Learning and Brain Development

by Teacher Annie


The Brain Conference
February 2007
Highlights from the Conference

As many of you may know, one of my favorite areas of interest is Brain Development. Recently I attended a conference about this, and I wanted to share a few highlights with you.

The conference was fabulous! The conference faculty consisted of prominent researchers and neuroscientists from many related disciplines.  The attendees were educators from many levels of education. Most attendees seemed to be elementary and secondary teachers. Some early childhood teachers and higher-ed. instructors like myself were also in attendance, and I am not sure about the number of parent educators. There were also a significant number of clinicians such as therapists. As the title of the conference implies, the entire conference was geared toward linking the most current brain research with classroom practices at all levels.

At the very beginning I was finding that some of what was presented was not specific or "new" enough for me, but was more geared for people who were just getting their feet wet in this area of study. It seemed fairly general and basic. At first, I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed, and concerned that the conference would be too much a "pep-rally" for brain-friendly teaching, which is not what I was after. However, after looking a little deeper into the course selections I was able to find a number of deeper-level courses throughout the three days that went into the research at the neuroscience level in a way that satisfied my desire for new knowledge and gave me new things to think about. In fact, I finally found lots of information that was way over my head! And of course, since there were lots of concurrent sessions, I wasn't able to attend nearly everything that I was interested in. By the end of the conference, I am happy to report that I was left with that wonderful numb-brain feeling of being a bit over-saturated with new information that I always get by the end of a really good conference!

Here are a few things I think you might be interested in:

Mirror Neurons

One of the cutting-edge areas of research these days relates to something called Mirror Neurons. I had heard of this concept in relation to autism research but I didn't know much about it. In this session, presented by Dr. Sylwester, I learned that mirror neurons encode neural templates for specific goal-directed actions. We can consider them to be behavioral memories. They also allow us to perform basic motor actions without conscious thought and to unconsciously comprehend such an action when we observe or sense others performing it. This enables us (and other animals) to "mime" these actions, which is seen to be a major component in learning. This very current and ongoing research will be showing us new directions in work with autistic children but will also be giving us more information about effective teaching for all learners. It supports the ever-building body of evidence that the "traditional" model of schools, which is very language based and which discourage body movement and the use of senses in learning, works against the nature of the brain.

An explanation of mirror neurons: www.interdesciplines.org/mirror

Also, very important information about mirror neurons in two articles in the Nov. 2006 Scientific American, which you can purchase through the SciAm website.

Seven Current Areas of Brain Research That Will Impact Educational Policy and Practice

In addition to the information about mirror neurons, there are several other areas which will be seen in the next decade or so to be critical to the direction that education will be headed, according to the scientist that presented the session on mirror neurons, Dr. Sywester.  You can read his article, click here. (This article also explains mirror neurons a little more clearly.)

It seems that the scientific evidence is growing rapidly, and now we just have to wait for public understanding and political will to catch up with it, for the effectiveness of our schools to improve.

Female/Male Brains

Yes, there ARE differences in the brains of males and females. Very  current research is showing what these differences are, and the ways in which the male and female brain function differently in many aspects of life, including learning, communication, and problem-solving.  One of the most fascinating sessions that I attended was presented by a scientist (Larry Cahill) who has done a lot of research in this area, and who explained the science behind some of his studies.  You can read his article, click here. 

Another major presenter on this topic was Michael Gurian. He is the author of "The Wonder Of Boys" and other books about sex/gender differences. You can read this article by Michael Gurian, click here. 

Research into Practice: Brain-Friendly Classroom Environment

This conference was about neuroscience and education, not about politics and advocacy.  So I did not hear much about WHY most schools are not putting our current knowledge about brain research into practice.  But I do know that the science is clear and becoming more robust all the time.  I think that parents, as well as educators, will have to pull educational systems into the 21st century.  Dedicated teachers, such as those attending this conference, are already working hard to try and teach in ways that make sense according to what we know about the brain. In fact, as one of the presenters stated, talented teachers have been doing this according to "intuition" for many years, but now we have more and more empirical evidence to back it up. But educational policies and requirements, such as endless testing and rigid standards, make it extremely difficult to teach in brain-appropriate ways in most school settings. Pat Wolfe was another very dynamic presenter, and you can read one of her terrific articles here about "Brain Development:  Fad or Foundation?"  I am certain that over the next couple of decades we will see gradual change toward more appropriate educational policies, but unfortunately it is happening very slowly, because the people who make the policies are often not very well-schooled in either child-development, neuroscience, or education.  In the meantime, we should all be aware that the most crucial time for appropriate experiences for brain development is during those early years.  Your participation in  this preschool is a good choice for your child. Everything we do here fits the criteria for "brain-friendly classroom" to a T!   And your continued involvement in your child's life and education will reap enormous benefits throughout the elementary and secondary school years.  To read the Pat Wolfe article, click here.

Movement

Movement is integral to brain development, and is, indeed, a key reason why our brains evolved in the first place.  This has a lot to do with mirror neurons and the motor cortex, and this realization was made crystal clear to me in the session presented by Dr. Sylwester.  Early Childhood Educators know that movement is inextricably linked with learning,  but now I have a deeper understanding of why this is true. It also makes it even more clear that education needs to be more movement-oriented at all levels.

Relationships

Throughout every single session of the conference, there were constant reminders that the "basics" of brain development include responsive relationships.  This is truly the key concept in education and in parenting.  Daniel Siegel brought it all together in the final keynote session when he spoke about how emotions and relationships shape child development. He is the author of "Parenting From The Inside Out," "The Developing Mind," and other books. He says that "attunement" in adult-child relationships beginning at an early age, teaches children to be "attuned" to themselves, as well.  This enables them to develop not only self-regulation, but also "mindfulness," which he argues is a higher form of learning and intelligence.

Brain Connection Web Site

I recommend this website to anyone who is interested in learning more about brain development, click here.

-annie


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