What's Good for the Brain is Also Good for the Body!

Brain Based learning And Diet

Wow, what an amazing first few weeks of summer. Thanks to everyone who has registered for our summer programs. We are sold out and our groups enjoyed the learning and the great city of San Antonio, Texas. The city is full of superb restaurants. We’re going to take a cognitive break and focus on eating.

And that reminds me of a true story…

On most of our visits to local restaurants, the waitress typically asks for the drink order, and second, brings bread or chips. I wish I could tell you that I always resist, but I don’t. But, maybe I should resist, and you should too. Why? Are either of these “restaurant staples” really a good idea?

Breads and alcohol are carbohydrates and some are better than others. This is hard for me to say (as a bread-lover), but less bread in your diet is better. Pass on the breads at the restaurant. Alcohol is, of course, not good for the brain. Some anti-aging effects may be in red wine – but that’s an exception, so keep your intake levels to low or moderate. Alcohol consumption prior to a meal sets off a neurochemical chain reaction in the brain that encourages us to eat more (Yeomans et al., 2003). People who drink more alcohol tend to consume more calories, especially from the foods that contain much higher percentages of fats (cholesterol and all forms of fatty acids) (Kesse et al., 2001). Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?

A study of nearly 73,000 middle-aged and highly educated women, whose drinking habits ranged from abstinence to heavy drinkers, found that cholesterol intake was 32 percent higher in heavy drinkers than nondrinkers; caloric intake was 29.5 percent higher among drinkers, and consumption of animal products, cheese, processed meats, vegetable oil, potatoes, breakfast cereals and coffee increased among alcohol drinkers.

Also, the intake of vegetables decreased among this group. Wine was the drink of choice among two thirds of the drinkers. Other research suggests that alcohol’s appetite-stimulating factors may contribute to the excess accumulation of abdominal fat found often in persons who drink regularly (Dorn et al., 2003).

Does any of this research apply to you? If you eat out at restaurants just three times a month and you modified your eating on two of the three visits (the other one is a “free pass” and you can eat the way you have before), miracles could occur. (more…)

Water Bottles in the Classroom: A Smart Move or Another Colossal Hoax?

Over the years, all of us have heard how important it is to have kids drink water at school. That reminds me of a true story…

On one of my trips out to a school district, I was picked up at the airport by the local superintendent. We struck up a conversation on the way to the event. Since my topic was brain-related, the superintendent was gushing about how his district was now “brain compatible.”

I said, “Really? That’s great. Tell me what you’re doing.”

With a good deal of pride, he said, “We have water bottles on every kid’s desk.”

At that point I politely replied, “That’s nice.”

But IS it “nice”?

Is water on the desks really a good idea?

The Research

Years ago, I often repeated things I had heard from others who I thought were experts. But many were self-proclaimed experts who were also repeating what they had heard from other experts. Put enough experts together in one room and you have… grander delusions. Bottom line is that I was, at times, too careless and failed to go dig for the quality research. I know better now. Today, lean in close and read the truth about drinking water.

First, many of the studies promoted as “evidence” to support more hydration have 100 or fewer in the study. That’s too risky to draw much of a conclusion from, and has too few participants to generalize. In our first study, 58 children aged 7-9 years old were randomly allocated to either a group that received additional water or to a group that did not. Results showed that children who drank additional water rated themselves as significantly less thirsty than the control group and they performed better on visual attention tasks. Huh? What about every other type of task? That’s the best we can do? (Edmonds, et al. 2009)

Many questions arise from these studies.

For example, were the following variables teased out about the study:

What was the weather like during the study? How much humidity? Temperature?

What had the participants eaten? High or low water content foods?

Did the participants have any strenuous physical activity prior to the study?

What about water quality? Cultural favorite drinks? How about peer pressure?

Another study (same author) studied younger kids. This study had just 23 kids, aged 6-7 years old. There were improvements with the water group, who had less thirst and more “happiness.” They were also better on visual attention and visual search skills, but not visual memory or visuomotor performance (Edmonds, et al. 2009.) Again, too small of a sample, and the results are hardly dramatic.

Another recent study of 24 volunteers found that with a 24-hour dehydration, cognitive-motor function is preserved, but mood and reaction time deteriorated. No big shock there. There was a 2.6% decrease of body weight (woo-hoo!) during water deprivation (Szinnai, et al. 2005.) The most interesting part of this study was that females showed greater diminished capacity than males. In a follow-up study (Szinnai, et al. 2007) moderate dehydration induced by water restriction had no effect on blood pressure or heart rate reactivity to mental stress. However, stress-induced states become fortified during dehydration in females, but not males.

I was unable to find, anywhere in the medical journals, any scientific evidence that says, “Drink eight glasses of water per day.”
In fact, getting too much water may be just as bad as not enough (Valtin, 2002.) In one study, when initial thirst was high, the more water ingested, the higher the performance. When initial thirst was low, the more water ingested, the poorer the performance. This reminds us NOT to go overboard with pushing water on students every ten minute. A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. But make the water available, don’t push it on them.

There are, however, two additional issues to consider. One, children from lower income families cannot afford a constant supply of quality bottled water from home. It’s expensive and it’s no better than most tap water. Because of this, I suggest schools ensure all drinking fountains work well and have good water.

But wait; there’s more…

What about the studies on… (more…)

How To Best Implement Music in the Classroom

There are many, many ways the musical arts can be implemented in classrooms.Music can be either played or listened to actively or passively. If you’re playing music in a learning environment, remember these things:

Many students who are having difficulty in school may have listening and/or hearing problems; and these problems may be impacting their behavior, reading abilities, and attentional patterns. Schools ought to test for both hearing and listening skills.

Generally making music is better than listening to it. But don’t let the lack of a trained music teacher keep your learners from music exposure. Do what you can do in the circumstances you have. Everything from humming, to singing, using primitive to popular instruments, or CD players can add music to the day.

Let your students know why you use what you do. Help them understand the differences among music which calms, energizes or inspires. Students of all ages should learn why you use music. and be able to suggest selections.

Always be the last word in music selections. If you think that the suggestions of others are not your style, that’s no problem–still use it. But if what students suggest has hurtful lyrics or create an inappropriate mood, say no. That’s your responsibility as a professional.

Get students involved in the process of managing the music after you have introduced it. Many are happy to play “disk jockey” for the class, but you’ll want to have clear rules on what’s done and when.

Get a CD player. Keep your CDs in a safe, clean binder and keep them and the CD player well-secured.

Do active research with music. Work with another grade-level teacher. Both of you can split your class and trade student halves. You might try one type of music for 10-15 minutes (if it’s a math class, you might use Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major) and the other teacher might try a series of rhythms or even heavy metal. Then switch the two groups and do a ten-minute exam or survey activity that measures spatial reasoning, logic or problem-solving. Tally up the scores and share them with students.

Remember the studies that suggest that students learn and recall better when physiological states are matched. If students learn material with a particular music in the background, they’ll also do better with it during the test. This suggests that you might want to use music for learning only when you can match it at test time.

Approximately 15-25% of your may be highly sensitive to sounds. They may be highly auditory learners. If these students complain about your use of music, you might want to turn it down a bit, listen to their suggestions and remind them you use music only part of the time, not all the time. At least a quarter of your students dislike teamwork; would you throw that out, too? Be respectful, but stand your ground.

Background music does affect your students. The consensus is: 1) select it carefully 2) make sure it’s predictably repetitive and 3) play music in a major key 4) use instrumentals, not vocals for the background.

Some students will complain about music because of another issue: control. If the room’s too cold, and students can access the thermostat, they complain less. If music is not their taste, and they can have input on what’s played or the volume, you’ll get fewer complaints. When a student complains, you can be empathic; either turn down the music a bit or allow the student to sit further from the speakers.

Remember the power of authority figures and the value of your credibility with music. If you act positive when using music, and show that you believe it actually will enhance learning and memory, it will have a stronger effect. The group that was told music inhibits learning did perform worse on a music-enhanced word list and vocabulary quiz than the controls.

Silence is golden. Anything can become saturated. Use music selectively and purposely. In most classes, it might be used from 10-30% of the total learning time

Two exceptions:
1) if music is the whole focus of a class, more may be fine
2) you may use environmental noise/music like waterfalls, rain forests or oceans
for longer than other selections.

It’s best to optimize music training with intervals of rest. The practice sessions for playing music ought to be for a minimum of 30 minutes, up to a maximum of 90 minutes, with a focus on one skill at a time. Longer sessions can work, for one to two hours, if you’re alternating short concentrated bursts of music training of fifteen minutes at a time, with an activity like dance, drawing, theater, recess, or walks. This should be done a minimum of two or more times weekly. To get lasting benefits, the playing is best if over at least a year. Schools which have a once weekly “token” music program for 30 minutes or less are missing the significant benefits, though some meager musical and cultural exposure is better than nothing.

Based on the evidence gathered so far, it’s both reasonable and prudent that music should be a significant part of every child’s education. It is the ethical, scientific and cultural imperative that all children get exposure to music as an equal with every other discipline. There is also support for the policy of starting children early in their music education as the effects are greater in the early years. Positive impact increases with each additional year.

The message with music education is, start early, make it mandatory, provide instruction, add choices and support it throughout a student’s education. That’s what leads to dependable results. It can be, literally, an education with music in mind.

Creative Commons License photo credit: bonnie-brown

Are Schools Killing Creativity

A thought provoking video from Sir Ken Robinson, who makes an entertaining and moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Why don’t we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies — far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity — are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences.

“We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says. It’s a message with deep resonance. Robinson’s TEDTalk has been distributed widely around the Web since its release.

A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

His latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, a deep look at human creativity and education, was published in January 2009.

Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?

MSc eLearning: Essay Wordle

Before we begin, I want to address a study that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, and on the mainstream news. It claimed that “brain-training” is not effective. Huh? In spite of the quality of the journal, don’t swallow the study results. Why?

Three reasons: 1) the “brain training” was only 10 minutes a day – way too short for the brain to change. You need 20-60 min./day. 2) a small sample size was used, not a large random one, so you can’t generalize, and 3) there was no monitoring the brain training; all was done at home, where presumably, people are talking to family, spacing out, and not highly vested. Listen: the brain can change, but you have to follow the rules!

Okay; I got that off my chest. Now, let’s focus on something I ordinarily NEVER focus on.

There are many so-called “truths” that float around in education. Some actually are true, and others are a big, smelly pile of doo-doo. For example, if you’ve been to any of my workshops lately, you know why you should NEVER buy into the myth of the “normal” kid.But for today’s newsletter, we’d got another shocker: neuroscientist Susan Greenfield said that from a neuroscience point viewpoint, the whole idea of using learning styles for teaching is nonsense. By the way, she’s not alone in believing there is no such thing as a learning style.

But wait, there’s more…

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) commissions panels of leading psychologists and cognitive scientists to evaluate topics of public interest, and publishes their reports in Psychological Science. In late 2009, the panel concluded that an adequate evaluation of the learning styles hypothesis – the idea that optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles – requires a particular kind of study – AND IT HAS NOT BEEN DONE.

How could you “prove” learning styles.

Here’s what you’d have to do: group students into the learning style categories that are being evaluated (e.g., visual learners vs. verbal learners), and then students in each group must be randomly assigned to one of the learning methods (e.g., visual learning or verbal learning), so that some students will be “matched” and others will be “mismatched.”

After the learning and consolidation time, all students must sit for the same test. If the learning style hypothesis is correct, then, for example, visual learners should learn better with the visual method, whereas auditory learners should learn better with the auditory method. But Massa & Mayer, 2006 have found that this has not been done.

So what does this mean?


Brain-based education is here to stay.

Today, as a result of years of work by brain-based educators, educators are a far more informed profession. They are more professional, they look more at research, and they are increasingly more capable of understanding and incorporating new cognitive neuroscience discoveries than they were 10 years ago.

More schools of education are incorporating knowledge from the brain sciences than would have done so if we had followed the critics’ advice and crawled into an intellectual cave for 25 years. Many forward thinkers have stayed tuned to such sources as Bob Sylwester’s monthly column in Brain Connection, Scientific Learning’s Internet journal that’s regularly read by thousands of educators and parents. Sylwester, formerly a professor at the University of Oregon and a widely published authority on brain-based education, has been “connecting the dots” for educators for a decade.

10 years after the mudslinging criticism of brain-based education, it’s appropriate to say, “We were right.”

In fact, because of the efforts of the brain-based community to inform educators, thousands are currently using this knowledge appropriately to enhance education policy and practice. There are degree programs in it, scientific journals, and conferences; and peer-reviewed brain-related research now supports the discipline.

There are countless neuroscientists who support the movement, and they demonstrate their support by writing and speaking at educational conferences.

As an author in the brain-based movement, I have reminded educators that they should never say, “Brain research proves . . .” because it does not prove anything.

It may, however, suggest or strengthen the value of a particular pathway.

What educators should say is, “These studies suggest that XYZ may be true about the brain. Given that insight, it probably makes sense for us, under these conditions, to use the following strategies in schools.” This approach, which is a cautionary one, sticks with the truth. When one is careful about making causal claims, the connections are there for those with an open mind.

The science may come from a wide range of disciplines. Brain-based education is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who claims that is misleading people. It is not yet a program, a model, or a package for schools to follow.

The discussion of how to improve student learning must widen from axons and dendrites to the bigger picture. That bigger picture is that our brain is involved with everything we do at school. The brain is the most relevant feature to explore, because it affects every strategy, action, behavior, and policy at your school.

New journals explore such essential topics as social conditions, exercise, neurogenesis, arts, stress, and nutrition. A school cannot remove arts, career education, and physical education and at the same time claim to be doing what’s best for the brains of its students. These are the issues we must be exploring, not whether someone can prove whether a teacher’s strategy was used before or after a neuroscience study provided peer-reviewed support for that strategy.

Today, there is still criticism, but the voices are no longer a chorus; they’re a diminishing whine. For the critic, it’s still “my way or the highway.”

That’s an old, tired theme among critics; the tactic of dismissing another’s research by narrowing the discussion to irrelevant issues, such as whether the research is cognitive science, neurobiology, or psychology. They’re all about the mind and brain.

The real issues that we should be talking about are what environmental, instructional, and social conditions can help us enrich students’ lives. To answer that, it’s obvious that everything that our brain does is relevant and that’s what should now be on the table for discussion.

Yes, we are in the infancy of brain research — there’s so much more to learn. But dismissing it is not only shortsighted, it’s also dead wrong. At this early stage, that would be like calling the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk a failure because it only went a few hundred yards.

And let’s remember, the Wright Brothers had no credibility either; they were actually bicycle mechanics, not aviators. The future belongs not to the turf protectors, but to those with vision who can grasp interdisciplinary trends as well as the big picture. Nothing is more relevant to educators than the brains of their students, parents, or staff.

Brain-based education is here to stay.

Excerpted from Eric Jensen’s article in Kappan Magazine…. You can read the full text here.

4N6K3G7VQE6D Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Physical Education Is Supported by Brain Research

While many schools are reducing physical activity because of time constraints created by the No Child Left Behind Act, a large group of studies has linked physical activity with cognition.

The researchers have come at the topic from a wide range of disciplines. Some are cognitive scientists or exercise physiologists. Other advocates are educational psychologists, neurobiologists, or physical educators. The applied research, which compares academic achievement between schools where kids have physical activity and those where they don’t, also supports the hypothesis.13

Like six blind men describing different parts of an elephant, they are all addressing the same issue but from different viewpoints. They are all correct in revealing how physical experience affects the brain. Each of their viewpoints is valid, yet incomplete by itself.

Now let’s add the neuroscience perspective.

It reveals information that other disciplines cannot reveal. For example, we know that exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells.14 We know exercise upregulates a critical compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor.15 We also know that neurogenesis is correlated with improved learning and memory.16 In addition, neurogenesis appears to be inversely correlated with depression.17

While careless policy makers reduce physical activity, many administrators are unaware of the inverse correlations with adolescent depression. It’s scary, but each year one in six teens makes plans for suicide, and roughly one in 12 teens attempts suicide.18 Yet there is considerable evidence that running can serve as an antidepressant.19

These data would suggest that educators might want to foster neurogenesis with physical education. But educators and policy makers can’t see the new brain cells being produced. That’s one reason to know the science, to show everyday, easy-to-influence school factors that regulate neurogenesis and, subsequently, cognition, memory, and mood. Those are the kinds of connections that should be made. They are not careless; there’s little downside risk and much to gain.

To verify this hypothesis, we check the applied research to find out what happens to student achievement in schools where physical activity is either added or strengthened.

The research in this arena is mixed because there are no broadly established protocols. For example, there are questions about when and how much physical activity is needed, what kind, and whether it should be voluntary. These are not trivial issues; our brains respond better to meaningful activities with appropriate duration and intensity over enough time to make changes. Voluntary activity is important, too. If the activity is forced, it is likely to generate distress, not cognitive or health benefits. But when the studies are well designed, there is support for physical activity in schools.

So the interdisciplinary promotion of physical activity as a “brain-compatible” activity is well founded. Again, we see the brain involved in everything we do at school.

Thus a brain-based perspective strengthens the case for maintaining or enhancing physical activities in school.

Was all of the research from the realm of neuroscience? No, it was from a wide range of sources. But every source still comes back to our brain. Is our brain enhanced or impaired by physical activity? The answer is clear: brains benefit from physical activity in many ways. The brain is involved in everything we do at school. How you measure it (basic science, cognitive science, psychology, applied research, sports research, neurochemistry, etc.) will still require the brain.

While critics are trying to narrow the discussion of brain-based education to a “turf war” over where the science comes from, the bigger picture is simple: the brain is involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it is irresponsible.

Excerpted from Eric Jensen’s article in Kappan Magazine…. You can read the full text here.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Beneteau Sailor

Captivating Students

How to make class fun… enjoy.

Matthew’s April 1st class:

Matthew’s Halloween class:

If you’d like to learn how Matthew Weathers did this, you can find out more here.

Student Engagement Tips: Student Interaction

Transparent Teaching.

You present a key point, using an overhead as a
 prompt for yourself. Now it’s the student’s turn to put it in his or her own words. 
You can number sentences, so that each student takes the odd ones. You can
 also color-code them so one takes those in blue and the other takes those in red. 
Everyone stand, mix up to find a partner. On cue, one person translates the
 sentence into their own words, creating meaning for themselves and maybe 
others. This is a good way to ensure that everyone understands the material.

Voting With Their Body.

This strategy is a kinesthetic affirmation based on
 others taking an action to respond by doing something with their body.

As an
 example, first ask your students to stand up. Ask them to vote with their body. 
Say, “If you believe this is true, go to that side of the room. If you disagree, go to
 this side of the room.” Then, they might do an activity such as a pair share.

Before they go sit down, you might say, “Now take in a slow deep breath and 
hold it…good. Now let it out. If you feel more confident, have a seat.

Or, “If
 you’re ready to learn something new, please have a seat.

Filling “Holes”.

Good for students using a notebook 
or those with any collection of pages with notes.

Each student finds the
 weakest page (one he or she’d like more info on) from his or her workbook
 from the last unit or learning segment. They open that up and leave it 

This activity works best with a “set-up” beforehand. Talk to the students
 about learning from others and the fact that we all value other’s opinions and that
 no one can know everything. Remind students in advance, that his is a chance to
“give ideas and get ideas,” and it’s not the time for rude comments or love letters.

Students stand up and walk around the room (use music for this one). Make it 
mandatory that they stop and write on at least one open notebook page. Give
 students about 3 minutes and keep them focused. Once students have returned 
to their seats, you can evaluate how many actually did get comments. If they are
 seated in a cooperative learning group, you can also have students pass their
 notebooks or the pieces of paper to solicit comments. Then they can share with 
their team what they learned from the comments.

Be sure to check out our summer workshop on Tools For Maximum Engagement here. It’s filling fast and is one of our more powerful teacher workshops.

Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Student Engagement Tips: Getting Students Started

Anticipatory traditions.

Doing something once is okay, but creating a 
positive, predictable and practical tool repeated enough to be called a ritual is
 even better.

Many are as simple as raising your hand and asking others to 
raise their hand once they see your hand is up. This simply means you want 
the group’s attention.

When others see that other’s hands are up, they too 
raise their hand. Soon, they entire group has their hand up and the room is

Also: 1) You clap once, then say, “If you can hear me, clap twice.”
Then you clap twice and say, “If you can hear me clap three times.” Then
 you clap three times and say, “If you can hear me, clap four times.” Then you
 clap four times. By this time, all your audience will be clapping with you and
 ready for you to jump in and start talking with complete attention.

Comeback Response.

These are strategies that are used the moment the 
group is back from: 1) yesterday’s class 2) the previous class 3) a break 4)

Almost any tool, vehicle or group response activity can be used if it is:
 a) short, b) solves the “return to seats” problem, c) ends in a positive state,
 d) engages everyone.

An example would be if, when the group’s back, you said, “If you made it back on
time, raise your hand and say, ‘Yes!’ Now, turn to your nearest neighbor and say, 
‘Welcome back!’”

This aligns the group, reorients them to you and their social
 structure and quiets them for a couple of seconds. Naturally, you’ll need to jump
in right after that moment and begin the class before the noise starts up again.

Inhale Slowly.

Breath is affects us powerfully. Stretching helps engagement.

Taking in a deep breath is often a precursor to taking on a challenge or knowing
 something is coming up. You might say, “Let’s pause for a minute. Take in a slow
 deep breath… inhale, inhale and hold it. Now, slowly release it out. Very good.
 Now, one more time. Breathe in slowly, as if you’re taking in a divine gift. A
 little more… very good. Now, hold it ….and slowly exhale as if you’re
 releasing all the stress of the day.”

After the breath, there’s a pause in
anticipation of the next thing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk

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