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Brain Week: AVID Tutorials and the Brain

Second segment of a three-part article 

By William Madigan and Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino

Tutorials and group/teamwork, which are endemic to the AVID elective, are supported by several educational philosophers such as Spencer Kagan of University of California Irvine and great Russian linguist Lev Vygotsky to name a few.  Kagan is one of the noted champions of team or cooperative learning.  Vygotsky, the creator of the “zone of proximal development,” noted that the best teaching is really facilitating the problem solving of the student – not giving them the answers.

The AVID tutorials provide not only an opportunity to improve performance in core subjects, but also a chance for students to interact with caring adults.  As such the tutors act as mentors to encourage and enhance the students’ learning.  Neuroscience shows that when we receive positive feedback from others, the dopamine system responds by providing us with internally rewarding neurochemicals that promote brain health.

On Kagan’s Facebook site, the basic guiding description of his work is found and obviously parallels the vision of the AVID elective tutorials and the inclusive goals of the AVID “Family” atmosphere:

“Dr. Kagan created simple ‘structures’ that allow teachers to guide the interaction of students.  Kagan's structures not only lead to greater cooperativeness; they have proven positive results in many areas, including greater academic achievement, improved ethnic relations, enhanced self-esteem, harmonious classroom climate, and the development of social skills and character virtues.  Kagan Structures align instruction with how the brain best learns and engage the range of multiple intelligences.”

AVID, too has had great success with its tutoring model, which shares the same goals as Kagan’s cooperative vision.  However, AVID has synthesized a more specific set of elements into the tutorial that make it unique.  The reflective questioning and Socratic methods utilized in the AVID tutorial setting mirror Vygotsky’s “Zone of proximal development” where the primary goal is guiding – not telling – the student to understanding through the use of “think alouds,” and by asking probing and critical questions.  The tutor, almost like a psychologist, asks probing questions and requires the student to discover their answers with the help of their fellow AVID students.  Tutors as well as AVID teachers are trained to guide the student to finding their own answer with the knowledge they own.  They know that Vygotsky is right: the students should only be given enough clues and information to solve problems and challenges on their own.

When students are involved with a caring guide like an AVID tutor, and they are able to collaborate with their peers, their anxiety is reduced.  What the great linguist Steven Krashen called the “affective filter” is diminished when the task – however rigorous – is shared.  Educational tasks done alone with the additional possibility of being individually called on by the teacher elicit great anxiety.  If anxiety is persistent (such as a non-collaborative environment might induce) the amygdala in our primitive brain is activated excessively, and the brain releases cortisol or stress hormones, which may be detrimental to brain function.  The higher-level cognitive skills are weakened or even shut off completely when anxiety is present.  Thus, the structure and practices of the AVID elective tutorial are well suited to problem solving and learning in a safe but challenging, brain-healthy environment

Besides these immediate benefits from the AVID tutorial, the group/team atmosphere of the AVID elective is also important in the long term.  In fact positive, “pro-social” behavior increases when we identify ourselves as part of a cohesive team or “family.”  As Dr. Larry Brendtro states in his book Deep Brain Learning,

“Group belonging seems to automatically prime altruistic behavior.  In 1920, social psychologist William McDougall wrote that loyalty towards members of one’s group was the principle moralizing force in society.  Modern research confirms this view.  When we feel we belong to a group, our in-group empathy programs kick in and activate pro-social behavior without any need for external rewards.”

The AVID elective family/team can even have a profound effect on interracial cooperation.  Research into negative amygdala reactions based on racial prejudice have also shown that if a person of another race or ethnicity is wearing the same team jersey as you are, the brain actually reacts less fearfully.  So, if we set up teams or groups well, they can even mitigate some interracial friction.  Being in the AVID “family” and having shared goals does much to smooth over issues such as prejudice.

During the adolescent years, the desire and need to belong to a group beyond the family is extremely important, as the brain systems develop and mature. When students are exposed to the healthy peer relationships provided by the AVID elective, the reward system of the brain becomes activated.  The sense of belonging to a peer group provides a rush of rewarding dopamine to the brain.

In addition to the neural benefits of collaboration, the AVID elective’s emphasis on writing and reading develops the brain networks that support higher-order cognitive processes.  By teaching the students to think and write critically, the frontal lobes are engaged and the networks strengthened.  Writing summaries helps the student filter information in order to hone in and condense key points rather than simply regurgitate isolated facts.  Writing gives AVID students a chance to express their thoughts cohesively, reading and re-reading what one has written helps develop the ability to organize and clarify the thinking process.

Tomorrow, read the final Brain Week blog:  “The Brain and the AVID teacher”



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