At the most recent EARCOS conference 2011, I attended a session on just this topic. Unfortunately the session was a quick 45 minutes, and we only touched the surface. In those 45 minutes, of course I was reminded that the various regions of the brain have different functions, but I’ve never thought about it in terms of teaching my students math. I learned that neurons fire to both the motor cortex and also to the left parietal lobe. The motor cortex is the region used for controlling fine motor skills (i.e. moving fingers – thus the reason students start counting by using their fingers). The left parietal lobe is the region used for controlling symbolic function in language and math (number symbols). And a totally different region, called Broca’s area, is the region that processes language vocabulary (i.e. numbers written as words). When we begin to think about this in academic terms, we realize that there are several parts of the brain that students must utilize in order to truly understand a math concept.

NOTE: Most of the data that was presented that day came from a book titled “How the Brain Learns Mathematics” by David A. Souza, and I have just signed up for a summer course on just this topic. I can’t wait!

Aside from the conference session, I have also read an article written by several doctors from the Harvard’s Children Hospital titled *Trigger for Brain Plasticity. *The article explains that neuroscientists from this hospital have “identified a protein called Otx 2 which may trigger the brain’s ability to learn. They have discovered that this protein helps a key type of cell in the cortex to mature, initiating a critical period — a window of heightened brain plasticity, when the brain can readily make new connections.” In essence, the eye is telling the brain to become plastic rather than the brain functioning on its own.

So, put all of this together and we see that both the brain and eye function together in the learning process. This all leads to the reasoning of why students learn best visually. As educators, we now need to be focusing on developing visually-literate students. “We need to develop critical thinking skills in relation to visual images, enhance verbal and written literacy skills and vocabulary to be able to talk and write about images, and encourage students to critically investigate images and to analyze and evaluate the values inherently contained in images” (taken from The Visual Literacy White Paper written by Dr. Anne Bamford).

This year, I set a goal to redesign my geometry unit so that it was taught predominantly through the use of visuals. Since geometry is a topic that is represented by so many natural objects in the real world, I figured that was a great start to creating lessons focused towards developing visual literate students. In comparison to last year, the students performed better this year on the final unit assessment. I would like to believe it’s because I made positive changes in the way I delivered the curriculum – through visual means. I have included a few snapshots of some of the lessons throughout the unit, as well as a student’s final project (using GeoGebra – free Mathematics software).

Snapshots of visual images from lessons:

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I signed up for this session to find ways not only in teaching math more visually, but also to find ways of getting students to produce more visually in the math classroom. Erin mentions in her article that “by educating students to understand and communicate through visual modes, teachers empower their students with the necessary tools to thrive in increasingly media-varied environments.”

Throughout the day, we were shown great videos from TED talks (see link here for one of them) and YouTube that could be used as story starters in an english or history class. We also saw several student-generated videos that were created to propose a new, world movement or teach about a topic in science. Everything I saw was fascinating, but of course, I sat in the course and kept asking myself, “How can I incorporate the idea of visual thinking to promote literacy in my math class?”

I am a firm believer that most of my students probably learn best visually, one of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. And throughout the year, I am constantly looking for ways to incorporate visual models in my lessons. I have included a few snapshots below, all used in my lesson on adding integers, created in a Smart Notebook:

But as I mentioned before, I really want to incorporate ways in getting the students to produce math work visually as a way to improve their understanding and literacy in math. Working at a one-to-one laptop school, and being aware of the digital native generation that I teach, I feel I need to take this another step … taking the students to a level in which THEY are producing work visually through the use of digital media. This is the struggle for me! How do you do this in math?

As I sit here and brainstorm, I have some initial ideas. First, I obviously need to model the concepts I am teaching visually, allowing the students to understand what they are learning. I could …

a) start each unit with a visual PowerPoint that tells a story; one that middle school students can relate to and that also incorporates the main mathematical ideas that we will be learning about in the unit. For example, at the start of a decimal unit, the story could be about downloading legal versus illegal music, and the costs that go with each (including fines for getting caught downloading illegal music). A comparison could then be made and a life-lesson taught/learned.

b) use visual images to allow students to explore/discover a specific topic. For example, show several faces of people from all over the world and ask for the shape of the face that is most attractive; move to the “most appealing” sized rectangles – get students to measure the one that most people like – determine the ratio and go back to the faces to see if they are interrelated; then look at objects in nature that share the same ratio. Hopefully this would lead them to understanding the golden ratio.

Now, I need to make the transition by asking the students to produce work demonstrating/illustrating what they have learned visually more often. Here are some thoughts that I have that are inspiring me at the moment:

a) student-developed PowerPoints that use visuals to tell a story, incorporating a math concept/topic (adapted from the teacher example above)

b) students create probability games using the flash objects (i.e. spinners, flipping coins, rolling dice, pulling colored chips out of a bag) from Smart Tools (a Smartboard resource). We could then turn our classroom into a game room, where students rotate from game to game.

c) students can make their own web quest for a specific math unit (links to definitions, graphics, instructional videos, online games, etc), providing that the teacher has outlined what is expected and what needs to be included.

As an educator in the 21st century, I need to realize and capitalize on the fact that my students learn best through visual means. Erin states it best in her article *Visual Literacy and the Classroom* when she says, “visual literacy instruction will better prepare students for the dynamic and constantly changing online world they will inevitably be communicating through.”