A Whole Brain Approach to Improving Student Engagement

Stephanie Biller 
5th Grade Teacher
Ridge Elementary School
Henrico County Public Schools


Listen to Stephanie discuss her action research project

I teach in a collaborative fifth grade class that is typically comprised of five or more Exceptional Education students, ten or more ELL students levels 1-6, along with general education students, all from diverse backgrounds. The diversity of my classroom has great rewards, yet also can make meeting the needs of all my students more challenging. Teachers are always striving to improve student engagement by strengthening instruction and classroom management. For my action research project, I am focusing on the effect of Whole Brain Teaching strategies on students’ behavioral, cognitive, and affective engagement. True engagement is when students have positive conduct and involvement in tasks (behavioral), a sense of belonging and school connectedness (affective), as well as value learning with a willingness to put forth effort (cognitive). Throughout the course of the school year, I have been introducing and implementing Whole Brain Teaching strategies from the book Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids by Chris Biffle. Whole Brain Teaching focuses on getting students engaged by seeing, hearing, doing, feeling, and speaking. The whole brain-  Motor Cortex (making gestures), Visual Cortex (seeing gestures), Amygdala (pleasure and pain), Prefrontal Cortex (executive functioning), Broca’s Area (speaking), Wernicke’s Area (listening), Limbic System (emotions), and Hippocampus (memory formation) -is active within the collection of strategies. The question for my action research project is: With the addition of Whole Brain Teaching strategies, will students’ behavioral, affective, and cognitive engagement increase during whole group instruction? The answer to this question is important because students will have more academic success when they are engaged, and it is important for me to adjust my instructional strategies to meet the needs of all students. To gather data, I created a checklist and collected observations within thirty minute time frames over a six month period of behavioral disengagement occurrences (talking, out of seat, playing in desk, not working) as Whole Brain Teaching strategies were introduced. The biggest decrease in occurrences were seen with the behaviors of “not working” and “playing in the desk”. The number of occurrences for “not working” decreased from an average of 20.5 to an average of 3.75. The number of occurrences for “playing in the desk” decreased from an average of 15.25 to an average of 2.5. Based on this data collection, I can conclude that Whole Brain Teaching has a positive impact on behavioral engagement.   Additionally, student surveys and interviews were conducted to measure affective and cognitive engagement. The survey and interviews have shown that students find having friends at school as very important and have an overall positive outlook on the school year and their growth. Trends in student interviews suggest that students believe Whole Brain Teaching strategies have helped them understand the content better, Increase their interest in school work, and decrease disengaged behaviors during whole group instruction. Based on all of the data collected, I conclude that the Whole Brain Teaching strategies have contributed to the overall improvement in students’ behavioral, affective, and cognitive engagement. My next steps are to continue to introduce Whole Brain Teaching strategies to my students, as well to further determine my definition of student engagement and how I expect it to be displayed in my classroom.

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