is boredom. Whenever a behavior is repeated to the extent that it is habitual, the brain shuts down. Shouting for students to "Sit down, shut up, and take out a sheet of paper," will grab their attention and they will respond for a while, but if you choose to begin class every day with that command, the students will suddenly "go deaf" and not even hear you. Closely allied with the repetition of behavior is the familiarity of the subject matter. When you announce to your seventh graders that the next unit will be a study of magnets, they greet you with a moan, "Not magnets again!"
The topic of magnets seems to be studied over and over again in the elementary-middle school years. The familiar is usually not a great motivator. Perhaps the key to interest is making the familiar seem strange. (See Chapter 11.) By having the children dissect an electric motor, many of them will be surprised to find magnets. What's a familiar item like a magnet doing in a strange place like a motor? The brain suddenly turns on again.
There is a thin line between the actions that turn the brain on and off.
With 125 students per day in your classes it will be difficult to provide activities that will activate each of them to a high level of thought. What turns one child on may turn another one off. However, the concept of the brain "switch" reinforces the idea that teachers should give children many opportunities to express themselves. Each time a child speaks, the teacher will gain information regarding that personality. As you come to know your students it will be easier to provide activities that result in positive brain reactions.
THE RETICULAR FORMATION
At the base of the brain where it connects to the spinal chord is a region known as the reticular formation. The reticular formation acts as a newspaper editor. Editors make decisions regarding which stories get big headlines, page one treatment, and which items wind up buried with the ads on page sixteen. The reticular formation filters through thousands of messages each second and decides which ones will get page one treatment that is, arouse the brain.
The largest portion of the brain is the cerebrum and its covering, the cerebral neocortex. This is the center for cognition or thought. Deep within the central portion of the brain are the limbic and hypothalamic Subsystems that are triggered by emotions. When a Signal gets through the "editor" (reticular formation) and arrives at the cerebral neocortex, the brain turns on. An evaluation of the information 15 made by the neocortex and it fires a Signal back to the reticular formation. Should this and similar messages be allowed to pass, or should they be deleted by the editor? Some unknown process determines this. Even though the neocortex is the center for high level thought, it is unresponsive unless the reticular formation sends a signal to begin the data processing.
Some of the conditions that potentially awaken the brain were de- scribed earlier, and many of them naturally occur in science class when the children are manipulating materials, not just words. Activity-oriented science seems to stimulate student interest, assist in the physical maturation of the corpus callosum, and promote the develop- ment of logical thought. These are some of the advantages now cited for using this teaching style, but the initial reason for moving away from textbook dominated curricula centered on something that happened in Europe over twenty years ago.
Attention Please--Time for Change
It was a Friday afternoon when the Russians launched a sixty kilo-gram satellite into earth orbit. The small metallic satellite was called Sputnik, and the date was October 4, 1957--- (Leyden was a freshman in college) a day that dramatically altered science education in American schools. By Monday morning, critics of our educational system saw the Russian success as the result of an American failure-an inability of our teachers to train children in the fields of mathematics and science. Although this was a gross oversimplification, it did serve to focus public attention on the mathematics and science curricula of our schools.