Best Practices Based on Brain Science
Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D.
What makes for best practice in education? The answer to this question can differ depending on whom you ask and whether that person’s lens is more ‘wide-angle’ or specialized. Best practice vision can change when considering classroom needs or an individual student. The Educational Opportunity Association (EOA) best practices directory for 2018 offers methods and materials that are ‘promising, validated and exemplary.’ Fluency, the ability to efficiently access information and skills, impacts learning at various ages and stages and serves as a case study in considering K–12 best practices.
Recent brain research provides insights about learning as a life-long process. Learning happens against the backdrop of two brain processes. Children’s brains grow in the number and size of synapses, or brain cell connections. At the same time, a pruning process nibbles away at those brain cells to create stronger, more efficient pathways. University of Washington researchers reported structural changes in the white matter of school-aged children after eight weeks of intensive reading instruction.
These neuroscience findings align with our understanding of skills development in grade school. Fluency was one of the skills which showed particular gains and increased brain development. Professor Jeanne Chall discussed these skills in her classic Stages of Reading Development, which just marked its thirty-fifth anniversary of publication. She wrote that systematic, phonics-based instruction fosters accurate and fluent reading, the building blocks for reading comprehension and thinking critically about text. Dr. Chall shaped 1970s and1980s best practices, demonstrating that that ‘learning to read’ in the early grades enables students to effectively and confidently ‘read to learn’ new subject matter in middle and upper school. This helps youngsters process and access information for use in new contexts. Karyn Slutsky, Assistant Director of Queens Paidea School notes, ‘Fluency of component skills is the basis of a firm foundation of any competency, whereas a shaky foundation leads to instability, insecurity, and anxiety.’
Fluency is relevant to best practices discussion about ‘personalized learning,’ the trend toward computer-based delivery of instruction. While technology can play a role in practicing facts, the way that we incorporate digital information differs from how we process print content. UCLA Professor Dr. Maryann Wolf’s Reader Come Home reports that college students who read digital content were less able to draw conclusions and connections from digital content than peers who read the same texts in print form. Although the research ‘is in’ about fluency shaping later learning, popular press decries the lack of consistent reading instruction in public and private schools.
We can all get on board to address this, with an eye toward the culture of each school and the needs of our diverse students. The EOA notes that best practices can be modified to particular programs, the children in them, and the content being taught. Dyann Kaufman, learning specialist at The Avenues School notes that Avenues teaches fluency in the lower grades by systematically introducing skills in different formats, with individual or group work that brings in various senses. In grades 3-5, Avenues reinforces fluency with selected independent practice and small group ‘buddy reading’ activities. Other schools pride themselves on high levels of customization per individual learning style and goals rather than adhering to one methodology or one tech tool. To Dr. Manju Banerjee of Landmark College, we start by engaging students to be self-determined and have agency over whichever strategy will work best for them. Skill development is personalized and students feel supported in their learning approach.”
We parents and professionals can help our children develop the fluency skills they need to learn and grow. This happens with committed, well-trained teachers who implement systematic techniques. These teachers can be supported to monitor children’s growth in varied, consistent ways and to adapt instruction to those findings. Children’s fluency grows with consistent independent and guided practice and when students are encouraged to develop insights about using skills across their coursework. Best practices in fluency provide our children the techniques and tools to learn efficiently and effectively as they progress through formal education to ultimately explore their passions beyond the classroom. It enables them to then be well-informed and curious members of society. Let’s use what we know about brain science and best practices in learning the basics to help our children become digital citizens and citizens of the world who shape our society for good. #
Dr. Rebecca Mannis is a graduate of Harvard and can be reached at her private practice, firstname.lastname@example.org