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Brain Storm

As neuroscientists begin to figure out how the brain learns, educators are using the research to change the way they teach.

The human brain is an amazing organ. And we're only just beginning to understand its potential.

For one thing, it's constantly changing. Its ability to adapt and rewire itself-its plasticity-was discovered only recently, in the late nineties.

Scientists previously thought we were born with all of our brain cells, but now we know that the brain can grow new neurons-and that physical exercise and mental stimulation can facilitate their growth, which has major implications for education.The brain is also sensitive to context and culture, says Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education master's program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Different people have different interests and learn differently," says Fischer. "When we engage people in their own interests, they are more awake and alive."

Although we're just starting to understand how the brain works, says Sarah Armstrong, a teacher, administrator, and author of Teaching Smarter With the Brain in Focus, we can extrapolate from the research and modify teaching methods accordingly. "We have enough information in the neuroeducation arena that we can begin to make these connections-and we should," she says. "If we wait around until everything is fully corroborated, we may have missed a decade of students."

Of course, it's a tricky leap to change teaching methods in your district. Consider, though, three distinct ways that brain research is being used in schools today, from getting and maintaining students' attention to incorporating motion into learning to understanding how to relate to your moodiest teenagers.

Getting Students' Attention
Anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom knows that trying to teach a student who isn't paying attention can be tougher and less rewarding than a union negotiating session. Teachers from Maria Montessori to your typical substitute who's simply trying to make it through the day have strived to create classes that connect with students, engage them, and link learning to prior knowledge. Now new information about the brain and learning is helping teachers move beyond the basics to create an environment that maximizes learning.

At Lone Tree Elementary in Lone Tree, Colorado, the entire school environment has been designed with the brain in mind. When students walk into the building, they are met with calming, darker colors, which prepare the brain for learning. Materials posted on the hallway walls reinforce the curriculum and expectations. In the classroom, everything on display has to do with what's currently being taught.

"We've enriched the physical environment because the brain is a pattern seeker and [visual] learner," says Suzan Crary-Hoover, the school's principal, who retired this year. "The brain is asking, What do I do? What is the process?"

Diane Gilbert, a teacher at Kelly Mill Middle School in Blythewood, South Carolina, used to cover her classroom walls with posters and lots of color. Redecorating with blues and blacks to make the room brain-friendly seemed "stark" to her at first, but it helped students focus. Blues can cause the brain to release 11 neurotransmitters that relax the body, while black and other dark colors can lower stress. "One of my students said, ‘I love your room. Before, I couldn't concentrate because I wanted to read and look around,' " says Gilbert.

In Indiana's Huntington County schools, agenda boards are posted in every room so students can anticipate what will happen next, says Tracey Shafer, the district's superintendent. Plants, lamps, and curtains filter natural light, and there's an absence of clutter. "It creates a learning environment that feels more like a well-kept living room," Shafer explains.

Each classroom has "immersion" areas with supplemental resources that allow students to dig deeper into a subject, and materials rotate with the units. Classrooms are set up so kids can easily collaborate in small groups.

Teachers in the 6,000-student district received professional development training on brain-based teaching, which led to changes in curriculum, such as more collaborative learning and increased integration of subjects, says Shafer. The district set up model classrooms so teachers could observe brain-friendly lesson styles and strategies like using an "adult voice," which is supportive and nurturing, rather than a "parent voice," which is loud and directive and can cause resistance. They also learned the strategy of body mapping, in which the teacher touches a part of his body when introducing a concept verbally, providing the brain with another reference point to help it remember-and recall-the concept.

Eager to find a way to help struggling reading students in St. Mary Parish Schools in southern Louisiana, superintendent Don Aguillard turned to Fast ForWord from Scientific Learning, a reading intervention software package based on brain research. Like other software programs, Fast ForWord adapts to each learner, using answers to previous questions to make sure students pro­gress effectively, without getting frustrated by a string of wrong answers or questions that are too easy.

In 2006, third, fourth, and fifth graders in the district's lowest-performing elementary school spent 50 minutes a day at computers doing exercises to build their brains' fitness in memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. While such training doesn't replace basal reading, it does improve cognition, making it an effective supplement, Aguillard says.

Gains in comprehension and attention were evident in just 10 weeks, so the program was rolled out to more schools. From 2006 to 2009, schools with the new technology saw double-digit increases on Louisiana's accountability test. Now, nearly 87 percent of the parish's fourth graders are passing high-stakes testing, up from 65 percent, and the number who have to attend summer school has dropped from 240 to fewer than 90.

The technology "has been a game changer," says Aguillard. The exercises help kids become more literate, he says, and "when they can read effectively, it can unleash enormous potential."

Adding Motion to Learning

The brain works best when the body is active. More and more schools are incorporating physical movement into classrooms. Exercise can benefit the brain in two ways. Aerobic activity increases oxygen flow to the brain, making students mentally sharper than their sedentary peers, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules and a developmental molecular biologist. Exercise also changes the molecular structure of the brain, increasing neurons' creation, survival, and resistance to stress, Medina adds.

After the author led a professional development session at Bonneville Joint School District in Idaho Falls, Idaho, some staffers tried out his first rule, "Exercise boosts brain power." One middle school teacher put stationary bikes in a classroom so students could exercise while they read. That school has the highest reading score in the district, says Superintendent Charles Shackett.

A similar experiment is under way in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where iPrep Academy, a new magnet high school, has incorporated treadmills into its classrooms, giving students the freedom to jump on when they need a break or to walk as they read. The school recently attained top scores on the state's tests and every ninth ­grader passed the end-of-year biology and geometry exams.

Exercise isn't the only way to tie motion to learning, though. At Lone Tree Elementary, each class chooses a real-world problem to explore, says Crary-Hoover. In a project that focused on water conservation, students learned about communities in Haiti where people had to carry their water home. To feel what that was like, the students carried large water jugs themselves. The mix of mental and physical work drove the lesson home to different parts of their brains, making it easier to remember. "Understanding how children learn is the key to making it a joyful experience," says Crary-Hoover.

Dealing With Teens
You don't have to be a brain expert to know that trying to teach teenagers can be an especially difficult task. But understanding why teens think and act as they do can help you move past problems and adopt more effective strategies.

While the brain continues to grow and learn at every age, teenagers' brains go through a specific set of circumstances that literally change the way they think. "In many ways, it's the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb," said Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health on Frontline's "Inside the Teenage Brain." As teens grow new neural pathways, it can be hard for them to process so much information, and an overloaded brain can lead to irrational decisions. Also, brain scans of teens have shown that they read emotions differently than adults, misreading anger and sadness in other people's faces. This can lead to nonsensical responses that are easily chalked up to moodiness.

The brain responds to frustration by shutting down, says Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher in Santa Barbara, California. It's a natural survival mechanism. "No kid wants to get in trouble and be yelled at," says Willis. "No one chooses to act out. That's not a good feeling." Often, the trouble with a problem student is not laziness but rather that the person's defenses are up and information can't get through, she says. While teens are capable of great intellectual and artistic achievements, the prefrontal cortex-the section that governs organization-is still underdeveloped.

"When you know what the brain is doing, the bizarre behavior that kids engage in begins to make sense," says Richard Marshall, cofounder of the University of South Florida Polytechnic's Applied Neuroscience and Cognitive Electrophysiology Lab and coauthor of The Middle School Mind. When teens misbehave, it's important to remember that they are doing so for a reason: They are trying get their needs met. "Our job is to step back, be calm, and figure out what they are trying to do," Marshall says.

Sharon Neuman, principal of Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Florida, and Marshall's coauthor, says research has given her a better understanding of why teens do what they do. If adolescents encounter a challenge, they might go into a fight-or-flight state and take an action they later regret. Her message to teachers when kids act out: Stay calm, take a break, and then get to the bottom of the situation.

"That doesn't mean there isn't a consequence," says Neuman. "But if they get upset and you yell back, you lose that relationship and they tend to shut down and don't want to talk."

Sandy Nobles, director of education at the J. Erik Jonsson Community School in Dallas, agrees. Jonsson has focused on brain-compatible classrooms since 1997, and in the past two years, the school has begun to teach kids about their brains.

"We are learning so much about brains and research in the neuro-education field as teachers, but kids need to know it," Nobles says. "It gives them control of their emotions." The school's MindUp curriculum focuses on how the brain works and why people react the way they do to emotions.

Barriers to Change
If the research is so compelling, why aren't more schools embracing brain-based teaching practices? "There's not a lot of pressure to do it," says Willard Daggett, chief executive officer of the International Center for Leadership in Education in Rexford, New York. Most educators, he says, are not interested in change or taking risks. He hopes the arrival of the Common Core will spur more brain-based instruction, since its assessments focus on application of knowledge. It will also force many schools to do more with less-which could make them more amenable to effective teaching methods that go beyond rote memorization.

Marshall suggests that teachers don't have time to integrate a lot of new information. "Everyone is interested in high-stakes tests and who is reading," he says. "It's not that there is resistance; it's that the focus has shifted to teacher accountability."

The emphasis on standards and testing has narrowed the curriculum. As a result, schools can't support activities that can engage students, such as music, says Kurt Fischer, of Harvard. "If we can engage kids in what really captures their interest, they can learn more effectively," he says.

Sarah Armstrong, author of Teaching Smarter With the Brain in Focus, contends that the problem is funding. While there are grants for STEM or reading specialists, not enough money is dedicated to translating brain research into classroom practices. "Schooling as it exists today is not going away," she says. "We have to take the existing infrastructure and think about how we can be smarter about what [educators] do. The brain piece is an essential piece of that. If we really want to have it infused into our practice, it has to be intentional. Things that are intentional are funded. The brain-based approach needs a source of funds that awaken people to the idea."

But even with all these real pressures, sometimes the best way to go forward is to take a small step back and observe your classrooms in action, à la Montessori, says Nobles. "If you are looking for academic growth, you have to first look at the culture of the classroom. You are not going to get the scores up until the kids are ready to learn." 

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