Hello all and thank you joining us in this new endeavor.   We hope to bring you up to date research, easy to understand analysis, practical solutions and a venue to share your personal experience.

brain

Who we are?

A group of Harvard graduate students dedicated to promoting a science-based approach to education and development

What do we want?

Every person to achieve their full potential

Who is our primary audience?

The primary stakeholders in understanding the marvelous complexity of learning – educators and parents.

What is MBHE and who is in charge?

MBHE is a collaborative discipline, bringing together neuro and cognitive scientists and educators in order to base our educational practice in solid research and a true understanding of how learning occurs.

Dr. Stephanie Peabody, Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, is the Executive Director of its International Mind, Brain, Health, and Education Initiative (IMBHEI), associated with the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation.

The International MBHE Initiative will generate a comprehensive integration of neuroscience, developmental sciences, health, education and related disciplinary research. Its goal is to positively impact optimal achievement in academics and in life for all individuals. IMBHEI will develop best practices for health care clinicians, educators, public health professionals, policy makers, family/caregivers and other stakeholders, based in scientific research. This will be the foundation for creating and building the SJBF data repository of knowledge related to the brain.

How did it all start?

In the late 1990s this movement began in three separate places:

  • Cambridge at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge,
  • Paris at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD),
  • Tokyo at the Initiative in Neuroscience and Education in Tokyo [also called Baby Science].

Kurt Fischer, Harvard University’s Bigelow Professor at Harvard and Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Program there, led the connection of these three centers (and others) to form an international movement. This effort was energized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (the first scientific academy in the world, founded in 1603 by Galileo and others), which invited Fischer and other MBE leaders to present current MBE research and findings at the conference (celebrating its 400th year) in Rome.

In 2004 they founded the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) and went on to found the new journal Mind, Brain, and Education (named as the Best New Journal by the American Association of Publishers). They seek ways of joining biology, cognitive science, and education in order to craft and renew schools for the twenty-first century.

What we are hoping for?

To advance our knowledge of the brain exponentially over the next 5 years.

Dr. Peabody put it best:

This Initiative will create a preventative, proactive, and evidence-based approach to education, primary health care delivery, human development, neurodevelopment and well-being for our children and young adults throughout the world.  It supports the translation of the research and practice of multiple related sciences to promote direct application at multiple levels and across disciplines. The reach includes undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level programs in education, health, and human sciences, P-16 educators, health care professionals, and parents/caregivers, as well as the learners themselves. Through the integration of multiple disciplines we are developing an ambitious and promising, solutions oriented program to bring together education and health care disciplines, integrating practical and scientific foci on academic and wellness outcomes.

Sounds good?  Welcome to the Future!

sickkidHigh profile cases make the news.  The beautiful actress Natasha Richardson dies suddenly after a fall on a ski slope.  A student athlete dies on the football field after a big tackle.  Awareness is raised briefly, and then, life goes on. However, the incidence of head injury is much more pervasive than a couple of newsworthy cases each year.

In fact, concussion or mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) affects about 1.2 million people a year 1, many of them children and adolescents.

These are reported cases.  It is suspected that MTBIs are underreported because of the “no pain, no gain” mentality of some sports programs, and the fact that some families are uninsured.  MTBIs can have a noticeable affect on a young person’s ability to learn and thus, it is crucial for educators and parents to be aware of symptoms as well as supportive strategies to aid the student while they recover.

Coaches, educators and parents also need to be aware of the symptoms and create a program culture that allows an athlete to take the time off necessary to recover fully.

The symptoms of concussion range in severity and presentation from person to person.   Generally though, someone who has suffered an MTBI will have some damage in the three major networks that make up the brain, the recognition network, the strategic network, and the affective network.  Some of the more typical symptoms would be a decrease in a student’s ability to pay attention and concentrate. They might suddenly seem more irritable and have a lower frustration tolerance than previously observed.  Short- term memory recall can also be impacted.   A student may suddenly have difficulty following long established routines.  They may process information more slowly and speak more deliberately.  Light and noise sensitivity may increase and they may become much more reactive to stimuli.  Emotionality may increase- crying at the drop of a hat.  They may also experience headaches, increased fatigue and find it hard to get through a school day. 2 With the passage of time though, concussions do mend, but proactive support can help the process along.

When a student has suffered a concussion, the child’s community should come together.  This would include teachers, coaches, parents, siblings and any other relevant members of the child’s world that would have the ability to offer support.  If necessary, to insure the child receives services and accommodations, a 504 plan could be implemented.   It is essential that members of the student’s community recognize that doing too much too soon will hinder the recovery process and could lead to more damage. The student also needs to be made aware of this especially when it involves the playing of contact sports.  Second- strike impacts, being hit again before the first concussion has healed, can lead to death.  The community should work hard to help reduce any anxiety the student may be feeling, but help them see the need to take the necessary time to recover.

Examples of accommodations in a classroom setting:

  • allow more time on tests since recall can be affected.
  • decrease the length of assignments
  • break the pieces of an assignment down into more manageable chunks.
  • If lapses in memory are presented, make sure that the student has many opportunities to review the information.  Post assignments on a school website, so that the student can refer to it easily, or
  • give them a hard copy at the beginning of the week.
  • give students both visual and auditory instructions and then
  • review assignments and instructions
  • place instructions at the front of the room
  • check in with the student frequently with visual and auditory cues to make sure they are paying attention.
  • allow frequent breaks
  • have another student help with note taking
  • try and provide them with study guides and time lines.
  • If you are in a school with lockers, it might help the student to allow them to leave their books in a designated classroom rather than have them try and remember what their combination is several times a day.

Again, each case is different, so all or some combination of these accommodations are suggested for the MTBI child.(Peabody, April 20, 2010)

Teachers and parents of adolescents may read the list of symptoms and say,  “Well, every teenager I know must have a concussion!”  There are similarities in what is going on in the brain.  In teens, the pre-frontal cortex is growing and the wiring is not always complete.  In MTBI, the pre-frontal cortex is highly susceptible to being bruised since it is right at the front of the brain.  Adapting a classroom to incorporate the above accommodations for all students, especially at the early adolescent level, might just be good teaching practice in general.

Obviously, if a student’ s behavior dramatically changes, there are several other possibilities that are not concussion.  It would be important to rule these out with the expert help of medical and mental health professionals.  However, concussion is more prevalent than previously thought and all parties that work and live with kids should be aware of what it looks like and how to help. And of course, wherever possible, kids should wear helmets!

1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.  Report to Congress on mild traumatic brain injury in the United States: steps to prevent a serious public health problem. Atlanta(GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;2003.

2Peabody, Dr. Stephanie. (2010 April 20). MBHE and Implications to Policy: Concussion. Proceedings from Harvard Distance Learning Psychology 1609.

Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is concussion?

A concussion or closed head injury may be caused by a sudden fall, jolt or blow to the head. According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, concussions happen to one million children each year. More than 30,000 of these children incur long-term disabilities as a result of this brain injury.

If you suspect concussion watch for these symptoms:

  • Confusion or if the child is easily distracted and cannot do normal activities
  • Stares blankly
  • Delayed answering of questions
  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling or clumsiness, uncoordinated or cannot walk a straight line
  • Cries very easily or becomes angry easily or exhibits extreme emotions
  • Problem with memory, repeats self, repeatedly asks questions, unable to recall words or objects
  • Loss of consciousness

Also might be present :

  • Confusion
  • Loss of memory about accident
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Slowed thinking
  • Tiredness
  • Change in sleep
  • Unbalanced
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in ears
  • Increased sensitivity to light or sounds
  • Mood changes — sad, irritable, non-motivated
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in ears

Go to ER if a child has these symptoms:

  • A headache that will not go away and is severe
  • Not waking up; very sleepy
  • Seizure
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Personality change
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weakness in arms or legs
  • Ringing in ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Resource – BrainLine.org offers facts, information, resources, and support for preventing, treating, and living with TBI.

hard working woman in a library isolated

As I tried to “sell” MBHE to one of my colleagues, our discussion revolved around our mutual frustration: “I am so sick of trendy education!

It usually doesn’t work, and the students end up just being guinea pigs.”

This is not a complaint from a teacher who simply doesn’t want to change, is technophobic, or is out of touch with her students. On the contrary, the teacher is one of the most popular in the school. Her love for her students and her discipline is contagious. Her classes are rigorous, and students perennially say that she prepares them thoroughly, not only for college, but also for life. In short, she is a great teacher.

So how can MBHE make what she is doing any better? Is MBHE just another trend?

The word, “trend” comes from the Old English word for turning, revolving, or roundness. It suggests that the movement is circular and repetitive. Herein lays the educator’s dilemma. Educational trends (whole language v. phonics, math texts that change every few years) create educational dizziness and a desire for teachers to jump (or fall) off of the merry-go-round. One of the reasons is that many trends,which have been purported as panaceas for all classroom ills, have not been grounded in any thorough scientific research.

On the other hand, MBHE, as suggested by Dr. Stephanie Peabody,

“will create a preventative, proactive, and evidence-based approach to education, primary health care delivery, human development, neurodevelopment and well-being for our children and young adults throughout the world.”

It is a collaborative discipline, joining science and education, and so is not a formula imposed on teachers. Rather, it is a lens through which teachers look at what they teach and how they are teaching. It is a way of better understanding the students in our classrooms, and how they learn.

Dr. Kurt Fischer is the Director of Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Mind, Brain, Health and Education Program. He presented the Presidential Address at the First Conference of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society entitled “Mind, Brain, and Education: Building a Scientific Groundwork for Learning and Teaching” (2009). In it he states that there must be a strong research component for education just as there is in other disciplines and areas.

“Consider the field of medicine, where biologists and medical practitioners (physicians, nurses, etc.) work together in teaching hospitals and other locations of practice to connect research to issues of health and illness” (2009, p.3).

His point is that in this discipline, practice and research are combined and inform each other. MBHE seeks to do the same.

His suggestion is for research schools to be built “that support sustainable collaboration between researchers and teachers in order to create a strong foundation in research for teaching and learning” (2009, p.12). Though educators have an aversion to what may be seen as ‘laboratory schools,” the point is very well taken. In this scenario, researchers can actually observe what really works within a classroom with real teachers and students. Thus, what can happen is education that is informed both by practice and by science. Necessary intervention could happen within a collaborative context, and students would be better served by the immediacy of the support offered.

The role of the teacher and her relationship with her students is the heart of education, and being a teacher is a most rewarding profession. I have often told my own students that they have taught me far more than I have ever taught them.

MBHE does not offer a “new” direction or trend to impose on my pedagogy.  Rather, it offers a lens through which I can see my students in a new way, and use what I know about how they learn and develop to inform my teaching; it allows me to re-conceptualize myself as supportive of my student’s optimal learning path.

Reference:

Fischer, Kurt W. PhD. (2009). Mind, Brain, and Education: Building a Scientific Groundwork for Learning and Teaching. Presidential Address: First Conference of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society.

1247591_bunny_series_3__2Abracadabra! A bunny is pulled from the recesses of a large hat, and the people go crazy. Once again the magician uses expectation and the element of surprise to delight his audience. The magician depends upon the suspension of belief, the anticipation of the unexpected, to fill the halls where he performs George Johnson wrote a New York Times article, “Sleights of Mind” (August 21, 2007), as a response to a conference run by the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, a group who studies the “limits of cognition and attention.”

The conference was attended by many modern magicians who all use this knowledge to perform and amaze. They create “magic,” and people pay to see what they do not expect. Johnson relates that  Teller defined magic as “the theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that—in our hearts—ought to.

So what do these limits of cognition and attention have to do with education? Neither teachers—nor parents—are magicians. Beyond the obvious difference in salary, they do not have a voluntary audience. Instead, they deal with a captive one—fidgety elementary children, glassy-eyed middle schoolers, and sleepy teenagers. They know first-hand that cognition is limited and attention in many is easily diverted. So how do we as teachers help students to bridge the cognition gap?

How we learn seems a good place to begin to answer some of the questions raised by Johnson’s almost whimsical treatment of cognition. Based on the National Research Council’s paper, “How Children Learn” (2007) a person’s earliest capacities, including biological causality (distinguishing animate from inanimate objects), early number concepts (distinguishing objects in terms of number sets), and early language development (including a preference for words over simple sounds), develop during infancy. Further, research seems to support self-learning since we are problem solvers by nature. A baby wants to figure out how the nesting cups fit into each other. However, what is also essential in order for those capacities to further develop, is the nurturing caregiver who sits with the baby and helps to stretch her cognition beyond the nesting, to see how the cups would stack up on one another.

Additionally, the language development section of the paper was particularly revealing. The biological underpinnings [of language development] enable children to become fluent in language by about age three, but if they are not in a language-using environment, they will not develop this capacity” (2007, p. 83). From this conclusion, one could begin to make assumptions about the probability of school success for many students within classrooms. If a student comes from a home where language has not been used, where there has been no directed learning, she is likely to be behind her peers who have had that advantage. Further, one cannot build on previous knowledge if the knowledge does not exist. How can a child understand her own metacogition (how she learns) if she has not had enough opportunities to develop innate capacities?

One answer is in the concept of connections as discussed in the NRC paper. A primary role of caregivers (parents, daycare workers, teachers) is to “help children connect new situations to more familiar ones…Effective teachers help people of all ages make connections among different aspects of their knowledge” (2007, p. 92).

This is known as scaffolding, and the process, second nature to successful teachers, is imperative in a classroom situation. In order to scaffold effectively, an understanding of the learning profiles of students in a given classroom might be helpful. Further, as was pointed out in the NRC piece, a child’s cultural milieu is also important to understand.

In the private college preparatory school where I teach, most of the students in my classroom come from homes where education is considered vitally important, and academic success is the goal. However, though a great number of students come from privileged homes (my definition of privilege being nurturing homes rather than simply financially affluent, though there are many of them), the cultural and social milieu is widely diverse. We have students whose parents are recent Brazilian immigrants who speak Portuguese at home. We have inner-city African American students. We have international student from Korea and China. We have a Haitian student who recently immigrated after losing many family members in the recent earthquake. Though the task is daunting, a teacher needs to understand something of each of the cultures in order to help connect to the students in her classroom.

A magician depends on his ability to fool his audience into thinking that what they are viewing is reality, when, in fact, it is only an illusion. In the 2006 movie entitled “The Illusionist,” one of the characters says of the main character, a master illusionist named Eisenheim: “He tries to trick you … I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?” This reference is to a famous, and ironic,  slogan the RJ Reynolds tobacco company used in the 1930’s that said “It’s fun to be fooled … it’s more fun to know.” Teachers and parents are in the business not of creating illusions, but rather of helping our students, our children, know and understand the world in which they live.

magic-hatUnlike magicians, we build connections between what a student perceives and what lies just beyond that perception. Though being “fooled” is fun for an evening, knowledge and connections are the bridges to a successful reality.

References:

Johnson, George. (August 21, 2007). Sleights of Mind. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/21/science/21magic.html?_r=1scp=1sq=Sleights+of+Mindst=nyt.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007). The Timing and Quality of Early Learning Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture: Working Paper #5. http://www.developingchild.net


Working memory, sometimes called short- term memory, is a key component in the learning process.   Like a computer desktop, it allows people to hold chunks of information handy for use when processing a task.

studentFor instance, when reading a paragraph, it is essential to remember the sentence at the beginning of the piece in order to make sense of it all when you  reach the end.  The ability to do this well is absolutely essential in a classroom setting for skills from reading, to math, to following multi-step instructions.  However, according to an article by Tracy Alloway1, younger students in any given classroom may have a five year differential in the development of their working memories.  This requires some skillful, supportive strategies on the part of the classroom teacher.

According to data collected by Alloway and others, there is a great deal of variance in students’ working memory capacity.  These differences are not deficiencies but rather a difference in the maturation of working memory circuitry.

Working memory seems to show a linear progression up to the age of 12 and then levels off at around 15.  The differences in kids, and where they are on the spectrum is significant.

Some kids’ working memory develops more quickly than others and it is here that you can see a five year difference in one classroom.  Kids at the immature end of working memory would have a difficult time with reading and reading comprehension.  They would struggle with mental arithmetic.

Art projects or computer instruction involving multi-step directions given all at once would be overwhelming.  All of this would also play into the emotional make-up of the child, as well, as they struggle to keep up with classmates whose working memories came on line earlier.  The key here is to remember that those slow to mature are not facing a deficit situation, though testing most likely should be done to make sure that the student is a late bloomer rather than a child who has cognitive deficits.


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Alloway says: 10% of all students have working memory problems.

Alloway suggests several strategies to support all students within a classroom in terms of working memory.  Demands on working memory can be decreased.  Use multi-step instruction, break it down for the students.  Remind students about what is next.  With kids that are struggling, adapt reading and math skills to the students’ working memory ability.  Help students find books that fit linguistic complexity appropriate for them, which is easier these days with leveled reading books.  Also provide students with a quiet place to accomplish their tasks whenever possible.  Distractions derail working memory completely.  This would also be good information to pass along to parents, so that they would be encouraged to provide the students with quiet work space at home.

Alloway is careful to note that there is a difference between a deficit situation regarding working memory.  Deficits in working memory are a much more difficult issue to overcome.  However, for many children it is simply a matter of allowing their brains to develop.  With this knowledge, classrooms should (and often do) account for normal variances and employ simple strategies to support all the children, who at these earlier ages are generally enthusiastic learners eager to please

About the scientist behind the research:

Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at the University of Stirling, UK. She was recently awarded the prestigious Joseph Lister Award by the British Science Association for her contribution to science and has developed the world’s first standardized working-memory tests for educators published by Pearson. To date, it has been translated into 15 languages and used to screen for working memory problems in students with dyslexia, motor dyspraxia (Developmental Coordination Disorder), ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorder. She provides consultancy to the World Bank and her research has received widespread international coverage in hundreds of media outlets, including Scientific American, the BBC, and Reuters.

1Alloway, Tracy Packiam. (2006). How does Working memory work in the classroom. Educational Research and Reviews, 1(4), 134-139.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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