Posted by: terrencedoyle | December 4, 2014

Blog #1 A New Paradigm for Student Learning–Preparing the Brain for Learning

Blog #1 by Terry Doyle
A New Paradigm for Student Learners—Prepare Your Brain for Learning

Twenty years ago, Change: The Magazine for Higher Learning published John Tagg and Bob Barr’s seminal article “From Teaching to Learning”. In the article the authors’ outlined what has come to be known as Learner Centered Teaching (LCT). By definition LCT is (recognizing the limitations that may exist in any given learning environment) using teaching practices that are designed to optimize the opportunities for students to learn. To optimize students’ learning teachers must be able to answer two essential questions:

Am I up-to-date on what is known about how learning happens in the human brain?
Do I know what teaching actions are in harmony with what is known about human learning?

My conclusion is that most teacher are reasonably up-to-date and continually work to integrate new findings about teaching and learning as they are revealed. What is perplexing is that as our knowledge about human learning has dramatically increased, providing solid evidence that LCT practice is the best way to teach, improvements in American education are not evident. In the past twenty years college graduation rates have not improved and K-12 systems throughout our country continue to be accused of failing our children.

A New Paradigm for Students
So how do we improve performance? We need our students help. It is clear from brain research findings that the human brain needs to be prepped for learning to learn at its best. I am purposing a new paradigm for student learners, one in which they take on a greater responsibility for their learning success by preparing their brains for learning. I see this as a viable pathway to improved school success. Teachers alone, even learner center teachers cannot fix our education systems. We need help and that help has to come from our students.

Five Areas that Improve Learning Readiness
Brain researchers have discovered there are five things that humans must provide their brain for it to function at its optimum level for learning. These are oxygen, hydration, proper diet, a good night’s sleep and aerobic exercise. These key elements are, to a great extent, controlled by students once they reach adolescence. Students at younger ages will need parental and school assistance to prepare their brains for learning.

The Brain Needs Oxygen for Learning
The proper delivery of oxygen to the brain is essential for creating the energy the brain needs to learn. Although the human brain represents only 2% of the body’s weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output and 20% of total body oxygen consumption (Magistretti and Pellerin, 1996). As learning challenges increase, so too does the brain’s demand for energy in the form of oxygen and glucose (Scholey, Harper and Kennedy, 2001). To keep up with the high energy demand of the brain, oxygen delivery and blood flow to the brain are essential for learning (Stuart, 1996). The bottom line is students need to be taught how to breathe correctly (diaphragmatic breathing) and choose to get some daily physical activity. Teachers need to allow more movement in their classes that will result in more oxygen getting into the blood stream.

Hydration and Brain Communication Systems
Many students go off to school dehydrated. The reason being humans lose 2lbs of fluids through normal respiration while sleeping (Moraes, 2009). Given that many students don’t hydrate in the morning they arrived at school with a brain that is not optimized for learning. Even mild dehydration can influence mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly (Armstrong, 2012).

When you lose too much water your brain cells lose efficiency (Gowin, 2010). Dehydration can impair short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memories (Gowin, 2010). Even mild levels of dehydration can impact school performance (Norman, 2012). It seems like a simple thing, getting hydrated in the morning and maintaining it throughout the day yet few students are even aware of how a lack of hydration can impair their learning and memory. Teachers need well hydrated learners.

A Balanced Diet
The brain requires about 22 times as much energy to run as the equivalent mass in muscle tissue. The energy required to run every bodily process comes from the food we eat (Navarrete and colleagues, 2011). The foods we consume greatly affect brain function, including everything from learning and memory to emotions.
Hungary students are poor learners. It is crucial to eat before new learning and before studying because the brain needs energy to learn. (Gold and Mcnay, 2001). It is also important to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Diets that are high in saturated fat have been shown to reduce molecular substrates that support cognitive processing. This high saturated fat diet also reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is crucial to new learning and neuronal plasticity (Gómez-Pinilla and colleagues, 2002). Students who eat a balanced diet have brains that are ready to learn.

Sleep and Learning
Sleep likely has the greatest impact upon the brain’s readiness to learn. Sleep also is the one behavior that teachers have virtually no control over. It’s no revelation that a tired brain doesn’t learn very well, but what is so significant about proper sleep, which for adults is 7.5 to 9.0 hours per night and for teens 9.0 to 10.0 hours( National Sleep Foundation, 2013), is that memories are made during sleep (Stickgold, 2005). When we sleep “sleep spindles,” which are bursts of brain waves help to shift memories from the brain’s hippocampus — which has limited storage space — to the nearly limitless prefrontal cortex thus freeing up the hippocampus to take in fresh data (new learning) the next day (Walker, 2010). Much of this process occurs during the second half of the night, so if you sleep six hours or less, you are short-changing yourself and impeding your learning and memory (Mander, 2011).

In addition, brains that are sleep deprived actually shut down key mental functions needed for learning and memory because the brain is exhausted. This shut down has consequences on mental performance and we likely function less well the longer we’ve been awake when sleep deprived (Corelli, 2011).

The effects of sleep deprivation on learning are profound. Poor memory, attention and judgment are just a few of the consequences of not getting enough sleep. If students are to be optimized for learning then they must get enough sleep.

Exercise and Learning
Dr. Laura Carstensen the Director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity says rarely do neuroscientist, psychologist and physicians unequivocally agree on anything, but they do agree that exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain. Harvard Psychiatrist John Ratey in his 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain writes “exercise is the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.”

The reason for this glowing statement is exercise that gets you to raise your heart rate, break a sweat and lasts 30 minutes causes the brain to release greater amounts of three important neurochemicals that optimize the brain for learning.These three neurochemicals, noradrenalin, dopamine and serotonin enhance the brain’s ability to pay attention which is the cornerstone of learning. The brain only learns what it pays attention to and when it comes to new learning it can only pay attention to one thing at a time. They also improve the brain’s ability to stay on task for longer periods of time and improve a person’s mood and motivation for new learning.

In addition, and perhaps even more exciting is exercise causes the brain to make more of a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning, and actually makes it easier for neurons to wire and fire which is the basis of new learning. John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the Brain. Brains low on BDNF had a hard time learning new information or skills.

A brain that has benefited from exercise is a brain ready to learn. It is a brain that is more motivated to learn, can focus better, pay more attention and stay on task longer. It is a teacher’s dream brain. If students can jog or run or fast walk they can have a brain optimized for learning.

A Shared Responsibility
If teachers alone could fix what is wrong with schools by changing their teaching behaviors (becoming learner centered) the problem would be well on the way to being fixed. I’m not saying that all teachers have embraced LCT but after twenty years and a decade of brain science findings most teachers are much better practitioners than they were twenty years ago. Our students have to step up. They have to see that their long-term success will be tied to their ability to be lifelong learners. They have to become equal partners in their education. We can’t do it without them. We have been trying for twenty years and it hasn’t worked.

Terry Doyle is a Professor of Reading at Ferris State University in Michigan and the author of two books on Learner Centered Teaching.

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