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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:

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: https://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