Monthly Archives: March 2014

Stress, The Learning Brain, and School Reform

I recently had the chance to attend, and be a modest contributor to, “Neuroscience and School Reform: Transforming Learning Environments Using Brain Science” a program held at the beautiful Evermay Estate in Washington, DC. I left the event even more committed to the idea that every student deserves a teacher who understands how the brain learns.
I recently had the chance to attend, and be a modest contributor to, “Neuroscience and School Reform: Transforming Learning Environments Using Brain Science” a program held at the beautiful Evermay Estate in Washington, DC. I left the event even more committed to the idea that every student deserves a teacher who understands how the brain learns.
Katherine Bradley, the President of City Bridge, facilitated the idea exchange between one of my new favorite neuroscientists, Dr. Shelia Ohlsson Walker from The Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Pamela Cantor, CEO ofTurnaround for Children. As evidenced throughout this discussion, we now know more than ever about how the brain learns, especially the impact of stress on learning. We also have targeted interventions to mitigate the stress of poverty and its impact on a student’s readiness to learn. This said, too few teachers have access to such research to rethink how they design their classes and work with each student. Thus this program further validated an idea being propagated by The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, that neuroscience is the next frontier for training classroom teachers and school leaders in order to enhance student achievement.
What keeps students from bringing their whole self to school each day? This question was one of many posed during the program and the answer would not be suspiring: stress. However, rather than try to encapsulate the essential points of the presentation, I will let the video recording of the event allow the reader to develop his or her own takeaways. However, I want to leave this post with one thought.
Teachers are brain changers, for good and bad. Their actions and words can both create and alleviate the three levels of stress students bring to school each day and that were identified by Dr. Cantor: positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress. However, if teachers and school leaders are going to develop “brain friendly” learning environments, then they must be trained in how the brain learns, particularly the critical role the amygdala plays in deciding whether incoming information or experience will be routed to the reflective or reactive parts of the brain. The attached poster, which was designed by Dr. Ian Kelleher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, was distributed to all of the program’s attendees as a visual reminder of how stress can be an impediment to a student’s academic achievement and ability to use the higher order thinking parts of their brains.
However, if the reception to the program is any indication, there is a growing movement, especially in the Washington, DC region, to provide more teachers and school leaders access to empirical research on how the brain learns. From the experience of The CTTL, schools that have successfully, and broadly, applied the principles and strategies of neuroeducation have been able to:
  1. Create access to researchers and research that is translational, that can be easily read by teachers and applied to their classroom practice.
  2. Provide teachers neuroeducation frameworks and language for consistent application across school divisions and academic disciplines.
  3. Develop measurable steps for integration and on-going feedback loops.
  4. Ensure school continuity, and a consistent student experience, through an “all-in” (100%) teacher/school leadership training model.
Finally, this day was also a reminder of the critical need for school/university partnerships, for more opportunities to have researchers and teachers collaborate to think differently and deeply about designing “fortified learning environments” for each student to meet his or her peak potential.

Quiet

Post by Liza Levenson

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“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” -Gandhi

After a parent shared how transformative “Quiet” by Susan Cain was for her, I had to read it. As an extrovert, I was unsure how I would be able to relate to or understand this book. I am so glad that I picked it up! I know it has certainly made me consider and rethink many of the decisions I make in my classroom, relationships and conversations!

One of the major take-aways I’ve had from this book relates to the way I usually set up my classroom. Perhaps your fourth grader has filled you in that we reorganized to facilitate rows in our room rather than the group tables. In the book, Cain discusses that: “The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions… Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”

Cain cautions that this arrangement is not always best for learning, and in fact, may hinder some students’ creativity and independent thought. Citing many studies, she hypothesizes that by limiting students’ stimulation and exposure to others as they are working, they are more likely to be successful and productive. Cain posits, “Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time.” As someone who particularly appreciates group work and collaborative learning, I think it is very important that we meet all students’ needs as best we can. For me, a classroom that is softly buzzing with chatter is comfortable and productive. However, there are many students (and adults!) for whom that environment would be unproductive and terribly distracting. Having the students sit in rows will hopefully be one way to allow them to have a sense of increased privacy and productivity that may not have been as easy while sitting in pods. Students will still frequently work in groups and with partners. However, in an attempt to meet all kids’ learning styles, we are going to give rows a chance for the next few weeks!

I have also spoken to the students about this seating change and the reason we are trying a different seating arrangement. I will be interested to see how they feel about it in a few weeks, after trying our new room arrangement. Click here to learn more about the Quiet Revolution.