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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured, if not synchronized, curriculum continue to build classroom stress levels. Neuroimaging research reveals the disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and neurotransmitters that accompany stressful learning environments. The neuroscientific research about learning has revealed the negative impact of stress and anxiety and the qualitative improvement of the brain circuitry involved in memory and executive function that accompanies positive motivation and engagement.

The Proven Effects of Positive Motivation

Thankfully, this information has led to the development of brain-compatible strategies to help students through the bleak terrain created by some of the current trends imposed by the Common Core State Standards and similar mandates. With brain-based teaching strategies that reduce classroom anxiety and increase student connection to their lessons, educators can help students learn more effectively.

In the past two decades, neuroimaging and brain-mapping research have provided objective support to the student-centered educational model. This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences. Lessons can be stimulating and challenging without being intimidating, and the increasing curriculum requirements can be achieved without stress, anxiety, boredom, and alienation as the pervasive emotions of the school day.

During my 15 years of practicing adult and child neurology with neuroimaging and brain mapping as part of my diagnostic tool kit, I worked with children and adults with brain function disorders, including learning differences. When I then returned to university to obtain my credential and Masters of Education degree, these familiar neuroimaging tools had become available to education researchers. Their widespread use in schools and classrooms globally has yet to occur.

This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention. Relevant lessons help students feel that they are partners in their education, and they are engaged and motivated.

We live in a stressful world and troubled times, and that is not supposed to be the way for children to grow up. Schools can be the safe haven where academic practices and classroom strategies provide children with emotional comfort and pleasure as well as knowledge. When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

Neuroimaging and EEG Studies

Studies of electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and metabolic activity (from specialized brain scans measuring glucose or oxygen use and blood flow) show the synchronization of brain activity as information passes from the sensory input processing areas of the somatosensory cortex to the reticular activating and limbic systems. For example, bursts of brain activity from the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system. This data from one of the most exciting areas of brain-based learning research gives us a way to see which techniques and strategies stimulate or impede communication between the parts of the brain when information is processed and stored. In other words, properly applied, we can identify and remove barriers to student understanding!

The amygdala is part of limbic system in the temporal lobe. It was first believed to function as a brain center for responding primarily to anxiety and fear. Indeed, when the amygdala senses threat, it becomes over-activated. In students, these neuroimaging findings in the amygdala are seen with feelings of helplessness and anxiety. When the amygdala is in this state of stress-induced over-activation, new sensory information cannot pass through it to access the memory and association circuits.

This is the actual neuroimaging visualization of what has been called the affective filter by Stephen Krashen and others. This term describes an emotional state of stress in students during which they are not responsive to learning and storing new information. What is now evident on brain scans during times of stress is objective physical evidence of this affective filter. With such evidence-based research, the affective filter theories cannot be disparaged as "feel-good education" or an "excuse to coddle students" -- if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science.

This affective state occurs when students feel alienated from their academic experience and anxious about their lack of understanding. Consider the example of the decodable "books" used in phonics-heavy reading instruction. These are not engaging and motivating. They are usually not relevant to the students' lives because their goal is to include words that can be decoded based on the lesson. Decodability is often at the expense of authentic meaning to the child. Reading becomes tedious and, for some children, confusing and anxiety-provoking. In this state, there is reduced passage of information through the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and executive functioning.

Additional neuroimaging studies of the amygdala, hippocampus, and the rest of the limbic system, along with measurement of dopamine and other brain chemical transmitters during the learning process, reveal that students' comfort level has critical impact on information transmission and storage in the brain. The factors that have been found to affect this comfort level such as self-confidence, trust and positive feelings for teachers, and supportive classroom and school communities are directly related to the state of mind compatible with the most successful learning, remembering, and higher-order thinking.

The Power of Joyful Learning

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and "aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning. With current research and data in the field of neuroscience, we see growing opportunities to coordinate the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in ways that will reflect these incredible discoveries.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen -- literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn't it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?

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bryanfarley's picture

Judy,
I enjoyed your article! :)

Do you think that educators are discouraged from having fun? Are educators unable to have fun?

bf

florentina's picture

Judy,

This is my first time reading a blog not from curiosity, but to be able to complete a requirement for my grad course. Last week I worked on a paper about motivating high school students, one of my challenges as an educator.
Your blog provided a great explanation of brain development in connection with learning. It validated what I discovered in scholarly journals when preparing my paper. Thank you

I do not think teachers are discouraged to have fun. They are overwhelmed with too many daily tasks and due dates. I believe that the teacher should spend more time learning about the individual needs of the students and create lessons that are meaningful to them. I have more fun when I teach knowing that my students enjoy the lesson.

(1)
Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

I don't think educators are discouraged from having fun. I think it's a conscience effort on the teachers part to know when fun is appropriate and when it's not. It also depends on how the class reacts to "fun." I've had classes that just have a hard time recovering/concentrating after a fun activity. Having fun in an educational way is an Art. It's management. It's gut feelings. It's timing. It takes time as a teacher to know how to fuse fun and learning effectively.

Gaetan

(1)
Atlas Educational's picture
Atlas Educational
Lifelong learner, teacher, homeschool mom, homeschool support services

Or...... due to scripted lessons and numerous mandates, there is no time for fun. Every move is set to reach testing goals and save their jobs. (This was my reality. )

bryanfarley's picture

You think it's conscious?

I agree with almost everything you wrote (I mean, you had me at "guitar"), but in your staff development training, do your site and district administrators openly discuss the pedagogical benefits of fun?

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger 2014

Thank for the comments and responses...and question. I didn't mean to imply that teachers are discouraged from having fun or don't appreciate the value of a positive emotional climate including humor, play, and modeling their own happiness. Sorry for anything that may have led to that impression. I do strongly urge administrators as well as teachers to incorporate joy and fun in learning experiences...and cite the research about this. Here is an article I wrote several years ago with "joy" in the title: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/summer07/vol64/n...
EnJOY!
Judy Willis, M.D.

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

Lets bring this kind of philosophy into the reading classes for our southern schools.
This is what I said to my principal,when she asked me if I thought the reading scores in Florida, our district, and our schools were going to be better. I am not a Negative Nancy but a Real Robin, I said " No." We are not having fun and the students are not having fun. I never thought you implied that teachers are discouraged from having fun.
I believe it is a matter of being able to assess the students, and creatively cater to each environment as needed. Great research and understanding for teachers.
Robin Ruiz

(2)
Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger 2014

Great to hear you are working for what the students need so very much. I'm sure you won't find anything new, but perhaps you might find this article about motivating reading, useful to share to promote your insights. Celebrating Literacy With The Reading/Pleasure Cycle. TeachThought. 06/16/2014,
http://www.teachthought.com/literacy-2/celebrating-literacy-reading-plea...
Keep igniting,
Judy

(1)
Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

I've only had a handful of teachers that made learning fun (That I can remember). None in elementary school. Polish, Catholic nuns tweak ears at the very first sign of fun.

In high school, I had two science teachers that were great. One of them just finished his 40th year teaching chemistry. He told stories about fishing, almost cutting his leg off with a chainsaw, and made chemistry easy. He would write this long complicated equation on the board and say..."See that! Skip it. Do this." Then he would write a very short, easy formula. He also electrocuted the whole class. Just a little.

Why is this particular teacher my favorite teacher of all time? Why was this FUN?

1. I looked forward to his stories.
2. I loved science.
3. He made chemistry easy for ME.
4. He lectured like we were all sitting at the bar talking about chemistry.

Here's the thing. Take one or more of those factors away and this teacher no longer becomes fun. Fun education is just as specialized as everything else in education. I know for sure the young lady sitting next to me in chemistry didn't enjoy electrocution as much as I did.

It also has a lot to do with content. No matter how much fun I had in math class, I still hated it. This is why I do believe that education needs to be specialized sooner. I have no idea how to do this. I only know that If i could have specialized sooner, I would have valued more what school had to offer and would have had more fun doing it.

Yah...Fun!

Gaetan

Tris341's picture

This is a very interesting article. She is totally right. Kids should be treated better and actually talked to and have fun during class.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger 2014

Great to hear you are working for what the students need so very much. I'm sure you won't find anything new, but perhaps you might find this article about motivating reading, useful to share to promote your insights. Celebrating Literacy With The Reading/Pleasure Cycle. TeachThought. 06/16/2014,
http://www.teachthought.com/literacy-2/celebrating-literacy-reading-plea...
Keep igniting,
Judy

(1)
Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

I don't think educators are discouraged from having fun. I think it's a conscience effort on the teachers part to know when fun is appropriate and when it's not. It also depends on how the class reacts to "fun." I've had classes that just have a hard time recovering/concentrating after a fun activity. Having fun in an educational way is an Art. It's management. It's gut feelings. It's timing. It takes time as a teacher to know how to fuse fun and learning effectively.

Gaetan

(1)
florentina's picture

Judy,

This is my first time reading a blog not from curiosity, but to be able to complete a requirement for my grad course. Last week I worked on a paper about motivating high school students, one of my challenges as an educator.
Your blog provided a great explanation of brain development in connection with learning. It validated what I discovered in scholarly journals when preparing my paper. Thank you

I do not think teachers are discouraged to have fun. They are overwhelmed with too many daily tasks and due dates. I believe that the teacher should spend more time learning about the individual needs of the students and create lessons that are meaningful to them. I have more fun when I teach knowing that my students enjoy the lesson.

(1)
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

Lets bring this kind of philosophy into the reading classes for our southern schools.
This is what I said to my principal,when she asked me if I thought the reading scores in Florida, our district, and our schools were going to be better. I am not a Negative Nancy but a Real Robin, I said " No." We are not having fun and the students are not having fun. I never thought you implied that teachers are discouraged from having fun.
I believe it is a matter of being able to assess the students, and creatively cater to each environment as needed. Great research and understanding for teachers.
Robin Ruiz

(2)

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