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Over the past decade, we have learned that for every student who is simple to understand or figure out, there are one or two who are a conundrum. Over this same decade we as separate and collaborative professionals have also discovered that the answer to these students’ needs being met is two-fold: 1. Education looks only at symptomology not etiology 2. Education fails to integrate disciplines effectively. Special education needs to stop being about labels and start being about the whole child.
Enter the practice of Execu-Sensory and Neuropedagogy. When we look at the child as a whole: brain, body and mind, we begin to understand that more than what teachers are taught in school is at play. Take child development, for example, this class may or may not be required to earn a Masters in Educations, especially if the focus is middle childhood rather than early or elementary. Yet, the brain is not done growing, literally, until the age of 19 or 20 and the prefrontal cortex continues to develop until the age of 25. Not to mention, the developmental surge that takes places during adolescence is akin to the one which occurs during early childhood. How then are teachers prepared to teach the ever evolving whole child if they lack the basic knowledge of brain development. The simple answer is they most likely cannot. The brain is a vastly complex system of electrical wiring and firing that is critical to understanding, given the goal is not only to teach, but teach effectively.
However for the purposes of this blogpost, we shall focus the discussion on the fundamentals of Neuropedagogy in practice with some aspects of Execu-Sensory components.
Structure of Neuropedagogy
Neuropedagogy in its most basic state begins with the executive function skills and the developing Pre-Frontal cortex. However when we attempt discussion with other educators, the typical response is, “Executive what in the where? Neuro?”
Understandable response, seeing as this predominantly European concept is commonly referred in the United States as Educational Neuroscience or Neuroeducation--or perhaps more commonly not discussed among educators at all. It was introduced during an educational summit in 2009 at Johns Hopkins University simultaneously with a “Learning and the Brain” wherein organizers and educators alike agreed there needed to be an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education to create improved teaching methods and curricula. It was bringing into focus new links between arts education and general learning, how learning physically alters the brain, and what goes wrong in students with learning disabilities.
Neuropedagogy however went further than Neuroeducation. The European definition of Neuropedagogy is when science and education meet and whose scientific aims are to learn how to stimulate new zones of the brain and create connections. It is targeted at stimulating the brains of all types of learners, not only those with students who have learning disabilities. Dr. Judy Willis a practicing neurologist made a conscious transition to the classroom as an educator feels that there needs be research about the brain’s neuroplasticity and the opportunities we have as educators to help students literally change their brains — and intelligence. To become a teacher without understanding the implications of brain-changing neuroplasticity is a great loss to teachers and their future students.
Based on the experience and the research we have done on current classroom structures in New York City, we have found that the most effective use of Neuropedagogy was in three sections: Brain Element Neuropedagogy, Body Element Neuropedagogy, and Mind Element Neuropedagogy. The hierarchy of training is dependent on the prior knowledge of brain function, thus beginning the discussion with the brain was the most functional and useful approach. The body then and it’s organic processes were the next step in the training and understanding connections between innervation and control, and lastly the mind which not all fields of classroom instruction fully develop or are able to reach without the clear understanding of how the brain and the body encompass the physics of the mind.
To say the least, one would need basic brain to facilitate the body and change the mind.
The Brain Element Neuropedagogy
The most obvious reason to share information is for learning, and learning can only be achieved if there is sufficient brain function. In our practice, we lay the foundation for understanding the Central Nervous System (CNS) neurotransmission, the utilization of approximate brain mapping of the cerebral hemispheres, and raise awareness of the unmistakable impact of the digital society on the organic brain.
By organizing the hierarchy of understanding based on the processes involved from brain neurotransmission in each section of the cerebrum at any given time, we shed more light into the powerful effects of neuroplasticity, the endless ability for the brain to change itself. There are four that have been identified for learning: Acetylcholine (ACH), Serotonin, GABA, and Dopamine. Ultimately these are the communicators responsible in delivering the information to all the lobes, including the Pre-Frontal Cortex. The PFC is not currently recognized as a lobe; however, the role that it plays in learning and behavior have been measured via Executive Function Skills.
Many definitions for executive function skills exist and they all essentially make the same point. The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines executive function skills as,” mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information… [it is the ability to use] information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.” These skills are critical to understand because when they are weak or delayed in developing, they can mask themselves as an educational disability which may lay the groundwork for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as determined by a mutlidisciplinary team. For example, let’s say a child is referred for an evaluation for special education services because he is showing consistent negative behavior, such as being unable to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, constantly calling out, and failing to complete homework, all of which lead to decreased academic gains. The child will most likely be mis-classified as having ADHD or a learning disability, which ultimately leads to inefficient or worse ineffective solutions. If the interventionists applied an interdisciplinary Neuropedagogical Approach, a different and more effective outcome may have played out.
Now, let’s add a layer of dynamic complexity to Neuropedagogy. Neuroscience has looked at the brains, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of people born after 1986 and compared them with brains, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of people born before 1986. The studies show a significant difference between the two. The over-arching difference: access to the digital world. The first group is digital natives; the second digital immigrants. Digital natives have brains that have weakened pathways for interaction, decreased activity in anterior cingulate gyrus and medial orbital frontal cortex, increased isolation, aggression, passivity, loneliness, etc, increase in cortisol due to excessive brain fatigue, decreased hippocampal size. Digital immigrants, the ones who have the capacity to hand down life experiences effectively via examples and who can communicate thoughts personally are ones who are usually comfortable with familiar technology and shy away from change in that department. They have been found to have faster PFC circuitry as they have had abilities to strengthen neuronal circuits with numerous life experiences, including delaying gratification.
WIth all of the Brain Element Neuropedagogy, one can proceed to appreciate understanding the Body and it’s unique processes.
The Body Element Neuropedagogy
In our modern society, people are perceived initially from the way they present themselves. Usually what is displayed from the external body is what immediately connects one person to the next. The body’s senses take in the physical and external world, neuronally process the input and in the cortex it’s given meaning.
From a learner’s perspective, the body is both intake and output. As interdisciplinary brain-based practitioners, we shed light into the Sensory Processing Systems, the limitless potential of a person’s Multiple Intelligences and Emotional Quotient (EQ), culminating on the influence of what we have managed to call the 3 External E’s (Ergonomics, Economics, and Environment). The body by itself is a complete sensory organ, however it has been proven by evidence-based practice that the seven (7) senses are the checkpoints of the body: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, movement and position in space. Research in this area was pioneered by Dr. A. Jean Ayres and current practitioners include Dr. Lucy Jane Miller and Carol Kranowitz all of who have contributed to the education and learning landscape. One simply cannot function by brain alone!
Multiple Intelligences Theory was pioneered by Howard Gardner, a developmental neuropsychologist,who played the violin well, wondered if a tool, aside from the Intelligence Quotient (IQ test), could be developed to measure additional attributes to determine a person’s complete intelligence. Another factor we considered was Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) as this too plays an important factor externally; even as the limbic system is brain centric in it’s processing of emotions, the manifestation on the outside is clearly body centric.
Education in the twentieth and now twenty first century tends to teach to two types of learners: visual and auditory. Yet, research has shown that multiple types of learners exist, not just two. Teaching methodologies need to start designing lessons, activities and classrooms not only for the typically forgotten or ever present kinesthetic learners, but for the quiet introvert and the shy extrovert and multiple combinations of them.
Simple modifications such as state changes, strategically planned brain gym breaks or yoga ball chairs have shown to improve the executive functioning skills of sustained attention and task persistence. Additionally, when inserting brief yet planned breaks of any type, students are given an opportunity to work on set-shifiting a skill in high demand in the modern digital-world. Modifications for the introvert include quiet spaces in the classroom or projects with an option to work alone. The shy extrovert, may benefit from group projects with assigned jobs. However, this type of differentiated instruction is believed to be fitting only to the special education population. The rest of these students, rather than adopting a label that may or may not fit, they are instructed to adapt their bodies to fit because that is what the ‘real world’ will expect of them. Meanwhile, that potential intelligence lays mostly dormant because teachers are not teaching to them, and were probably never taught how. Neuropedagogy recognizes the learning process that processes from a brain and proceeds into the body offers perspective and solutions to teaching with the body in mind.
The Mind Element Neuropedagogy
Of all of the Elements that we train, it is the Mind Element that is the most challenging to explore.The brain and the mind are used interchangeably in the realm of education; however, scientists have discovered that although they do seem to be influential of the other, the brain and mind affect each other in very different but significant ways. The psyche in psychology practice have also been associated with the mind, and pop culture usually uses the word mind loosely as choice or state of one’s mental being.
In referencing the brain, it is the material organic matter that has the physical manifestation of the neuronal processes while the mind is where consciousness and active thinking occur. However a thought may occur from consciousness which may alter the neuronal process that was intended to happen and vice versa. The mind discussion includes: theory of mind, the belief-desire reasoning in learners, and neuroplasticity in the habit loop, Behavior Modification and Habit Routine change that can have both positive and negative effects.
Neuropedagogy of the mind starts with the premise that the mind of a child is complex. The Belief-Desire Reasoning from H.M. Wellman’s The Child’s Theory of Mind Mechanism shows just that. Thinking, perception, sensations, beliefs, cognitive emotions, physiology, basic emotions are all interconnected and simultaneously interacting to produce desires, intentions, actions and inevitably reactions. Actions are merely the tip of the iceberg to the ongoings of a child’s, and ultimately a learner’s mind. Educators who understand and teach with Executive Function Skills such as Metacognition, Emotional Control and Response Inhibition in mind, essentially have x-ray vision, which provides them the insight to ask the questions that will reveal the iceberg. Intention is marked by a WHOLE person, a product of perception, inception and conclusions.
Conclusion: The Neuropedagogy Synthesis
When science and education meet it is called Neuropedagogy, whose scientific aims are to learn how to stimulate new zones of the brain and create connections. The information that is presented here may appear overwhelming and less comprehensive in practice however it the changing the lens and perspective that allow best practices to occur, to remind those involved in direct service that people are not formulaic in their learning.
The Neuropedagogy synthesis demonstrates just that. One of our current partnerships, The Teaching Firms of America Professional Charter School in Brooklyn, New York applies these principles by tying choice and action to their basis in the brain, Theory of Mind, and most importantly, the brain has the ability to change. They empower their scholars to be thinkers and owners of their actions and choices by giving them knowledge from the world of neuroscience. Finally, the utilize the principles of Neuropedagogy to guide and inform their instruction, interactions and interventions. It is a common occurrence to hear students say, “I can change my brain.” From initial classroom set-up to end of day classroom clean up, they created and continue an atmosphere of curiosity and intellect, which always seems to start and end with the brain.
Your hand swings up from your side to grab your phone and shut off the music. It was your favorite song, now you hate it. “What was I thinking? A good song isn’t going to miraculously give me the energy to get up and out of this bed.” It’s 7:00; time to wake up. Actually already later than the time you should be getting up. Yet, you simply just can’t. You set the timer on your phone. 3 minutes. Because maybe in three minutes you’ll have the motivation to rise up and face the day. You roll back over, knowing full well it is wishful thinking. Hey… at least it’s 3 more minutes of delaying the inevitable.
Neuroplasticity, for all its positive attributes, has a dark side in the form of bad habits, monotonous routines, and personal, professional ruts to name a few. Maybe it’s motivation to get up in the morning and go to work, or spend time with friends, or go to the gym. Perhaps you feel stuck in a bad habit like an unhealthy relationship or smoking or drinking more than you should. Often times when these dark forms take over your life, they do so at such a slow, sneaky pace, you fail to notice until a friend makes a comment about your mood, behavior, health, or weight. You immediately jump to your own defense; however, later you take a long hard look into a literal or figurative mirror and a wave of panic and self-realization washes over you: she was right. Your mind flips and begins scanning for solutions to this problem. You select the only answer that could possible explain how you have landed in this inexcusable place: You have NO motivation. Obviously this is the problem.
But, what is motivation? Why is it not always the answer?
Motivation can be defined as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Therefore, it is easy to assume that people need motivation in order to make a change, since typically people don’t change without a reason. Reasons may include a health scare, vanity, sick or being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Why even with reasons pushing people to change, is change still so difficult? Let’s take a look at what is happening in the brain when people are motivated. A study conducted by Mathias Pessiglione and a team of researchers at INSERM, found that the ventral striatum was a general motivational system in the depths of the brain. The ventral striatum was activated during both physical and cognitive activities when participants were incentivized or motivated with money. Additionally, the level of activation showed a positive correlation with increased incentives. This essentially means the more motivating the reward, the more the ventral striatum was activated. However, further studies have shown the involvement of dopamine in motivation is quite complex. Dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens when people have near-successes as well as when they are successful–this occurrence plays a role in addiction. Additionally, the nucleus accumbens is activated when people are motivated to avoid unpleasant experiences as well. Now let’s add one more blockade to our motivation to change. Researchers at CalTech and UCLA learned that different areas in the brain are activated when people are thinking about how to do something than when they are thinking about why they are doing something. Additionally, the areas in the brain do no appear to fire simultaneously and actually have shown a negative correlation in activity. In short, you need more than motivation to make a change.
Not having motivation and knowing this, is one step closer to change, however; relying on the factors that supposedly will motivate you to change may lead you nowhere except down the same path. If you focus too much on the how, the brain cannot move onto the why; if you focus too much on the why, the brain cannot plan the how. Furthermore, the mere talking, thinking or move towards change may be enough change for dopamine release and an activated nucleus accumbens, which in your brain is enough to lead to a sense of satisfaction.
“If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.” Jim Rohn
How can you use motivation to change?
The answer is unglamorous and gruesome: you can’t. Change takes more than motivation. It takes work–cumbersome, agonizing work. You will be miserable, hate your life, those around you and pretty much everything related to the change you are trying to make. In addition, you will begin being haunted by reminders of change. All of this a direct result of the very comfortable habit loop you have essentially disrupted. In other words, the dark side of neuroplasticity.
But here’s the lesson: If you push through and put in the work, motivation will come. It will also sustain the new healthy habit you developed because once the change occurs, dopamine as a reward system will kick in when you engage in that new behavior. Your brain, body and mind will begin craving the new healthy habits because the synaptic connections are now wiring and firing together in addition to the other positive outcomes gained from the change in behavior. Motivation alone won’t change your behaviors. Instead, educate yourself on how to change and use those motivating factors to help you persevere to see that change through.
Your hand swings up from your side to grab your phone and shut off the music. It was your favorite song, now you hate it. “What was I thinking? A good song isn’t going to miraculously give me the energy to get up and out of this bed.” It’s 6:00; time to wake up. I really don’t want to, but unless I do, I never will. Change is hard, but I know now it won’t always be this difficult to wake up in the morning. I just need to push through one day at a time and the motivation will come.
Careers in Education span from being a one to one teaching assistant, which may or may not require education beyond high school, to holding a doctorate in education with the hopes of changing policy, running a school or teaching future teachers at prestigious universities. The paths to becoming an educator therefore, are as multi-faceted–ranging from the vocational training as a one to one teaching assistant to trial by fire in teacher-certification or principal training programs. Many who enter the field, hold the ideals of wanting to change the world and to contribute to the education of the future generation; however, many of those same inviduals leave the field after a long and albeit arduous career, with little to no passion for the profession they entered or beliefs they had about changing the world.
Why the phenomenon? Our colleagues have narrowed it down to the lack of support overall, both in background preparation and in workplace coaching. No one from either area really says flat out to a teacher-to-be, guess what, your classroom is a mini neighborhood, and you are expected to be town policeman, mayor, judge and parent. Maybe it is time to add therapist and neurologist to this list; skills possessed by these individuals may actually benefit an educator’s craft.
Currently, the majority of the programs that prepare our teachers discuss education theory, history and pedagogy. Many programs have teachers spend an entire semester creating a unit plan of about 5 lessons, when in reality many teachers need to create multiple lessons for multiple grades or multiple subjects in any given day. In addition, they teach to learners ranging from gifted and talented to those struggling to learn–classified, diagnosed or otherwise.
If schools of education added a fraction of the courses required to graduate with a degree in a related therapeutic service, psychologist and neurologist, perhaps it would not only change the approach taken to teaching, but also preserve the mentality educators have at the beginning of the field when they finally leave the field. An even greater outcome is teachers would change the world, at least the world for the children who they had the privilege of teaching. This is the potential of neuropedagogy.
Neuropedagogy blends psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, school psychology, educational neuroscience and pedagogy into one, which results in a more complete understanding of the whole child in regards how children learn, how the brain functions and the role emotions play in both. Essentially, neuropedagogy explores the brain, body and mind of a child and takes all into account when teaching in a classroom. However, the first step in teaching from a neuropedagogical point of view is to understand the anatomical brain, the power of neuroplasticity, and what is happening in brains of struggling learners.
Some schools have begun teacher training programs that explore this very notion, Harvard offers a Master’s Degree in Mind, Brain and Education. Courses include: cognitive neuroscience, statistics, educational neuroscience, atypical neurodevelopment, applying cognitive science to learning among other more typical education courses. The Teacher’s College at The University of Columbia offers a Master of Science degree in Neuroscience and Education and the courses are similar to those offered at Harvard. Finally The School of Education at John Hopkins offers a Mind , Brain and Teaching Certificate. The School of Education at John Hopkins has started an entire neuro-education initiative, which aims to inform teaching practices about the the research from neurosciences and how it can positively impact teaching practices. Most likely more programs are out there and gaining steam; however, these programs are all optional specializations in schools of education, not required. Educators or other professionals enrolling in these programs most likely have an understanding and background in the role neuroscience plays in teaching.
It is not enough. This is a fundamental disconnect, which poses to lead to irreparable damage not only for the United States’s educational system as a whole, but for the ability of students to learn and learn to their optimal potential. Little understanding exists on the long-term effects of technology on developing minds, especially given the rate at which children are exposed to it in the 21st Century. Some doctors like Dr. Gary Small have begun studying the impacts. He has found less than positive outcomes on the development of essential executive functioning skills, which require a developed pre-frontal cortex and access to that cortex in order to employ them. Excessive exposure to technology threatens that entire process. Yet, teachers are expected to teach and children are expected to learn. How?
Teachers (and children for that matter) need to understand the brain and how that brain develops a mind and how both affect the body because all impact how a child learns, thinks, behaves and reacts. Take the Child’s Belief-Desire Reasoning developed by Dr. Henry Wellman, from The University of Michigan. This complex thought process occurs instantaneously, and provides a glimpse as to why understanding the brain, body and mind is essential to successful teaching.
Common Core (for better or worse) changed the standards for our children; yet the change occurred before equipping educators with the ability to meet those changes armed with the required knowledge. An education program would not be approved if they failed to teach lesson planning, educational theory, and areas of specialization–whether early childhood or advanced calculus. Neither should they be approved if they don’t teach teachers about the anatomy of the brain, how it functions, and how children learn.
The challenge therefore is to stop separating education from the very field it uses most. Education, meet Neuro.
With the end of 2014 looming near, and 2015 appearing like a beautiful blank canvas, or dark vacuous black hole, regardless of perspective, resolutions for the new year always emerge. It may be to brush them off and refuse to make even one or to enter the new year with a list of 10 fully intent on keeping every one. Even with the best of intentions, resolutions are difficult to keep because change is hard. It may help to understand why change is so difficult, then steps can be taken in order to counter the brain’s resistance to change and perhaps the realistic resolutions on that list of 10 can be kept.
It’s now common knowledge that brains are plastic and have the ability to change. This change is called neuroplasticity Dr. Doidge explains in his book The Brain that Changes Itself that scientists began seeing “if certain ‘parts’ [of the brain] failed, then other parts could sometimes take over.” However, neuroplasticity not only plays a role when areas in the brain are damaged. It is essentially the basis of all hardwired habits: good and bad. The common phrase reads: neurons that fire together wire together. That wiring together forms the near unconscious behavior that often leads to self admonishment or accolades: the mindless hand movement to eat one more fry, even after feeling full, the compulsory turning off the alarm clock to sleep for 9 more minutes, the turning to go to the gym, even after a 10 hour work day, or the grabbing a bottle of water instead of soda when thirst calls. Therefore, unwiring or unlearning the bad habits and rewiring the good habits will be the ticket to the annual question: How long before the New Year’s Resolution is broken? A day? A week? Two weeks? Use the principles of neuroplasticity, and the Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loop and the response may be 12 months, 2 years, forever.
Step 1. Identify a craving; this is essentially the reward.
Step 2. Create or uncover a cue, which will lead to Step 3.
Step 3. Establish or change or a routine so the craving/reward is met.
Charles Duhigg calls this The Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. When completed consistently over time, neuroplasticity is the result. The neurons firing together during this three-step process, become wired together and the ‘habit’ becomes automatic. The length of time for a new habit to become just that is dependent upon the source. Decades ago, people misinterpreted Dr. Maltz’s 21 days, which has become the most common number, others say repeat a behavior like working out 10 days in a row and it will become a habit. Charles Duhigg stated that his new habit took a few weeks; however he took many weeks to identify the source, test out new routines and so on. Overall, these numbers are a bit liberal. Phillippa Lally at the University of College London, found that it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit. The average length of time was 66 days for the behavior to become automatic. Additionally, it was noted that missing a day or two throughout did not negatively impact the formation of a new behavior. What did affect the time to habituate a behavior was the complexity of the behavior, the behavior of the person and additional environmental circumstances.
Going back to New Year’s Resolutions, begin by identifying the bad habits to kick this year or the good habits to begin. That bad habit or good habit is the routine. In order to change that routine, the reward needs to be identified. For example, smoking is a routine; the reward could be socializing with coworkers during a cigarette break,
taking a break from the job, relaxing. According to Charles Duhigg, it may take some experimenting in order to identify the reward, pick 2-3 possibilities to try. Next find the cue. When does the habit kick in? Is it a specific time? Event? Person? After the cue is identified replace new routines that address the hypothesized reason for the ‘bad habit.’ Afterward, determine if the reward or craving achieved by the bad habit has been achieved with the good one. If so, keep trying it out for a few weeks; if not, try another new routine until the reward has been met.
Once the new routine is ready; a new habit can be formed and the 66, 18 or 254 days or some number in between can begin. Remember, a few missed days here and there does not equate with failure or having to start over. The brain is plastic and just as neurons take time to wire together, they take time to unwire. Given this information, Charles Duhigg’s few weeks is in fact possible, just not common.
Keeping your New Year’s Resolutions is changing your brain, which can change your life. Deciding to change and taking that first step is the most challenging. People often pick the first day of the New Year to begin, but it is never too early or too late to change. The brain is after all plastic and will change at anytime when the effort is put in. Hopefully that cliché has a little more clarity and the first step will lead to 65 more.
What brain changes will you make this year?
Happy 2015! Here’s to a New Year and a New You.