Using Our Brains to Help Adolescents’ Brains

When I was fortunate to take a study tour of the US in April 2011 and meet some of the leading figures in the world of education, I had many memorable conversations. One that has stuck in my mind was with Ms Deborah Stipek, the Dean of Faculty of Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Among many interesting insights she told me that she was frankly embarrassed and felt it was a little shameful that only 6 months before (in late 2010) the Graduate School of Education had formalised a genuine relationship with the Department of Neurology in the Stanford Medical School. Sad to say, as the following article shows all too clearly, where Stanford may have been sluggish to acknowledge the reality and progress of neurological science, so the rest of the world is positively shameful in its slothfulness.

Education Week – Neuroscience Should Inform School Policies

If we stop and think for just a moment – the human brain is the very raw material, the plasticine with which educators work. If we care about how our pupils are learning (as opposed to what they are learning and in what quantity), then we have to be immeasurably fascinated by the new insights offered to us by the field on neurology in the last 15-20 years.

The article is interesting for many reasons, not least that it looks specifically at what neuroscience is telling us teachers should do more of (or less of) when working with adolescents. Inevitably, it suggests that a large part of how we continue to approach secondary education is working directly in opposition to what we now know about how teenage brains are working and developing. When our approaches to education take these issues on board, perhaps then we can tell pupils that we genuinely care more about them, their learning and their experience growing up than we do about the ‘stuff’ we teach.

Practical Steps on Sleep Issues

I’ve written extensively about the hidden menace for children and young learners (and adults) regarding inadequate sleep, poor quality sleep and the perils of failing to have appropriate disciplines and strategies regarding sleep.

The evidence available today is so great that ignorance cannot be an excuse for creating situations where some children are significantly impaired in their learning abilities and scope to benefit fully from school.

It’s been interesting in recent months to see so many commentators, first in the US and then in UK, responding to the data that suggests that young people (particularly teenagers) are sleep deprived and suffering. Their response has been somewhat shocking to me – start the school day later! Quite frankly, this seems to be the wrong solution to the issue. I fear that all that will happen is – the start of the day shifts, so they’ll simply go to bed later still, spending more night time on social networking and other unproductive (but somewhat compulsive and dependency forming) habits.

This article from The Guardian offers, I believe, a far more reasonable response – educate children early about the role and importance of sleep, get them to introspect on the effects for them personally and then support and help them to form the right, positive habits to ensure healthy sleep patterns. This is a significant area where home and school can really leverage strong partnership for the good of the pupils:

The Guardian – Wake Up Call

The Mind – The Final Frontier

Once upon a time, space was called the final frontier, a place full of mysteries, that sparked the curiosity of the greatest minds who sought to gather evidence to understand it better. Today, I believe that honour belongs to the human mind.

New scientific methods over the last 15 or so years have opened up fascinating opportunities to begin to learn more about how the mind works, to test (and sometimes refute) some of the tentative theories that had existed for a long time. This has vast implications for how we live, how we can aspire to be our most productive and effective. It has enormous implications for learning – and therefore for teaching and all aspects of education. But wait, are educators paying attention or do too many somehow see all that as something of merely passing interest? Not so long ago, the Dean of the Stanford School of Education admitted that it took a very long time before the School put in place a formal relationship with the Neurology Department of the School of Medicine.

So, educators, we need to be as aware and informed on the latest brain and mind research as we are on the latest ideas about pedagogy, classroom methodology or subject related knowledge. In fact, we cannot give proper thought to where we go in any of those areas if we don’t take account of brain science.

Here’s an example – a recent article about the brain and the ageing process:

Gulf News – Rewiring the Ageing Brain

As our knowledge in these areas grow it’s going to change many things about how we live our lives, not least (I sincerely hope), how we educate our children.

Brain Science in the Classroom

I wrote a few days ago about the application of up to date brain science in the classroom to enable more effective learning, sharing an ASCD webinar on the topic.

On a similar note, I came across this piece from the US PBS network that shares an example of a teacher taking these techniques in to the classroom to work with her pupils.

In this short video we see the teacher working with the pupils in her classroom. As much as anything, i love the energy levels, the clear evidence of children engaged. Even the zany wig is evidence that this teacher is ready to go to any lengths to engage the children. One of the other features of her actions that struck me was that her movements and words provide the children with clear signposts of what’s happening, what’s coming next and what they’re expected to do.

I hope sharing this inspires more teachers to have the courage to go in the classroom and experiment:

PBS – Teachers Tap in to Brain Science

Educators Waking Up to research Findings

Part of me is happy to read this article from the Mindshift website, the other part frustrated that educators are so slowly and begrudgingly waking up to what these research findings are telling them about how the learning experience in our schools should be shaped:

Mindshift Article – Research

These are things that I’ve been writing about for some time; the growth mindset, focus on the learning process as well as the content to be learned, questioning the value of homework (especially simplistically created), the role of ICT etc.

Better late than never, I guess ……

Infantilising Young People

Brain sciences have stimulated many fascinating debates in recent years as our knowledge about the brain’s working and it’s development is enhanced through new scientific techniques. One of the most fascinating areas coming out of this research is our understanding and attempts to unravel the intriguing mysteries of the ‘adolescent brain’.

Of course, we have to face up to the sad reality that few in education have even noticed that these debates have moved on, while most continue to focus on paradigms of control, teaching (filling empty vessels) and various mixes of externally imposed discipline and extraneous motivation.

This is a debate that touches on many aspects of how we organise our societies. This BBC article reviews some of the current thinking, both in terms of what the brain science is telling us and a variety of views and opinions about how we should respond.

BBC Article – Is 25 the New Cut-off Point for Adulthood?

Of course, such matters are quite culturally specific. I well remember some years ago a prominent Bollywood film star in his sixties who felt there was nothing strange about taking his father’s permission before he agreed to take on any new film role (his father never achieved anything like the role or expertise he has in film acting). I have to say, as a Westerner who willingly moved out of my home at 18 to make my own way in the world and funded myself through education this will always remain beyond my understanding.

One of the key, critical things i believe we should be doing in education is bringing the brain’s working out in to the open to a far greater extent for all pupils. Young people should know and understand more about how their minds work, so that they can have a far better understanding of what is going on when they make certain decisions or judgements and also so that they understand better when their wishes clash with the views and expectations of their elders.

What I certainly wouldn’t want to see is the brain science being used as even more excuses for parents, care givers and educators to reinforce beliefs that young people are incapable of making sound decisions and taking even more of the responsibility for life choices away from them. We cannot wrap adolescents i safety blankets, nor can we deny them the learning inherent in personal responsibility. In fact, the learning that comes out of direct accountability for my own actions can start long before adolescence, so that young people see direct causal links between their actions and outcomes. Only then can we provide the environment for young people to grow in to healthy, effective responsible adults.

Conspiracy theorists might note that there are forces in society that benefit from the infantilisation – companies that market passive leisure based services and products, future employers of many young people and people like the advertising industry. The latter, for example, targets most of its efforts at those in the age range 14 – 35, despite the fact that there’s a growing older population with a far greater share of the financial cake in their hands. However, what they also know is that young people who have a long term perspective; saving, working hard towards longer term goals etc. don’t spend freely. Infantisised youngsters persuaded to extend their adolescence indefinitely can far more easily be parted from their money on hedonistic pleasures – spend and enjoy today, for one day later I’ll be forced to grow up and pay the price.

This has vast implications for everything from school cultures to family structures and responsibilities in the home. Should people under 25 be marrying (in any culture?), how can adolescents be given the tools and knowledge to be active decision makers, should under 25’s have the vote? When people are going to live longer, be economically productive until later in their lives etc. do we need to restructure the whole way education is approached? Are we being grossly unfair to young people making key parts of their lives dependent upon artificial assessment processes forced on them at Age 16 or 18?

I don’t believe we have simple answers for any of these questions. However, i believe educators are failing in their duties if they’re not properly active in the debates.

Brain Science – Impact for Educators

Here’s an interesting video from TedXBoston;

Watching it got me thinking about how the ‘learning industry (what education should be) is going to need to recalibrate and rethink how it does what it does. Of course, those who are more focused on teaching than learning won’t feel the need to take any notice of this stuff for at least 20 years!

A big part of what goes on in classrooms, especially at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning is totally tied to how we remember things, how the brain marshals and organises memories and how those memories are achieved (especially when undergoing summative assessments). Science is potentially getting closer to an ability to enable people to organise their memories/ learning in a wilful, deliberate way. This would eliminate a big part of the ‘chance’ element about which students succeed and which fail in the memorising game of school.

Of course, there are many moral and ethical debates that will come up related to this stuff, but i believe there are already ethical issues about education systems that label people for future success on the random chance of whether their brain’s ‘wiring’ happens to work well or badly with the one-size-fits-all delivery of learning material in schools.

Interesting times.

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