10 Secrets for Brain Bursts at High School

Canadian Alanna Mitchell, this year’s winner of the Atkinson Fellowship in public policy named brains as the secret to better schools. Not all agree. stubborn

Mitchell recalled a Minister of Education who asked a neuroscientist: “The brain? What does the brain have to do with education?” In my renewal work across many countries I heard similar surprising statements. Have you heard it?

Mitchell argues for centuries of scientific discoveries about human brains to be applied to teaching. From her award winning series on applying brain discoveries at school, here are ten key points to ponder with teens brains in mind:

1. The reason schools aren’t quickly shifting to a brain based teaching approach is because it’s still a secret, unknown to most educators and policy makers, and perhaps more importantly, to parents. Do you agree?

2. Some academics and bureaucrats are dead set against changing current practices, according to Mitchell. Neuroeducator,  Zachary Stein of Harvard University calls it, simply a failure of imagination.

3. Teachers patrolled like prison guards in one middle school where Mitchell spoke, looming over teens whenever they showed the least bit of enthusiasm. One teacher shuffled to the front and suggested the questions be dropped in favor of telling teens what they were to know.

4. Teens and teachers’ brains still continue to grow new synaptic connections and replace lost neurons. A key part of learning is the process of pruning those synapses to make them work faster.

5. Neuroscience tells us that the brain is a platform upon which intelligence can be built, rather than the determinant of a fixed intelligence. As organs, brains expand, and should be treated as something to improve, than than prove. Psychologist Guy Claxton, at the University of Winchester sees schools’ role to help that expansion happen.

6. Warring fields of neuroscience and education are merging into an international movement, that is gathering strength in US,  Europe, Japan, and Australia.  Here at the MITA International Brain Center,  we agree with the Mitchell’s quote from Howard Jones:  Neuroscience on its own is completely without meaning. It has to be integrated with psychology and what we know about education.

7. When Harvard launched their Mind, Brain, and Education Program at their graduate school of education,  faculty couldn’t agree for a long time, that the term, brain, should even be in their title.

8. Teens or adult brains hold somewhere between 100 trillion and 500 trillion synapses, and can prune as well as build new ones throughout life. In effect, the more synapses, and the more efficiently they connect, the smarter you are. The key to learning is to find different ways into brains that value multiple approaches, and avoid cookie-cutter methods.

9. There are no textbooks at an Australian science and mathematics school. The entire school is founded on the adolescent brain and how it learns. Mitchell found that it’s what teens could look like if their biology were taken seriously.

10. Teens and young adults undergo vast brain changes in their frontal cortex, that are rarely considered as factors that impact their learning.  This part of the brain – where the highest level thinking and analysis take place, is laying down white matter, or myelin.  This fatty sheath insulates nerve fibers so they can communicate more quickly.  Teens need relevance because their brains are geared to understanding systems. Ask them, for instance, how to build a well for clear water in Africa.

Jim Davis, principal at Australian Science & Mathematics School demonstrates what teaching teens could look like if their brains were taken seriously. Davis recommends a brain shift among grown ups: showing faith in the teen’s powerful, growing neural networks and in their biological imperative to move their world forward.

Do you agree with Alanna Mitchell’s award winning insights from experts?  Or with Davies’ conclusion: If we do that, then all sorts of magic can happen?

If so, what’s holding your school back from bringing the secrets of brain into teen’s  learning through rejuvenated secondary schools?

6 Comments

  1. Ellen, these 10 reasons give us pause to think about the way teaching and learning looks in the high schools we know. I notice one of the main differences in schools which emphasize strategies which work with the human brain is that gifts and talents of each student are emphasized. This is starkly different than teaching as if one size fits all. Thanks for the excellent work you do and the inspiration you bring.

  2. eweber says:

    Thanks Robyn, and I love your points about gifts and talents. Teens and adults like tell us they are not using their talents at school. This amazing resource is already there — and comes free with every teen or teacher that crosses a threshold of class.

    In fact the cost comes to those who fail to develop use these talents – or multiple intelligences in class. Yes, I also agree with Alanna Mitchell and the secondary school principal here when they stir curiosity for that talent development – by asking us all to imagine the magic.You?

  3. Jason Loke says:

    Ellen, as a teacher at the Australian Science and Mathematics School I must say that it is an amazing thing to see a student engaging wholly with the processes that are in place at our school. They absorb the knowledge and skills that we try to provide access to, re-define it in a meaningful way that suits their particular passions and interests and then produce something quite extraordinary as a way to explain their understanding of a particular aspect of their education.
    I’m privileged to see this magic everyday.

  4. eweber says:

    Jason, how many secondary school teachers can say this – except at a great school like the Australian Science and Mathematics School Because you do – we can all say that it is an amazing thing to see a student engaging wholly with the processes that are in place at secondary school.

    How many teens absorb knowledge and use related skills in a meaningful way that suits their particular passions and interests? How many produce extraordinary outcomes as a way to explain their understanding of a topic?

    Because you see and live this magic daily – you inspire the rest of us.

  5. Marie says:

    Hi Ellen, The principal at the newest middle school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada required her teachers to only bring one box of personal things into the new building and were not allowed to purchase test books. All the learning is technology based. The level of learning engagement is incredible, and no surprises, there aren’t any problems with attendance or behaviour.

  6. eweber says:

    Hello fellow Canadian and thanks for sharing this wonderful story of school renewal! I would love to hear how this new approach works for learners over time! What specifically have you noticed that most improve their motivation and achievement?

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