Educating Diverse Minds

By Jeanne Watson-Smith, Lower School Art Teacher and Nancy Weigel, Lower School Reading Specialist

We had the opportunity to attend the Learning and the Brain conference in Boston from November 16-18. This is an interdisciplinary conference for researchers, clinicians and educators to examine new research findings. Connecting these findings with educational practice and policy is the work of this community of learners. A series of 11 keynote addresses and 12 concurrent break-out sessions filled the weekend and inspired and stretched us as educators.

The overarching theme of this conference was Educating Diverse Minds – using individual  brain differences to teach and reach all learners.  Some of the keynote topics included: Your Brain on Childhood: The unexpected side effects of classrooms, homework, testing and grades; Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s architecture shapes learning, memory and decision-making; The Dynamics of Learning: Brains, Genes and Environment;  How Individual Differences in Brain Structure and Function Interact with Education During the Acquisition of Reading Learning.  We would like to share details of two of the sessions in particular that spoke to us.

The first was presented by Lou Whittaker, Ed.D. and Betsy Hill, MBA.

Each student’s brain is uniquely wired with strengths and weaknesses in cognitive processes such as selective attention, working memory, executive function and processing speed. The combination of strengths and weaknesses plays a critical role in learning by enhancing or impairing it.  Research  affirms the brain’s ability to re-wire and change, developing new and stronger neural connections.  Building cognitive skills like working memory, visualization and visual-auditory integration are critical for successful learning and life. There is also a great deal of research indicating that intentional use of video games can have a positive impact on developing connections that improve these critical skills.

Dr. Whittaker and Ms. Hill represent the Learning Enhancement Corporation and shared an award-winning software program called BrainWare Safari, which incorporates proven clinical practices of cognitive skill development in a video game format. The program consists of 20 exercises that strengthen 41 mental processing skills that fall into the categories of attention, memory, visual processing, auditory processing, sensory integration and thinking. Peer-reviewed research was shared, showing student improvement in areas of attention span and focus, reduced careless errors, quicker grasping of concepts, less frustration when faced with a challenging task, better ability to follow instructions, and enhanced thinking and problem-solving ability. The recommended use of this program involves a high degree of frequency and intensity for cognitive growth.

Ever the skeptic, I spent a significant amount of time speaking with these professionals about the program, their research, the practical aspects of this training, and the longevity of the results. Upon returning to Westtown, I invited Kristin Trueblood, Lower School Principal, to attend a webinar about this program. We are currently in the process of setting up an in-house “study” to see if we find similar positive results and student engagement in this program. It is our hope to have something up and running after the first of the year. I’ll keep you posted!  -Nancy Weigel

The second was presented by Dr. John Medina.

“To hammer home the centrality of diversity in education-we not only acknowledge it, but believe that recognizing and understanding individual differences can be the basis for effective teaching and for reaching all learners.” Kenneth S. Kosik MD, Harriman Professor of Neuroscience Research and Co-Founder of Leaning and the Brain Conference.

After attending 15 seminars, one stood out in a very amusing, informative way that changed my brain and empowered it for the future. Dr. John Medina spoke about his book Brain Rules and definitively stated that “every brain is wired differently from every other brain. He gave a very graphic example showing how this can be proved.  He cited Dr. George Ojemann, a neurosurgeon, who after many years of brain surgery, started to collect data on each of his patients. For example a bilingual person stores English in one area, the temporal lobe or Broca’s area and Spanish in another. One of the reasons brain surgery takes so long is because the surgeon has to “map” the regions of the brain by stimulating each area with an electrode, asking the patient for a response and then recording what the region signifies, like speech, touching on the arm, a cool sensation, a twitching toe, etc. There are no pain receptors in the brain, so this procedure is possible and takes about 4 to 5 hours before corrective surgery begins. Every brain shares certain pathways and one can compare them to “super highways” that exist in all brains in the same place in neural anatomy. The individual differences occur in the narrow “one lane roads” where experience and emotion are tagged and stored for retrieval throughout the brain. This process of encoding is unique in every individual. The practical implications of this “neuroplasticity” in the classroom would be to have smaller class size so that the teacher can give customized instruction that is intuitive to each child’s learning style. Using this “Theory of Mind” to guide the lessons to fit each student’s learning style would advance perception, awareness, vision and sensitivity.  All students would benefit. Brain Rule #1: Wired.

Emotions attract our attention and it is the same for our students. TV commercials make great use of this information. Students also perceive meaning before details. “We are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording details” Dr. Medina makes a strong case that the brain cannot multitask and has to keep switching from one task to another restarting and refocusing each time. This switching from one task to another takes longer and is not accurate. “The brain’s emotional spotlight can focus on only one thing at a time: no multitasking.” During the three seconds a driver looks away to text is the time when most accidents occur. The brain also needs a break and likes to nap in the afternoon! What works for Dr. Medina during lectures to students is giving information in short 10 minute bursts followed by an entertaining story. “Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion”.  Brain Rule #2: Attention.

How children remember is another interest to me. In the art room, I have noticed that some students do not remember where the pencils are. The pencils are usually in the same place each class! Is it because they are not interested in remembering? Back in time when man lived on the savannah and was primarily concerned with survival they either learned or were eaten, according to Dr. Medina. And they had to learn to respond in a few seconds. There was not much time for error. Their lives depended on it. So how do we activate this process of remembering? “The brain has many types of memory systems. One type follows four stages of processing: encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting. Most of the events that predict whether something learned also will be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.” Brain Rule # 5: Short Term Memory.

The creative learning link for successful teaching uses multi-sensory environments, especially vision, to establish more accurate recall. When all the senses are stimulated and the body is allowed to move around, learning has more depth, meaning and more accurate recall of information. “Vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. The visual analysis we do has many steps. The retina assembles photons into little movie-like streams, some areas registering motion, others registering color, etc. Finally, we combine that information back together so we can see. We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.” Brain Rule #10: Vision. – Jeanne Watson Smith

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About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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