Saturday, November 21, 2015

Brain Science & Mindfulness for Beginners

Why should students learn the basics of cognitive psychology?

This past week, I had the privilege of observing our new 'Tune In' teacher, Erin Galbraith, in action.  I wish every member of our community could, at some point, witness the magic going on in this new offering.  The class, which is designed to help our students acquire tools for managing stress and improving both cognitive function and emotional health, is truly making a difference.

Although I am a veteran educator, who has been around children and teaching for decades, I found myself in the same state of wonder and awe as my first year of teaching when I was just discovering the possibilities of my students.  In just a few short moments on this Monday morning, the children were artfully and gracefully drawn toward calmness and invited to 'tune in' to what was happening in their bodies and minds as they reconnected with each other at the start of another week.

Giggling and squirming were a part of the process, for sure, but these six and seven year olds quickly adapted to the mood of the lesson.  Next, they were asked to make a model of the human brain with their two fists coming together.  Ms. Galbraith asked them to recall earlier instruction about the parts and functions of the brain.  The degree of recall and delight in sharing were impressive but the real magic happened as that knowledge was translated into a practice the students could now initiate on their own, whenever they felt the need.  A liter container of water and glitter was produced and as Ms. Galbreaith shook it, she reminded the students that when the amygdala of the brain is in charge, our thinking isn't clear.  The students moved the parts of their 'model brains' that represented the amygdala.  She sat the container down and all were mesmerized by the swirling mass of glitter as it slowed and settled.  In that quiet moment, long, slow breaths filled the space we shared in that tight circle.  As the container became clear, the children were reminded of the prefrontal cortex and what it was capable of when we are calm and settled.  Little hands motioned, in response, to the region of the prefrontal cortex.

The bottle was left in the room so students could take it off the shelf and shake it when they felt unable to focus, knowing they could tell themselves the story of the amygdala making things unclear and use the time it took for the glitter to settle to breathe deeply and allow themselves to 'reset'.  As I left the classroom, I could feel the benefit of the lesson myself and felt such joy that this is now a part of our curriculum.

This week, my fall copy of Independent School magazine arrived and I was delighted to read the article, Brain Science for Beginners: Why Students Should Know the Basics of Cognitive Psychology, which reaffirms my belief that every school should be teaching students about the human brain - how it learns and remembers, but also the practice of mindfulness, so we can be in a state of calm focus while engaged in learning.   Thank you, Erin, for designing and sharing such a valuable program for our students!

Highlights from the article include:

Teaching Cognitive Psychology promotes not only self-insight but practical instruction for deeper learning.

The brain, as a biological organ, has not adapted to institutional education so we need to teach ourselves 'tricks' to adapt to traditional learning demands.

The brain favors information we use over material we merely memorize.

Spaced study, the technique of breaking up study over several days, is effective because it honors the way the brain learns, forcing recall before review.

Many young children do not enjoy homework or have sustained attention for long bouts of academic work, yet by having them teach other children the concepts being acquired they deeper their own understanding and improve verbal skills.

A technique called 'interleaving' calls for practicing several skills in a session rather than devoting a large chunk of time to one skill.

Learners need time to develop their own thoughts on a topic.  The consequence of students overloaded with essay after essay in high school is that they end up cutting and pasting summaries of others' work rather than doing deep thinking required in forming their own opinion.

Educators understanding and then teaching kids how to learn is as important as teaching facts and developing academic skills.