I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential. Eric Jensen is a leading educator in the area of applying neuroscience research to practical classroom applications.
As I read, I kept reconsidering my reluctance to use the word enrichment in talking about videooconferencing. I prefer “curriculum videoconferencing” to emphasize the use of VC to meet curriculum goals. To me, enrichment sounded like an “extra”, like something expendable in high-stakes, tight-budget times.
What is Enrichment?
But then, all through the book, I kept encountering Jensen’s insistence that all students need to experience enrichment. What does he mean? First, it’s important to understand his definition:
Enrichment is a positive biological response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes have occured (Jensen, 2006, p. xii).
A careful read of the book shows the importance of understanding that enrichment is the response to a contrasting environment, not just decorating an “enriching environment.” Enrichment is what happens to the brain in a contrasting environment. I encourage you to devour this book to understand this fully.
So, what is a contrasting environment?
A contrasting environment is where the student experiences a “contrast” from what he or she is usually getting. There are seven factors or maximizers for contrasting environments. They are:
- Physical Activity (voluntary gross motor)
- Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful learning
- Coherent Complexity (not chaotic)
- Managed Stress Levels (not boring or distressful)
- Social Support (at home, school, and community)
- Good Nutrition (balanced and healthy with supplements)
- Sufficient Time (not rushed, plenty of sleep) (Jensen, 2006, p. 178).
Jensen’s suggestions for whole district improvement are way beyond anything that I can impact in my work – eliminating grade levels, 20-30 minutes of recess daily, pull out programs, acceleration, student choice, exploratory learning, social connectedness, etc. He describes a major change to traditional schooling. While it’s inspiring, it’s beyond the scope of my current work at least right now.
Novel and Meaningful Learning
Thankfully, he also has suggestions for teachers and principals. The one that seems to be in an area that I can impact is that of Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful Learning.
- Have you ever wondered if kids like VC just because it’s novel? Why is it that Monster Match is such a great relief from Michigan state testing and Read Around the Planet relief from NY and TX state testing? Could it be because it’s a contrast from their regular work?
- Why is it that teachers comment especially on the reaction of special education kids in a videoconference? Why do special ed kids gain a lot from a videoconference? Could it be because it’s a contrast from their regular experiences? Interestingly, Jensen spends quite a bit of time on how at-risk, poverty-challenged kids can benefit greatly and make significant gains in learning when they are in a contrasting environment.
- Is it actually a good thing for students’ brains that VC is novel? that it connects them to real-world meaningful learning, we agree already. But novel?! I thought that novel was kind of a bad word in education, that an innovation should be sustainable, sustained, institutionalized.
Don’t misunderstand me or Jensen! Short one time VCs are hardly a drop in the bucket of the contrasting environment that students need. Be sure you understand the huge scope of what he is suggesting.
Still, I think we can take away a small application by understanding that the novelty and real-world connection of a curriculum-based videoconference is stimulating to students’ brains! (Talking to an author, talking to kids in Australia, Canada, or Wales, interacting with scientist… that’s all real-world.) Probably not enough to make a significant (countable, measurable) difference; but yet another little tool in the teacher’s arsenal of tools for creating a contrasting environment for students.
What do you think? Have you read Jensen’s work? Am I off base? Is it too much of a stretch to apply this, even in a small way, to the use of videoconferencing? Are you going to use the word enrichment or “contrasting environment” when describing VC? Please comment!
I have not yet read the book (however, you have increased its value to me and it may make it onto my reading list).
In my thinking video conferencing is a tool/method. While the use of it may fit certain aspects of “enrichment” it is unlikely that any use of VC would be considered “enrichment”. Does that make sense?
In the same way any tool/method isn’t automatically “enrichment”, but can be part of an “enrichment” strategy.
I like your explanation of how Jensen defines “environment.” I find it fascinating to see how brain research is contradicting some of the stereotypes I grew up with such as that enrichment was only for the advanced students. In this book, Jensen makes a strong case for why enrichment is essential to learning for any type of student.
I am wondering what the special education environment is like that makes VC seem so contrasting? (based on the comments you have received) Good learning is good learning no matter what subgroup of children we are working with… Hmmm.
Jensen goes into more detail about the need for a balance of routine and novelty in some of his other books. Just as enrichment is essential for learning, a balance of routine and novelty are essential.
How does/ can technology bring novelty to learning? What role does novelty play in learning? Judy Willis also writes extensively on the topic of how the brain learns best with a balance of routine and novelty with all of the science to explain what each does for the brain.
I look forward to hearing how you are incorporating contrast into your instruction. How has reading this book impacted your work as an educational leader? In what ways can VC be both routine and novel?
Jennifer – thanks so much for these probing questions! I’ve been thinking about them for a while!
I think that VC is novel because most teachers use it to integrate in their curriculum 6 or less times a year. It’s an unusual event, out of the ordinary, different. I’m taking about “curriculum videoconferencing” here as linked above in my post. I think that technology is also still novel because teachers don’t use it very often in the curriculum. Students see it as a break from regular “worksheets” and “test taking” and therefore it can elicit an enrichment response.
I’m still processing the “contrasting” environment and what it means for my work.