Teachers pen book on technology, brain science
Jane Stenson School teacher Lisa Nimz has co-authored a new book, "Applying Brain Research and Technology to Engage Today's Students." The book is scheduled to be released next week. | Photo courtesy of Lisa Nimz
Updated: February 27, 2012 8:15AM
When popular Jane Stenson School fifth-grade teacher Lisa Nimz agreed to coauthor her first book, she knew its subject had been addressed before.
It’s not difficult to find books about new technology and the impact it has made — for good and for bad — on everyday life. Nor is it much of a problem to find books about neuroscience and how the brain operates — especially in young ones. And books about how to be an effective teacher seem to go back as far as chalkboards and chalk.
But a combination of the three? That’s a much rarer bird.
“Can You Hear Me Now? Applying Brain Research and Technology to Engage Today’s Students,” written by Nimz and former Devonshire School teacher Jerry Michel (now an administrator at Evanston’s Willard School) couldn’t be more timely in a world of new media, social sites, on-line information and a global society.
Nimz and Michel want to dispel certain myths in their book, a main one that kids learn so differently in today’s advanced technological world. Brain research, Nimz said, suggests otherwise.
“People like to claim that kids’ brains work differently nowadays and technology wires them differently, but they’re not really considering what neuroscientists and cognitive scientists say,” she said.
Nimz and Michel became friends while they both worked at Skokie School District 68. Even though they taught at different schools, they met each other at grade level meetings and began provocative discussions about education and teaching.
They soon made presentations at national and international conferences together on a variety of topics; they even considered writing a book one day. One possible subject they had discussed was literacy since both teachers were part of a major curriculum overhaul in reading at District 68.
But that plan changed when Nimz read and became galvanized by a book about neuroscience that she passed on to her colleague and friend, Michel.
The book, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, asserts that the brain can rewire itself, even in the face of catastrophic trauma.
“With detailed case studies reminiscent of Oliver Sachs, combined with extensive interviews with lead researchers, Doidge, a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Columbia and the University of Toronto, slowly turns everything we thought we knew about the brain upside down,” wrote Publishers Weekly.
The two educators began to voraciously dig into the topic of neuroscience, finding it worthy of special consideration as it applies to teaching. They weren’t the first to cover this ground — doctor and teacher Judy Willis had done so before — but they found they had something important to explore.
“We thought if you put brain science together with teaching and technology, you have sort of the perfect storm — the perfect combination of ideas in terms of what is going to help continue to move teaching forward,” Nimz said.
After a presentation on this very topic, they were approached Shell Education editor-in-chief Donna Rice and asked about writing a book. They had found their subject, or more accurately perhaps, their subject had found them.
“It takes a lot of trust to write with somebody,” Nimz said about the process. “You put your words on the paper and then you have to be OK with him taking them and changing them. And he has to be OK with me taking them and changing them.”
They wrote the book separately over months using Google Docs — an ideal tool considering their topic — and by the end, it was difficult to know what educator wrote what in the final version. Their differences had long been hashed out until the book emerged as a single voice, Nimz said.
The Stenson teacher, who has been at the same school for 23 of her 24 years as an educator, describes her first book as “an introductory look at how brain research, technology and social media influence the 21st Century classroom.”
“It incorporates research from the cognitive sciences which teaches us that our brains have greater learning and growth potential than we may have ever realized,” Nimz said.
“It also shows that advances in technology feed that potential in a positive snowballing effect that has great promise for the future of education.”
If such a positive position about the potential of technology conjures up images of iPads and computers at every student’s desk, then one might be surprised by a visit to Nimz’s own classroom.
With few exceptions, her lived-in room — with posters and signs and other educational information hanging from walls — feels timeless, like a bright place for learning that belongs to any recent era.
In fact, the most noticeable modernity in her classroom is a whiteboard with markers to replace the old-fashioned chalkboard. But even there, Nimz is a traditionalist.
“I miss my chalkboard,” she said. “I like the look of chalk on a dark board and I like the sound it makes.”
And watching Nimz at work strikes the perfect example of what a great teacher has always been able to do with or without technology — engage her students.
She helps students work through a word problem, providing guidance and encouragement not only for coming up with the right answer but articulating how they arrived at it. The students appear dedicated to the task at hand.
“This is a fairly real world problem, I think,” she tells the kids. She later explained the problem came from a new math program from Singapore that has been a struggle for them.
But none of this is to say that technology hasn’t been used by Nimz and other teachers as a great benefit in student learning, she says. Technology is like all tools: It can be used positively or negatively.
“We can do things with technology now to individualize students’ education and to reach them that we couldn’t before,” she said. “Students’ brains work now the way they worked when human beings first evolved. Brains are wired the same way they always have been.”
The authors’ basic premise is to look at technology in a more scientific and comprehensive way.
“Everything we say about technology and kids can’t just be drive-by observations,” Nimz said. “They have to be in the setting of science. Otherwise, they’re unfounded claims.”
“Can You Hear Me Now? Applying Brain Research and Technology to Engage Today’s Students,” is due out Feb. 1 and can be ordered in advance on-line at various bookstores such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.