Creating Brainiacs

phot by Lisa Krantz/Express-News

photo: Lisa Krantz/Express-News

Eric Jensen led a workshop on brain-based learning for Harlendale Independent School District teachers and administrators at the Boggess Center in July. Jensen spoke about techniques aimed at children from impoverished backgrounds, including helping them cope with stress, learn appropriate emotional responses and increase cognitive stimulation.

Creating brainiacs

During the summer, about 200 educators in the Harlandale Independent School District experienced brain-based learning firsthand as they joined in a fast-paced scavenger hunt all while becoming acquainted with neuroscience research and teaching techniques from expert Eric Jensen.

Between activities meant to engage workshop participants, Jensen spoke about using brain-based techniques with students from impoverished backgrounds. Research has shown that socioeconomic status is associated with childhood achievement. He emphasized helping students cope with stress, learn appropriate emotional responses and increase cognitive stimulation.

What these teachers may not have realized was the basis for these strategies stretches back to experiments half a century ago.

Leslie Owen Wilson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point School of Education, said brain-based learning can trace its origins to the Split Brain Experiments of the 1960s, in which scientists discovered that the two brain hemispheres had different functions. But, neuroscience research has been slow to diffuse into classroom settings, said Wilson, who is based in Austin and is teaching an online course on the topic this fall.

“Generally, teachers teach the way that they were taught,” said Wilson, who added that an administrator who adopts brain-friendly policies can ease the transition.

For students to retain learning, they must practice, talk about and act upon the information, Wilson said.

“A lot of kids physically have to do something in order to ingrain the learning at a permanent level,” Wilson said. “That takes a great deal of time and teaching artistry and, you know, it’s not on the test.”

Using new techniques

Melva Matkin said that when she became principal of Esparza Accelerated Elementary School in the Northside Independent School District more than 20 years ago, most students were functioning below grade level on standardized tests.

“We knew something had to change,” she said.

Matkin’s formula for creating an “enriched” learning environment included asking teachers to stay current on cognitive research and to use students’ emotional states to optimize learning and behavior management.

For instance, students might hear classical music playing during lunch. Matkin has observed that classical music calms students. The few times someone has slipped the wrong CD into the player, she’s seen the kids get really revved up.

She has also advised teachers to cater to students’ multiple intelligences. This translates to students building a diorama of the Alamo for history class — an activity that would appeal to their spatial intelligence — rather than just reading about the Alamo.

In North East Independent School District, the push toward brain-based learning is coming, in part, from the physical education and health department. There Rachel Naylor, assistant director for physical education, health and athletics, said teachers began incorporating brain breaks into classes last year.

“It could be anything from standing up, stretching, breathing and sitting back down, to going outside for a walk,” Naylor said.

Strategies that work movement into the school day boost blood flow to the brain and can create a domino effect that affects learning, quality of life and, potentially, test scores, Naylor said. A preliminary NEISD analysis from the 2008-09 school year found that obese middle school students had lower passing rates on both the reading and math portions of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills tests than students with a healthy weight.

Overcoming challenges

Rather than lecturing to quiet lackluster learners, teachers may have to adapt to a classroom cacophony — a potential side effect of having engaged students — according to local educators who have made the switch.

But aside from managing energized students, there are other impediments to using brain-based learning techniques.

For instance, educators must first understand the scientific research to translate it into classroom practices, Wilson said.

Another downside is the amount of time it takes to teach using these tactics.

“If I zip through a textbook or indulge in round-robin reading, I can say I covered that material, but I can’t with any certainty say a child learned it,” Wilson said.

Alvarez said he found time management to be an issue when he took students outside to practice graphing, an activity that took twice as long as expected.

“There’s no other way, sometimes, to get through a lesson besides notes and lecture because there are time constraints,” Alvarez said.

Matkin acknowledges that brain-based learning is not a quick fix.

Though the success of these initiatives can be difficult to measure comparatively, Matkin pointed out that Esparza, a school of about 750 students, received an exemplary rating in the 2010 Texas accountability ratings.

Brain-based learning is “a philosophy and approach to education that’s kid-friendly and it’s, frankly, teacher-friendly,” the principal said. “It is not an easy way to teach, but it is a fun way to teach.”

Read the full article at San Antonio Express-News:

How To Use Technology To Engage Students In Poverty

Here’s a great video from am innovative teacher that is using technology to engage students that are in poverty. Many of his students speak English as a second language, and the blogging approach he provides aids in their development.

Favorite quote from the video below: “It’s not basics then enrichment… the basics can be addressed move covertly, authentically, and effective when those skills are developed in a meaningful and motivational context”.

From TED: Brian Crosby, a teacher for 29 years in Sparks, Nevada, guides the learning in a model technology classroom. Coming from a background in outdoor education and educational technology, Brian fuses his “at risk” students’ use of technology with field trips, art, hands-on activities and a problem-based approach, to build their schema of the world while at once connecting them to it.

Brian Crosby, a fifth grade teacher at Agnes Risley Elementary School in Sparks, NV, has a blog called Learning Is Messy.

You can also see his student’s blog here.

Are Intelligence and Achievement Contagious?

fairview blackboard

The Most Critical, Must-Have Attitude You Can Possibly Have Starting a New School Year Is…

Every year, hundreds (or is it 1,000s?) of new books flood the educational marketplace. There’s no way on earth that you or I can keep up with the flood. But if you were to narrow down the list of critical things that every educator should keep at or near the top of their list, what would you put on the list?

Here is a list of the usual: be rigorous (assign challenging content), assess often (formative assessment is big these days), use inclusion more (it’s more politically correct and it saves money), and be sure to differentiate (flash news bulletin: kids are unique), plus a dozen others.

Are ALL of those a good idea?

In some ways, yes. But if your list got narrowed further and further to just the top three or four items, what would you put on the list for the upcoming school year? I know what I would insist that everyone on your staff keep in the top 5. In fact, I would be relentless about it until it was heavily embedded in every class, every day.

What are these top 5 “must do” items?

We all accept the reality that colds and the flu are contagious. We think that since there are often airborne particles or hand and face transferred germs involved, we can “catch” something from others. But could your students “catch” achievement? It sounds far-fetched, but is it? (more…)

Why Teach Differently to Those from Poverty?

The brain is run by three things. First, behavioral geneticists estimate that about 30-40% of how we turn out is genetics. But that leaves 60-70% up to either the environment or environment and genetics combined (gene expression). Those who grow up in poverty experience a very different upbringing from middle or upper class kids.

Students who grow up amid economic insecurity often face many obstacles: parents without education, lack of healthy attachments, lag of cognitive stimulation, lack of enrichment activities, violent neighborhoods and lack of access to medical resources. The latest neuroscience science is showing how these emotions have effects on the brain and how they can directly impede learning. Some scientists and educators are suggesting ways in which kids and college students can combat the long-lasting effects of poverty-related stress.

How Chronic Stress Derails the Brain

Out of all the issues, one of the greatest is acute or chronic stress.

Occasional stress is good for us. Cortisol is actually a molecule of energy. But in response to fear or stress, the brain quickly releases adrenaline and cortisol, activating the heart, blood vessels and brain for life-saving action — fighting, flight or freeze. At school most kids don’t fight or flight, they just freeze up in class and do nothing.

The most severe stressor is a threat. The brain gives the threat priority over anything else — including schoolwork — and it creates powerful memories to help prevent future threats.Fear also interferes with learning. A study published in the February online journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that students raised in low-income homes have stronger fear reactions — with potential consequences for concentration.”All families experience stress, but poor families experience a lot of it,” says Martha Farah, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida, has studied the effects of stress-related hormones in rats for decades and spoken at Jensen conferences. He found that high cortisol levels affect the hippocampus — a key learning center in the brain — in three ways. They suppress electrical activity, decrease efficiency and reduce new cell growth. In fact, chronic stress actually shrinks the hippocampus. That impairs learning, memory and mood.

These effects, thought likely to occur in humans as well, might be one reason it’s hard for impoverished students to concentrate and learn — especially if there is extra stress, violence or abuse in the child’s environment, Diamond says.

Has anyone actually compared the brains of middle class kids with those from poverty?

One researcher reported that growing up in poverty affects thinking processes associated with several brain systems. Sixty healthy middle-school students matched for age, gender and ethnicity but of different socioeconomic status took tests that challenged brain areas responsible for specific cognitive abilities. Researchers found that children from low-income homes had significantly lower scores in areas of language, long-term and short-term memory, and attention.

The research, Farah says, suggests that the effect of stress on the brain may be the reason for these detected differences and disadvantages. “Growing up in a socially disadvantaged environment often exposes people to threats to their health and well-being,” says Peter Gianaros, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who headed the research.

Can Teachers Change the Brain

There are science-supported ways to mitigate these accentuated fear and stress responses and nurture the brain, researchers and educators say.

“Change the experience, and you change the brain,” says San Diego-based educator Eric Jensen, author of the book “Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential,” who has developed a teachers’ training program, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind.”

“Many good schools have shown they can create experiences that change the brain for the better.”

Among those experiences:

* Targeted preparation. To help children succeed in school, Jensen teaches educators to build students’ brain capacity in areas shown by science to be lagging: attention, long-term effort, memory, processing skills and sequencing skills. He recommends a slate of activities for each — for example, compelling stories, theater arts and fine-motor tasks all build attention skills, he says.

* Foster a mind-set of hope, determination, change and optimism — and security. There are many ways to foster hope, Jensen says, including asking about and affirming a student’s dreams, bringing successful students back to talk to new ones, giving useful feedback on schoolwork and teaching students how to set and monitor their own goals.

Studies by Dr. Helen Mayberg of Emory University have reported lower activity in the thinking parts of the brain in people with depression, and research has uncovered brain changes as people get better, either with medical treatments or psychotherapy.

Dr. Eric Kandel, a Nobel laureate and neuroscience professor at Columbia University, found that positive emotions — safety and security — affect learning capabilities of mice.

“Behaviors and thoughts that relate to hope, love and happiness can change the brain — just as fear, stress and anxiety can change it,” Kandel says. “It’s completely symmetrical.”

  • Meditation. This has been proven in studies to lower stress.
  • Social connectedness. According to Diamond’s work at the Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla., “When people are experiencing strong stress, they recover much better when they have social support than when they are socially isolated,” he says. Jensen recommends mentoring programs for children and student groups.
  • Take control. “Feeling helpless increases stress hormones,” Diamond says. To offset learned helplessness and develop a sense of control, Jensen advised students to learn time-management skills and goal setting — and reward small accomplishments.
  • Exercise. “Exercise stimulates and energizes the brain to more efficiently process information. Exercise actually makes more brain cells,” Diamond says. Sports, aerobic exercise, yoga, dance, walking and even exercising the smaller muscles used for playing a musical instrument can change the brain. Music is calming, Diamond says. “If you feel better, you learn better.”
  • Eat well. Marian Diamond, a neuroscientist and professor at UC Berkeley, has been using dietary changes to improve the learning capabilities of orphans and impoverished children in Cambodia. For students living in poverty in the U.S., she said, “Be sure you’re getting good sources of protein and calcium. Each day, eat an egg — or egg whites — a glass of milk, and take a multivitamin.” Other researchers recommend cutting back on sugar and smoking because they raise cortisol levels.
  • Specific skill-building. There are several specific skills that can and should be fostered. Without these skill sets, students will struggle and fall further behind every year. Some schools do things that boost these skills, many of them do it accidentally.

If you’d like to learn more about how to successfully teach and reach kids from poverty, you may want to attend Jensen Learning’s “Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Early bird or group discounts may apply.

Go to: http://www.jensenlearning.com/workshop-teaching-with-poverty-in-mind.php

Original article by Rosemary Clandos, Special to The Times

Creative Commons License photo credit: Learning Leaders NYC

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