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Neuroscience and Education

International conference explores the wonders of the mind and how to keep your child's brain 'fit' to learn

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  • Newspaper section: Learningpost
  • Writer: Dr B James Johnson and Purich Trivitayakhun
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In the past, it was believed that children were born with preset neurons that were inherited from their parents. For instance, if the parents were good at mathematics, it was believed that the children, too, would automatically be good mathematics learners. However, we know today that that notion might not be completely accurate. 

We've learned that: "It is the surroundings that the children are born into and the education environment that determine how well they learn and how successful they become. It is the talent of teachers that a child comes into contact with that designs or remoulds the brain," said Martha S. Burns, PhD, an American author, speech and language pathologist and neurologist.

Recently, Dr Burns, a 42-year veteran of language and speech pathology, and Cheryl Chia, physiotherapist and founder and director of BrainFit Studio, explored the power and myths of the learning brain at the "International Neuroscience & Education Conference (Inec)", which was organised by Advanced Ed Co recently in Bangkok under the theme "The Brain Science of Language, Reading, and Learning". The event drew over 200 educators and medical practitioners.

Optimising connections

There are around 100 billion neurons in the human brain, according to Art-Ong Jumsai Na Ayutthaya, PhD, director of the Institute of Sathya Sai Education and a former Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) physicist, who gave the opening speech at the event.

He explained that a person becomes more intelligent by teaching his or her brain's neurons to create more connections.

Dr Art-Ong suggests that, in education, in order to make brain cells connect, teachers need to deploy integrated methods of teaching. For example, as the teachers are teaching an energy-saving topic, they might tie the topic to other subjects, such as English, history and geography, as well as human values.

Martha S. Burns, PhD, neurologist

Brain architecture 101

Dr Burns exposed the audience to the four lobes of the brain: the frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem solving, planning and understanding other people; the temporal lobe, which is used for hearing and language recognition; the occipital lobe, which governs the sense of sight; and finally, the parietal lobe, which controls the sense of touch.

Within the four lobes, Dr Burns suggests, there are three specific areas that assist the learning processes.

- First, the superior temporal gyrus, located in the temporal lobe, manages children's reading skills.

- Second, the angular gyrus, located where the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes join, is essential for symbolic recognition. It links symbols with mathematical concepts and sounds with the letters of the alphabet, for example.

- The third area is the inferior frontal lobe, which is responsible for the production of speech and fluency in speech and reading. It also controls short-term audio information. If this area is weak, students are not able to temporarily retain information from teachers long enough to use it effectively, e.g., to write it down in their class notes.

People utilise those three regions for many subjects, including science, social studies and mathematics. An fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) study shows that the superior temporal gyrus and inferior frontal region are both active when people think of items in a group, such as the names of football clubs that make up the Premier League or perform mental calculations.

Similarly, says Dr Burns, when dual-language students study, for example, Turkish and English, an fMRI image shows that there are three distinct highlights on the image of the brain: one reflects an area used to learn English, another reflects an area used to learn Turkish, and then there is an area where the two language-learning centres overlap. That overlapping area represents the commonalities of both languages.

ADHD

A major concern to many parents is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which Dr Burns discussed. Children who have ADHD tend to have a short attention span. The symptom can result from insufficient development of the frontal lobe.

According to Dr Burns, a study indicates that children who are extensively exposed to television before they begin school have a tendency to develop ADHD, because television is a passive medium and does not promote interactivity. The cure is to give children action activities that require them to solve problems, she added.

"Having an environment where children have to think, construct and devise creative solutions to problems actually encourages the brain to develop and mature faster. This allows the child to do better in school," she said.

Dr Burns also remarked that, similar to television, mindlessly surfing the internet may also reduce a child's attention span.

"The brains of students who [habitually] study books are more focused than those of children who [are habitual] internet surfers," she said, adding that "we don't want children to be aimlessly on the internet all day, constantly being distracted by haphazardly visiting countless websites".

Train your brain to learn

Cheryl Chia, physiotherapist

Ms Chia, the physiotherapist, is keen on making the brain fit to learn. She views the human brain similar to how a sports coach views an athlete's muscle mass. Ms Chia opines that to make the brain fit, it should be first diagnostically tested to see what it is "naturally" capable of and to discover its weaknesses and strengths. Then, the weaknesses should be strengthened and the strengths should be promoted.

Her BrainFit Studio tests youngster's speed, coordination, endurance, flexibility and muscle strength diagnostically. She then uses physiotherapy and computer-assisted brain fitness regimens to get the brain in optimal condition, which promotes better learning.

She remarks that often a poor learner is really keen and naturally smart, but that perhaps the sensory-motor system (SMS) of the child's brain is not operating efficiently.

Teachers and parents often conclude that because a child is not learning on par with his or her peers, is inattentive or is fidgety, the child is a poor learner or lacks a sufficiently high IQ. They could be very wrong.

Behind-the-scenes brain

To prove her point, Ms Chia presents what looks like a picture of a normal young student sitting erectly at a desk and casually taking class notes. But upon closer analysis Ms Chia reveals that to be perceived as "normal", many aspects of a child's sensory-motor system must be in perfect sync.

For example, to maintain an erect, upright and proper posture as she writes, the child's brain must direct the neck muscles to hold the child's head steady; control her eye movement across the page and focus her eyesight, so that she can see and make sense of the words she's writing; instruct the writing hand to create neat and proper letters on the paper, while taking into account the consistent size, shape, spacing, spelling-order of the letters, and grammar and punctuation rules. The fingers, wrist and forearm work in unison to guide the pencil while the brain is processing and retaining what the teacher is saying.

The brain must ignore potential distractions as well, such as the room temperature, how her clothes feel on her skin, the discomfort of the chair, and the whirl of competing background noise.

If a single one of these elements, which jointly may be consuming as much as 50 percent of the child's brainpower, becomes irritating the student may cease to behave as a "normal" student and become irritable, inattentive, disrupt the class by moving about the room or fail to record the lecture notes accurately.

Getting control over the brain's total fitness is, therefore, clearly very important for learning.

Likewise, adds Ms Chia, the fitness of a child's visual brain system, such as eye focus and stamina and eye tracking and directionality, may promote or detract from his or her academic success.

For example, Ms Chia once tested a child by giving him a chart with nine words already neatly printed on it and asked the child to reproduce the letters of each word underneath it.

Afterwards, she found that the spaces between words and letters were grossly uneven and distorted. Some letters were even "reversed" (using "b" in place of "d", for example). However, through proper training, the child's visual perception and visual spatiality drastically improved.

Jumping for success

Any movement, says Ms Chia, involves rhythm. Accordingly, one test she uses to determine the fitness of a child's brain to learn is a jumping exercise. She has a child jump on a trampoline.

This tests the brain's vertical and directional fitness, balance and rhythmic control. While the child continues jumping, Ms Chia flashes left- or right-arrow cards, which visually instruct the child to jump to the left or right. This tests the brain's horizontal and directional fluidity, eye-to-brain acuity and mental extrapolation.

She then designs a course to correct any problems she finds by "rewiring [the brain] through focused practice", all of which prepares and helps the child to become a better learner.

When all the brain-body systems are working efficiently, Ms Chia claims, there will be an improvement in motor coordination and balance, a decrease in hyperactivity, an increase in the mental capacity to learn, and a rise in visual and attention skills, all of which should lead to improved academic performance.

Future career growth

At about the age of 10, the development of a child's angular gyrus peaks, perhaps because already they have been taught to use mathematics symbols and a second language. But the angular gyrus experiences a second growth spurt at about age 15, as that is when students start to plan for their future careers, and the angular gyrus is involved with building symbolic skills for their selected professions, Dr Burns explained.

Unfortunately, in many countries students drop out of school around 15 or 16 and many never set concrete career paths. Ultimately, they may become overwhelmed by peer pressure and get involved with gangs or criminal activities.

Critical time: Adolescence

The angular gyrus and the prefrontal lobe of the brain experience substantial development during adolescence, which includes ages 13 to 20. "It is the period when a person is moving from learning skills to practising skills and when you [parents and teachers] begin to set goals for [youngsters] to meet," Dr Burns said.

Adolescence is the stage of physical, psychological and social transition between childhood and adulthood. It is also the time when people increase their self-consciousness, develop self-importance and begin to navigate the complexities of peer relationships and improve their understanding of others.

During this period, youngsters become more social and are greatly influenced by their peers. Teens must learn, however, not to follow trends that don't further their own positive goals, such as completing their education and becoming productive citizens.

Neurotransmitters promote learning

There are three neurotransmitters that all teachers and parents should be familiar with and that directly affect the learning process. Dr Burns introduced them as: acetylcholine, dopamine and norepinephrine.

- Acetylcholine keeps the brain alert and keeps students attentive and focused in class. Dr Burns suggests that teachers can help their students' brains to release this neurotransmitter by actively engaging the students.

Not surprisingly, it has been discovered that watching television hampers the release of acetylcholine because the brain centres of habitual television viewers mostly remain passive while absorbing the programmes. "If the levels of acetyl-choline are low because learners are watching too much TV, then the child's brain is not in peak condition" because "the 'Pay-attention!' neurotransmitter," is diminished, Dr Burns elaborated. "As a teacher, to keep your students active, engage them in activities that demand their attention, rather than just saying, 'Pay attention!' Or slowly walk about the classroom and approach an inattentive student's desk, pause, and slowly walk away." It works, she advised.

- Dopamine. This is an addictive neurotransmitter that removes images and concepts that are temporarily stored in your short-term memory into your long-term memory, thereby converting new knowledge into long-term or permanent knowledge. Teachers can have their students release dopamine by rewarding them and using such phrases as "great job!". Dr Burns cautions, however, that dopamine also helps students remember when they are harshly criticised in class, causing them to equally remember that they have been "bad" students." So punishing students does "more harm than good, probably", she advises.

- Norepinephrine. Teachers can increase students' levels of norepinephrine by assigning them novel and challenging exercises, games and activities, and by presenting old concepts in new ways. "The brain loves new things," she said.

For example, "for mathematics, teachers might ask students to determine how much paint is needed to paint their bedroom. Take the lesson [physically and academically] outside the classroom into a novel situation. It's more interesting, more fun and increases students' attention and retention," Dr Burns said.


Advance Ed Co offers brain development techniques in association with the Fast Forword programme and BrainFit Studio. Call the company on 02-656-9938-9 or visit http://www.adbkk.com.

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