The Plastic Brain: A Case for Neuroeducation in School Models
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Mr. McGuire (“The Graduate,” 1967) may have been onto something. He just wasn’t referring to plastics in relation to the brain.
Neuroplasticity is how the brain changes throughout life; with exposure to information new neural pathways form. We put musical instruments in children’s hands as early as two and three years old. Language skills begin wiring in brains from the moment parents coo into newborn babies’ ears. Why? Our brains are most plastic at the beginning stages of life when children are just beginning to process and organize all the stimuli they are inputting from their senses.
Educators have implicitly understood this for decades, but with an increased focus on developing student-centered learning models, scientific research has begun to back up the idea that a sharper focus on understanding how the brain works—and training teachers to factor in the more complex equation of neuroplasticity and psychology can help kids learn better with fewer bumps in the road.
Neuroeducation is an emerging field at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. The field holds the potential to improve academic achievement by fostering dialogue between educators and researchers to develop joint projects that magnify the potential to enrich educational practice.
Skeptical? Sure. We should all be skeptical of fleeting trends in education—there are many. There are no quick fixes for complex educational concerns, despite the $2 billion educational product industry (and the dollar signs alone tell us why skepticism is healthy).
But teachers who understand the basic structure and functions of the brain are more effective because they can incorporate research findings into their practice. Through increasing a teacher’s neuroscientific toolkit, one’s efficacy in teaching all students expands.
Let’s take, for example, the impact of stress on the frontal cortex. Students who experience anxiety while in school may have impaired working memory, which could impede storage and retrieval of information presented, according to Dr. Mariale Hardiman, author of Brain-targeted Teaching for 21st-Century Schools. This makes implicit sense: who can focus on learning when your head is spinning?
Conversely, cutting out the mental noise helps to redirect our energies on the tasks at hand. Research has shown that school mindfulness programs have resulted in improved reading comprehension scores. And this, too, makes sense. Arguably more important to lifelong learning than subject matter expertise (which, in the 21st century, is quickly growing stale) is the ability for students to learn self-regulation—i.e., quieting one’s mind, recognizing triggers and distractions, being present, and readying oneself for the rigors of paying attention.
So how do we get there? This is where teacher training in neuroeducation comes in: it provides teachers the tools to create classroom environments that are best suited for the highest learning outcomes. Dr. Hardiman came up with a model called Brain-Targeted Teaching, or BTT, which uses research-based findings to lay out a practical roadmap for teachers. Per Hardiman’s website:
The Brain-Targeted Teaching® Model focuses on positive and effective emotional and physical learning environments; the development of “big picture” concepts; mastery of content, skills and concepts; real-world application of learning, and evaluation for learning, as well as of learning. Fundamental to the application of the model is the integration of the arts. The model has successfully informed teaching and learning from early childhood learning environments to adult learning classrooms and online experiences.
Hardiman goes on to describe six “brain targets,” or components of effective evidence-based instruction:
- Emotional climate
- Physical environment
- Learning design
- Teaching for mastery
- Teaching for application
- Evaluating learning
Essentially, the crux of neuroeducation using the BTT model is to approach teaching with a framework that ensures all aspects of a safe and productive learning environment are covered. Providing teachers with the toolkits they need through rigorous professional development in neuroeducation should include keys to successful adult learning and the specifics for a quantifiably successful neuroeducation program.
Again, a student who learns to find her way through a multitude of emotional distractions that may inhibit her learning—and in today’s world, there are many—has far greater chance in life to replicate those effects and forge ahead in the face of adversity than the student who struggles to calm down in the classroom. School models that include teacher training in neuroeducation will lead the way.
There’s a great future in plastics. Will you think about it?
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Hardiman, M., Rinne, L., Gregory, E., & Yarmolinskaya, J. (2012). Neuroethics, neuroeducation, and classroom teaching: Where brain sciences meet pedagogy. Neuroethics, 5(2), 135-143.
Hardiman, M. & Whitman, G. (2013). Assessment and the learning brain. Independent School- Journal of the National Association of Independent Schools, 73(2), 36-41.
Hardiman, M. M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin
Limb, Charles. “Why Neuroeducation?.” New Horizons for Learning [Online], 8.1 (2010): n. pag. Web. 31 Jan. 2018
Roediger, H. I & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248.
Van den Bergh, L., Ros, A. & Beijaard, D. (2014). Improving teacher feedback during active learning: Effects of a professional development program. American Educational Research Journal, 51(4), 772-809. doi:10.3102/0002831214531322
Whitman, G., & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield
By Kendra Thornton, Ed.D., guest blogger and member of Transcend’s Yellow Hats League. Kendra earned her Ed.D. from Johns Hopkins University with a specialization in Mind, Brain, and Teaching, which builds upon research from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and education. Kendra is passionate about innovating school design to prepare students for the 21st Century and applying evidence-based practices to improve educational outcomes. Kendra is a Professional Clinical Counselor (PCC-S) independently licensed by the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She is also a member of the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services Team.
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