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The Brain Is Our Common Denominator

brain teaching

Today, many of the school- and learning-related disciplines are looking to the brain for answers. There’s no separating the role of the brain and the influence of classroom groupings, lunchroom foods, school architecture, mandated curricula, and state assessments. Each of them affects the brain, and our brain affects each of them. Schools, assessment, environments, and instruction are not bound by one discipline, such as cognitive science, but by multiple disciplines.

In short, schools work to the degree that the brains in the schools are working well. When there’s a mismatch between the brain and the environment, something at a school will suffer.

Schools present countless opportunities to affect students’ brains. Such issues as stress, exercise, nutrition, and social conditions are all relevant, brain-based issues that affect cognition, attention, classroom discipline, attendance, and memory.

Our new understanding is that every school day changes the student’s brain in some way. Once we make those connections, we can make choices in how we prioritize policies and strategies. Here are some of the powerful connections for educators to make.

1. The human brain can and does grow new neurons.

Many survive and become functional. We now know that new neurons are highly correlated with memory, mood, and learning. Of interest to educators is that this process can be regulated by our everyday behaviors. Specifically, it can be enhanced by exercise, lower levels of stress, and good nutrition. Schools can and should influence these variables. This discovery came straight from neuroscientists Gerd Kempermann and Fred Gage.

2. Social conditions influence our brain in ways we didn’t know before.

The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma in Italy suggests a vehicle for an imitative reciprocity in our brain. This emerging discipline is explored in Social Neuroscience, a new academic journal exploring how social conditions affect the brain. School behaviors are highly social experiences, which become encoded through our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, pleasure, coherence, affinity, and stress. This understanding suggests that we be more active in managing the social environment of students, because students are more affected by it than we thought. It may unlock clues to those with autism, since their mirror neurons are inactive. This discovery suggests that schools should not rely on random social grouping and should work to strengthen prosocial conditions.

3. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself by means of neuroplasticity is profound.

The new Journal of Neuroplasticity explores these and related issues. Schools can influence this process through skill-building, reading, meditation, the arts, career and technical education, and thinking skills that build student success. Neuroscientists Michael Merzenich and Paula Tallal verified that when the correct skill-building protocol is used, educators can make positive and significant changes in our brains in a short time. Without understanding the “rules for how our brain changes,” educators can waste time and money, and students will fall through the cracks.

4. Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students.

Homeostasis is no longer a guaranteed “set point.” The discovery championed by neuroscientist Bruce McEwen is that a revised metabolic state called “allostasis” is an adjusted new baseline for stress that is evident in the brains of those with anxiety and stress disorders. These pathogenic allostatic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and have serious health, learning, and behavior risks. This issue affects attendance, memory, social skills, and cognition. Acute and chronic stress is explored in The International Journal of Stress Management, The Journal of Anxiety, The Journal of Traumatic Stress, and Stress.

5. The old-school view was that either environment or genes decided the outcomes for a student.

We now know that there’s a third option: gene expression. This is the capacity of our genes to respond to chronic or acute environmental input. This new understanding highlights a new vehicle for change in our students. Neuroscientists Bruce Lipton and Ernest Rossi have written about how our everyday behaviors can influence gene expression.  New journals called Gene Expression, Gene Expression Patterns, and Nature Genetics explore the mechanisms for epigenetic (outside of genes) changes. Evidence suggests that gene expression can be regulated by what we do at schools and that this can enhance or harm long-term change prospects.

6. Good nutrition is about far more than avoiding obesity.

The journals Nutritional Neuroscience and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition explore the effects on our brain of what we eat. The effects on cognition, memory, attention, stress, and even intelligence are now emerging. Schools that pay attention to nutrition and cognition (not just obesity) will probably support better student achievement. Read more

The Prejudice of Poverty

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Last week Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina and a candidate to become the state’s next governor, compared providing government assistance to those in need – including school kids eligible for free or reduced price lunches – to feeding stray animals. He claimed that providing such services only encourage breeding and facilitate the problem.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their version of the facts. Bauer has it completely wrong.

We need to put to rest the idea that the only way those in need will enjoy improved outcomes in life is for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do it all on their own – especially when it comes to kids. Our brains don’t grow up and flourish inside a test tube. Given the integrated way in which our brains work, it’s simply wrong to expect hungry kids or kids who aren’t exposed to healthy environments to show up at school ready to learn.

Research is compelling; the brains runs on oxygen, glucose and nutrients. Unless kids get this at home, schools must provide it. Research shows that good nutrition not only keeps kids healthy – it also contributes to better learning. Take a look at just some of the evidence:

• In a large-scale analysis of approximately 1 million students enrolled in New York City schools, researchers examined IQ scores before and after preservatives, dyes, colorings, and artificial flavors were removed from lunch offerings. Prior to the dietary changes, 120,000 of the students were performing two or more grade levels below average. Afterward, the figure dropped to 50,000. Ceci, S. J. (2001).

• In another study, elementary school children were provided with one of three breakfast options: a good breakfast, a fast-food breakfast, or no breakfast. The results replicated previous findings showing that breakfast intake enhances cognitive performance. But the study also showed differential effects based on breakfast type. Children who ate the healthy breakfast frequently demonstrated enhanced spatial memory, improved short-term memory, and better auditory attention. (Fernald L, Ani CC, Grantham-Mcgregor S., 1997)

• Adequate intake of minerals, phytonutrients, enzymes, and vitamins also makes a difference. School age children who received such nutrients over the course of a year behaved better (meaning they gave teachers more “on task time”) and scored higher on achievement tests than their peers who just received placebos. (Grantham-McGregor S, Baker-Henningham H. (2005).

The real takeaway here is that providing kids with healthy meals and other services and supports really can make a difference.

Assumptions that disadvantaged students underperform in school because their parents aren’t educated, their home environments are substandard, or their parents just don’t care only perpetuate the problem because they excuse schools and other adults in kids’ lives from making a difference.

There’s no question that poverty changes the brain, which can negatively affect behavior and student performance. But the brain can also change for the better when kids are exposed to healthy, safe, engaging, and challenging environments.

In thousands of the top performing schools across the country, only those providing nutrition for kids from poverty are meeting or exceeding the standards. Are the governor’s statements suggesting an ignorance of the facts or is it simply prejudice? Let the voters be the judge.

Eric Jensen, author of the new ASCD book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind. He’s been featured as a guest on ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, and he’s presenting at ASCD’s Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Let There Be More Light