A Notion Worth Knocking

Working the brainI remember the indignation. I was a grade 8 student studying for a science test. I announced with all the wisdom and conviction of a 13-year-old that it was ridiculous studying all this science. “It’s not like I’m going to be a scientist!”

No doubt I would have joined the chorus today that also argues against learning and memorizing facts. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read or hear the argument that students don’t need to know things like they used to. Anything one needs to know can be found on the internet.

A number of reasons why this notion is incorrect quickly come to mind: students need information as fodder for critical and creative thinking; people don’t always have the internet when they need it; you can’t simultaneously Google everything you need to know to think about a complex issue; much information we learn contributes to our sense of community and identity.

Reading Kathie Nunley’s book A Student’s Brain: The Parent/Teacher Manual, I can now add another definitive reason for why this notion needs knocking. Pure and simple, having to learn anything, anything, makes your brain stronger. The more the brain takes in, the more neural pathways become established. The more those pathways are repeatedly used, the more permanent those pathways become. The more numerous, varied and permanent those pathways are, the more ways in which the brain is ready to learn everything else it’s subsequently exposed to. Much like a muscle that grows whether you’re lifting barbells or babies, the brain is a use-it-or-lose-it organ. If you want to be good at anything in life, learn everything you can.

Along the way, you might even learn what I learned when applying to university. My undergraduate, as it turned out, was in science.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

This article was first published in SNAP Etobicoke, June 2013.

Teacher, Meet Brain.

Teaching with the Brain in MindThat’s how it felt to read Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jenkins. While the bond between the brain and learning has been known for centuries, the two have been notably coy. It is only recent research which has started sharing and subsequently sparking the intimate side of this complex relationship. And like the rush of first love, it will blow your mind.

My measure of a great book on education is the degree to which it ends up highlighted. Barely a page of Jenkins’ book escaped my yellow swipe. Starting with Neuroscience 101, Jenkins addresses many of the major areas related to learning and highlights the research and implications it has for teaching. From birth and beyond, he looks at preparing the brain for school; the connections between movement, emotions, and one’s physical environment with learning; managing the social brain; and optimizing motivation, engagement, critical thinking, memory and recall. Clearly affecting a significant chunk of the school experience, Jenkins is devoting his career to having teachers ‘teach with the brain in mind’.

Some insights include:

  1. The brain changes and can even grow new neurons throughout life. Nature and nurture both clearly play a role in defining who we are, with growing evidence revealing that nurture can override some nature, even to the degree of changing the impact of our genes.
  2. Exercise offers much more than just physical health. If you desire a denser and better brain, make regular exercise a lifelong habit.
  3. Much of what distinguishes teenage behaviour is rooted in the enormous changes taking place in their brains. Teens even temporarily regress in a number of abilities, such as their ability to recognize emotions in others.
  4. While collaborative learning gets most professional press these days, brain research supports the integration of group activities with traditional learning tasks for optimal learning.
  5. Emotions play a central role in learning and can hinder as much as enhance the brain’s ability to remember. Teachers would benefit from mindfully leveraging them.
  6. Frequent opportunities for movement, and breaks where no new learning happens, are important for long-term storage of learning.

Teachers, indulge in the intimate details of the learner-brain relationship. Meddle even. This is one couple that needs you in the middle.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

This article was first published in SNAP Etobicoke, May 2013.

Understanding the Teen Mind

Working in education doesn’t make parenting easier. It does, however, let me spend part of my work time learning about why children behave as they do. Increasingly, what I learn is rooted in brain research. Once one of life’s greatest mysteries, the thinking behind behavior is being revealed like a classic whodunit, thanks to magnetic-resonance images of the living, processing brain.

Questioning MindOf all the stages of development, parents and educators strive hardest to understand the teen years. An exciting yet characteristically turbulent, boundary-pushing stage where adults may often be inclined to ask, “What were you thinking?”, we’re fortunate to now have an answer. Two parts of the brain feature prominently in adolescence. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain most linked with mature judgment and self-control. The amygdala is the seat of our emotions. The biological details of what these two are doing during adolescence are best left to worthier publications than this column, but a satisfying metaphor shared by Ron Morrish, behavior specialist, is that of a construction site. The prefrontal cortex undergoes significant growth and change from the preteen years until the early twenties. It effectively becomes a construction site that, like any other, is unavailable for regular use. Where does the detour take an adolescent mind? The amygdala. This helps explain the oft-incomprehensible emotional swings that the adolescent, and those in their wake, must ride.

This has big implications for what we do as parents and educators. Dr. Ron Clavier, Clinical Psychologist and Neuroscientist, has laid out these implications, and related strategies, in his acclaimed book Teen Brain, Teen Mind: What Parents Need to Know to Survive the Adolescent Years. Humour, extensive experience and knowledge of the physiological underpinnings of this amazing stage have made Clavier a most-welcome voice in my world at school and home. If there is a teen or pre-teen in your life, I’m guessing he would also be a welcome voice in yours.

Dr. Clavier is speaking at Kingsway College School, 4600 Dundas St. West, at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 6th. Admission is free, and copies of his book will be available for sale. More details are available at www.kcs.on.ca/Speakers. Parents, educators, teens and all others who want to better understand the intriguing teen mind are welcome to join us.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.