Preparing 21st Century Minds:Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Skills for the Future

By Jeanne Watson Smith,  Lower School Art Teacher

In November of last year, I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference. This is a huge topic so I will zero in on the one of the Five Minds for the Future (Howard Gardner) that I have knowledge about, and that is the creative mind.

Sister Wendy begins her intense history of art “at the top” with the cave paintings in France. She shows most eloquently that before there were words there was art. And very sophisticated art at that. Lyrical animal drawings signed by a hand print sprayed with ground pigment and saliva. Now the creative mind has been elevated to it’s rightful place among the other seven intelligences. Both art and music rise to express some of the most deeply human emotions, where words fail. Art is tribal, primal and necessary to achieve higher consciousness.

In the art room, I use gestures, silent demonstrations, visual cues and let students teach  students what they know. During each ”Moment of Art History” at the end of each class I have noticed a difference between what students say and what they actually do in relation to their art and their behavior. I have witnessed art work done quietly and thoughtfully vs loud and chaotic. Both art works reflect the climate they were made in.

Leonardo Di Vinci’s anatomical drawings, on display at the Tate Gallery in London, are the best examples of art and science going hand in hand. We get courage, wisdom and inspiration from the great masters and a nudge to experiment too.

For two years, Teacher Sue, who teaches Lower School Science,  and I have collaborated on Art/Biology projects with both fourth and fifth grades. The “Micro worlds” project encouraged students to research a microorganism and to copy an electron microscope photograph in chalk pastel. These drawings along with the fourth grade 3-D “Human Body” posters were put on display in the Lower School hallways. The result of these assignments made connections artistically as well as scientifically. Students used their measuring skills, graphic visualization, intense observation and knowledge of color and design to make individual and awesome statements. They had fun too!

I attended 18 seminars at the “Learning and the Brain” conference and I am including the  six “Brain Targets” from the lecture given by Mariale M. Hardiman, Ed.D. Assistant Dean, Johns Hopkins University School of Education, on “The Creative and Artistic Brain”. Her brain targeted teaching model is as follows:

Brain Target 1: Emotional climate  – “Brain research supports the notion that a positive emotional climate paves the way for higher levels of learning and performance”.

Brain Target 2: Physical Environment – “Novelty in the environment can foster attention, and factors such as lighting, sound and scents can enhance the learning experience for children”.

Brain Target 3: Learning Design – “This target encourages teachers to use content standards and curriculum guidelines to design overarching goals and concept maps and to display these learning goals and concept maps in visual representations such as graphic organizers. In a neurological process know as “patterning” the brain uses prior knowledge to categorize stimuli into concepts that are either familiar or novel and then combines these concepts to create new patterns of thinking and understanding”.

Brain Target 4: Teaching for Mastery – “This target makes use of what neuro- and cognitive sciences tell us about how information is encoded, processed, stored and retrieved in working and long-term memory systems. The teacher’s objective with this target is to develop ways to enhance long-term retention of important content through diverse and creative lessons. Integration of the arts into instructional activities is a useful tool for achieving these goals.

Brain Target 5: Teaching for Application – “When students extend knowledge by applying it in real-world settings, they engage multiple and complex systems of retrieval and integration. Examples: conducting investigations and surveys,designing experiments, analyzing perspective, building projects, and engaging in improvisation through the visual and performing arts”.

Brain Target 6: Evaluating Learning –  “This target expands traditional types of assessments to include the use of oral and written probes, rubrics, student portfolios, student-generated products, performance-based assessments and student-self reflections.”

 For more information and to view video segments from teachers who use the model go to the web site:

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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