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Brain Toxic Classrooms

The teach-to-the test curriculum is brain toxic to children.

Children are naturally curious and have magnificent senses of wonder. They want to learn and explore. Often starting at age three or four, especially if they have older siblings, children look forward with great excitement to the day they can start school. The big day comes and things might go well for a few years. Then something changes and school is no longer a wondrous place. How sad that is.

The No Child Left Behind agenda has resulted in one-size-fits-all cookbook curriculum that leaves little room for teachers to make lessons engaging enough to be considered "valuable" by the brain's intake filters. All learning comes through the senses and what sensory information comes in is the unconscious decision of our primitive lower brains. Priority is given to HERE-ME-NOW input such as novelty or input that previously was associated with pleasure.

Animals need that sorting system to be alert to signs of danger or potential pleasure (the sight of potential prey or the smell of a potential mate). Through natural selection, the animals with brain intake filters most successful at alerting to novelty and change, have survived. Humans have this same primitive brain information intake system. At the unconscious, reflexive level our brains are programmed to let in input (pay attention to) novelty, change, and cues that are linked with pleasure.

Those prerequisites to paying attention are not found in classrooms where the teacher lectures and the students "memorize" facts they regurgitate on tests and soon forget. Neuroimaging PET and fMRI scans provide evidence that this type of rote learning is the most quickly forgotten because the information is never stored in long-term memory storage. As students lose interest in lecture-and-memorize classes, their attention wanders and disruptive behaviors are the natural consequence. Even for children who are able to maintain focus on rote instruction, the disruptive responses of their classmates are encroaching more and more on their teachers' instruction time as teachers spend more time trying to maintain order.

Today's brain toxic focus of fact memorization is not the fault of teachers, many of whom started teaching before NCLB invaded their classrooms. In those days, in the best classrooms, lessons were interactive and information was delivered through activities, projects, field trips, discovery, and class visits by professionals who used the math, science, or language in their cool jobs or hobbies.

The toxic NCLB pressure resulted in teach-to-the test curriculum with its drill-and-kill worksheets and memorization. The cost our children is the loss of the golden opportunity to build on their curiosity and enthusiasm. As early as kindergarten children begin to begrudge their time in school and gradually their brains construct neural circuits for self-stimulation (talking during lectures, drawing pictures instead of doing boring worksheets, fidgeting with change in their pockets or toys hidden in their desks). I'll save for another time the fact that the toxicity of the stress of boredom and frustration also causes the sustained release of too much cortisol, which kills neurons and damages the immune system. (More on this topic on George Lucas's Edutopia Website in the discussion of the webinar I did for them in early April:

Parents' intervention is now needed to help children reach their highest potentials and find ways to help them connect to the information in mind-numbing classes. Parents can use the brain-friendly practices used in great classrooms by teachers who know how the brain learns. These strategies will breath life and increase unconscious attentiveness to the mandated, overstuffed curriculum. Without parent stimulation, children's brain pathways to the prefrontal cortex (highest thinking conscious decision making brain) are pruned away from disuse.

If we give children experiences that make the classroom lessons relevant, we are counteracting the toxic classroom experiences. When children are prepared with background knowledge that helps them personally relate to school units, new information will reach the prefrontal cortex, the reflective, thinking, conscious brain where creativity, prediction, deduction, independent judgment, memory building, and insight await the arrival of new input to process.

Many schools are cutting back on the extracurricular activities that build character and add multidimensionality to learning. Those children are feeling more disconnected from their teachers and schools, but parents can use art, music, family field trips, and meaningful discussion to increase children's connection to their school subjects.

Budgets and job security in the school system are tied to schools' abilities to mass-produce students trained to pass standardized tests that reward rote memorization skills. Instead of encouraging children's critical thinking skills, teachers are pushed to "teach to the test" and students in their classrooms are losing interest in the information force fed to them in these toxic classrooms. With home supplementary engagement of children's personal connections, background knowledge, and curiosity parents can bring life back into their learning while helping children build the critical thinking and reasoning skills that are being sacrificed with this rote memorization approach to teaching.

Learning can be a joy. Parents know their children better than any teacher ever will. Using the growing field of evidence-based neuroscience and learning research strategies now available, parents can assist their children learn what they need to know to pass the tests and much, MUCH more. Using strategies that engage and captivate your children's interests, parents can work with them at home to enhance their personal connection with and critical thinking about the dry, factual data they are served up at school.

The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured, if not synchronized, curriculum continue to build the levels of classroom toxic stress for children. Cutting edge neuroimaging research (PET scans, fMRI scans) reveals significant disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and the brain's chemical messengers that accompany stressful learning environments. Science has provided us with information about the negative brain impact of stress and anxiety and the beneficial changes in the brain that are seen when children are motivated by and personally connected to their lessons.

In the past decade, the neuroimaging and brain-mapping research that I evaluated from my perspective as a neurologist and classroom teacher have provided objective support to the student-centered educational model where students feel they are partners in their education. This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when information is presented in ways relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences. Lessons must be stimulating and challenging, without being intimidating, for the increasing curriculum standards to be achieved without stress, anxiety, boredom, and alienation becoming the emotions children experience in their classrooms.

During the fifteen years I practiced adult and child neurology with neuroimaging and brain mapping as part of my diagnostic tool kit, I worked with patients of all ages with disorders of brain function, including learning differences. When I returned to university to obtain my teaching credential and Masters of Education degree, these neuroimaging tools that I had used as in my neurology practice had become available to researchers in the field of education.

This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals like dopamine) that increase attention, focus, organization of thoughts, and high-level thinking called executive function. We now see the brain response when lessons are relevant to children's lives, interests, and experiences so each child feels he or she is a partner in the learning process and develops personally relevant goals that motivate attentive focus to the topics of study.

Stress in toxic classrooms can come from boredom when students are not shown why the material is significant to them in the here and now. The "real life" examples in textbooks that, for example, extol the value of learning scientific notation because archeologists use that system when the work with long numbers in carbon dating. Even if a child thinks she might want to be an archeologist, without an immediate, desirable goal to use scientific notation here and now, her brain will not care about the information at the most primitive sensory intake filter.

Without a positive emotional connection to a subject or task, the brain alerting system will not attend to the lecture. It will do just what animal brains do - seek its own sources of novelty and pleasure. That is much more likely to come from passing notes to a friend or drawing a picture than from listening to a teacher's words.

Toxic stress shuts down the pathways from the emotional limbic system (amygdala) that lead to the higher thinking frontal cortex. When the lecture or reading is too difficult, not supported by the background knowledge needed to understand the new concepts, too boring, and not explicitly related so children's personal goals, all sensory input including the lecture is shunted to the reactive, unconscious brain. Here the only unconscious, reactions are fight-flight-freeze. Once again acting out or tuning out are the involuntary student reactions.

The No Child Left Behind legislation, where school funding is determined by results of rote memory tests, will not go away for some time. Even with a president who wants to change the system, legislation is slow. As parents of children in this teach-to-the-test current educational system, it falls to us to help our children find personal relevance in school topics.

You know your children's interests, background experiences, and learning strength (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). You have friends or relatives who really do use chemistry or algebra in jobs that they love. Having these people over to dinner or having your child shadow them at their work could be the motivator that makes the school unit take on personal meaning and value.

Reminding children that their relatives came from the country they are studying at school and showing family photos or Internet clips about that country gives them personal connections to the history or geography. That can make the difference in class so their brains attend to the lessons. Lessons perceived as personally relevant, connected to children's personal goals and taught in ways best suited to children's learning strength will gat through the brain's first intake filter that only lets in sensory input that children or an animal in the wild finds curious and worth investigating because it is recognized as having had a previous relationship to pleasurable feelings. To see a related video, click the image on the left.

Hands-on science experiments and grocery store play centers at school (where kids used to learn about adding and subtracting by playing shopping and cashier games) won't be back for some time. But you have a kitchen where math is valued by children they calculate how to double the ingredients to make twice as much spaghetti or cut the pizza into equal sections for each family member to receive the same amount.

As a parent, you can find out what upcoming units of study will be and prime your children's brains to care enough to let that information in (HERE-ME-NOW response in the intake filter). You can motivate their interest before the topic comes up with Internet field trips to the planets she has to memorize or looking at sports page statistics before the lesson on probability in math.

This new brain-based learning research reinforces the need for classrooms to once again become the places where the imagination, spirit, and curiosity of children are encouraged, rather than left outside in the playground when the school bell rings. Until then, it is up to you to be the advocate for your child's brain by pumping up his interest and helping her relate personal goals to the topic before the school unit begins. That is one way you'll immunize your child against the toxic boredom, frustration, and stress of toxic classes stressing memorization of isolated facts. Lots more strategies are found on my website:


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