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.

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