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The Role of Brain-Based Learning and Alternative Methodologies in EFL
by Marjorie Rosenberg
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This article originally appeared in the ELT News, Issue 37, February, 1999, published by Teachers ofEnglish in Austria/The British Council, Vienna

Since I began teaching English as a foreign language some 18 years ago, I have encountered many new techniques which I have been able to incorporate into both my English lessons and teacher training sessions. Superlearning and NLP techniques have been part of my repertoire for the past 10 years and several years ago I added ideas from Cooperative Learning, Learning Styles, and Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences. This past summer I had the opportunity to attend Eric Jensen s "Brain-Compatible Learning Workshop" and discovered how closely these techniques fit into this model. Eric began his seminar by defining "brain-compatible learning" as "... a comprehensive or multi-disciplinary approach (which is) based on current research in neuroscience suggesting how our brain best learns." We then spent six days trying out various strategies and learning how our own brains learned best.

In looking carefully at the seven-step model for brain-compatible learning, it is possible to pinpoint specifics which relate specifically to various techniques and theories well-known to EFL teachers today. Step One in the model is called Neural History. This refers to the background of our learners, information which we generally elicit through assessment tests and/or needs analyses. Important for us as teachers is to accept our learners as individuals and to realize that each of them comes from a different background and has had his or her own personal experiences with language learning. Also included in this first step of Neural History are the various learning styles of our learners. Here we can take into account their modality preferences (Do they process information visually, auditorily or kinesthetically?) as well as their special abilities defined in the Multiple Intelligence theory. (Is the learner primarily gifted in the Linguistic, Mathematical-Logical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal or Extrapersonal Intelligence?)

Step Two of the model is the Learning Environment. It is necessary for us to set up a safe learning environment for our learners. This dovetails nicely with the superlearning technique of allowing the learners to choose new identities. In these new identities they are not as afraid of making mistakes and feel more confident about taking chances, which in turn allows them to express ideas and thoughts that they may not normally talk about. When we add rapport (an NLP technique which helps us to create a sense of understanding between teacher and learner) we guarantee a safe and fun learning environment for all concerned.

In Step Three, Set Context for Success, we come to self-expression and language activation. In this stage of "brain-friendly" learning, we can create associations for our learners to make new material less frightening and encourage them to try it out for themselves. At this stage we need to relate new material to familiar material and work with specific structures to build the basic of a strong foundation for future language learning.

As we strengthen the confidence of learners by creating familiarity with new ideas and a feeling of safety, we move naturally into Step Four of the model, Acquisition. In order for a learner to really make sense of something new, it is necessary for him or her to acquire it. This can be done in various ways, including direct acquisition (from sitting down and learning new material to experimentation and usage.) or indirect acquisition (picking it up from other learners or from visual peripherals used in the classroom). In an atmosphere of safe and fun learning, the learner also spends more time listening to others because he or she does not need to tune out and spend time constructing his or her own answer to avoid making a mistake. This allows the learner to observe and listen to the others in the group and acquire information that comes from sources other than the teacher.

Step Five, Elaboration, addresses the issue of ownership. When the learner has had positive feedback from both the trainer and the group, he or she feels a more personal connection to the language he or she has used. Having the group's undivided attention for a time is a wonderful way to feel ownership for material. This works on any level, from beginners putting together their first dialogue or short story to advanced learners giving presentations in English. It is vital, however, to include the "clean up" stage to make sure that what has been acquired is correct.

Once our learners feel that they "own" a particular language function, they need to find ways to encode it into their memories in Step Six, Memory Encoding. Here they can use associations (how is this the same or different as other things I know?), emotions (I will remember this because it means something to me personally) as well as time off from learning. When the brain is forced to process information too quickly or is overloaded with too much information at one time, the stress factor involved in trying to keep up can have a negative effect on learning. Therefore it is necessary to let information sit for awhile or have personal time for reflection to prevent this feeling of being overwhelmed. Students often report that vocabulary or grammar structures suddenly come to them although they had put away their English material. We have to allow processing time for the brain to ensure that it is able to make sense of the learned material.

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