Should Teacher Know About Brain Research?
By Jill Jenkins
Why are autumn leaves so beautiful? Leaves always have their beautiful fall colors hidden beneath their chlorophyll. In fall if the trees has had just enough stress, they shed their chlorophyll and the trees reveals their magnificent colors, but if they have too much stress, they simply turn brown. Children’s brains operate in the same manner. They are hard wired to learn, so if they have just the right amount of stress they do, but if they have too much stress, they cease to function and arrested development occurs. To improve learning we need to understand how the brain works. According the American Psychological Association, research shows that the brain develops at different rates in each individual. If a child has not reached the level of brain development despite his biological age, he will not be able to comprehend a given concept. For example, the frontal lobe doesn’t develop until about middle school and continues until a child is in his early twenties. It is in the frontal lobe that higher cognitive functions and appropriate social behavior develops. This means that abstract thought is difficult for students who are preadolescent. According to “How Your Brain Works” by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. and Robynne Boyd, “The brain is composed of 100 billion nerve endings called neurons. These neurons have three main parts, the cell body (soma), the Axon (cable like projections that carry extra chemical messages) and the Dendrite (branches that let cells talk to each other. As activities are repeated, the Myelin Sheath around the Axon increases. That means the connections become stronger.” Knowing this means that teachers need to find a variety of ways to present each learning skill. It also means that if learning is inaccurate, it is difficult to unlearn. For example, I took up nail-biting as a child and my mother used every measure to break me telling me I would look hideous with fingernails like the teeth of a rusty old saw and painting nasty-tasting medicine on my nails, but I am 60 years old and I still bite my nails. Make certain students are practicing a skill correctly or it will be difficult for them to unlearn the skill. This means read their papers quickly and give them accurate feedback or sit with them while they are writing and show them how do write it correctly.
The brain organizes information in a web. The more connections a piece of information has to early learned material, the more likely the person will be able to retrieve it. This means, like the advertisement industry, teachers need to use “hooks” to connect the new knowledge to skills the child has already developed.
Even more important is to be aware of how the mind works. Unconsciously our minds can interpret the emotional state of those around us. Four years ago, my husband, Randy, went into sudden cardiac arrest on his birthday. For three days, the doctors kept him in a drug induced coma. Each time, he would begin thrashing about in his bed, the nurses called me to his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit where he would grasp my hand like a Vise-Grip. I would talk calmly to him and he would calm down. However, when his mother came to visit and sobbed over him, tears began to stream down his face and he began to thrash about, even though he was completely unconscious. Fearing that he would rip the many hoses and tubes that they had plugged into him, the nurses asked us to please keep his mother from visiting him while he was in ICU because she seemed to upset him. If someone in a drug induced coma can be affected by the emotions of the people in their environment, imagine how your emotions and attitudes affect your students’ learning.
When the mind becomes stressed either from physical injury or emotional trauma, it shuts down. My husband has no memories to his heart attack or the week he spend in the hospital. Concussions and malnutrition can impact a student’s cognitive abilities. I recall the summer between sixth grade and seventh grade, my family was in a terrible car accident. I was sitting in the front seat of my father’s GM International between my father and my Aunt Fae. My eleven year old brother, David, and my three year old sister, Sherry, were in the back seat. Nobody wore seat belts in those days. We were driving through a residential neighborhood when suddenly an old pick-up truck driving at speeds nearing 50 miles per hour ran a “Stop” sign and smashed into the front of our car. I remember seeing the truck in front of us and my next recollection was the street filled with people, there was an ambulance and was father was screaming that he couldn’t find Sherry. He pulled her out from under the front seat. My brother David and I had large bumps on our foreheads about the size of eggs. He had hit the back of the front seat and I had hit the dashboard. I had a large bruise in my stomach where the gearshift had impacted my stomach. I don’t remember how we got home or anything else that day, but my mother told me I had a concussion and was violently ill that night. In fact, although I was told that I went to the doctors and my mother described the symptoms of my suffering that night, I don’t remember anything that happened during most of the next two or three days. Students who suffer from concussions will have a difficult time recalling what they learn at school, so you may have to repeat lessons until their brain recovers.
Likewise, people who have suffered emotional trauma will have lapses in their cognitive abilities. For example one of my students facing the emotional trauma of a rape by a step-father refused to recognize that she was very pregnant, even though it was obvious to everyone except her mother. Both of them continued to believe that she was just getting fat. I finally sat her down and talked to her. Because her step-father had raped her, she was afraid to tell her mother fearing that her mother would blame her. The other students in the school had been writing horrible things on her locker and filling her books with human feces. I involved a counselor who called the mother and had the bullies disciplined. The family was in such trauma that even though her pregnancy was obvious to others, neither of them were capable of seeing it or believing it. Luckily, it all turned out well.
Another student who had recently lost his mother seemed perfectly normal, but when his writing became almost indecipherable and his thoughts were jumbled in his essays, I showed his papers to a counselor and we decided to call in his father. His father was an elementary teacher teaching near our school. All of us decided that he needed both counseling and extra help to get over his mother’s death. When most of the boys were heading off to basketball and football practice, seventh period, he went to his father’s school to tutor elementary students. That experience of helping others and getting counseling helped him get past this emotional trauma.
Being aware of how the brain functions could improve teaching. Teachers need to create a stimulating, but nurturing environment where the students feel motivated to learn, but are not overwhelmed with stress. Teachers need to repeat certain learning goals and connect them to past learning to enable the Myelin Sheath on the Axon’s to increase and connect it to earlier learning to increase the student’s ability to access the knowledge. The teacher needs to monitor the students learning to ensure that they are learning it accurately because unlearning practiced misconceptions is difficult. The teacher needs to be aware that children’s brains develop at different rates, so if the child has not reached adolescences, he may not be capable of critical and abstract thought. Most importantly teachers need to watch students for signs of stress that they might be suffering outside the classroom. If those sources of stress can be alleviated, the child’s learning can blaze like an autumn leaf.