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Tammy-Anne Caldwell. Photo: supplied

A holistic approach to educational neuroscience: opinion

The brain is involved in all learning that we do, so if we’re in the business of learning doesn’t it make sense that we know how the brain learns best?

The current generation of young Australians will spend 11,000 hours learning at school in their lifetime, plus an average of six hours a week doing homework.

Yet most students, and their teachers and parents –  the three key-players in the education system – have no idea how the brain learns best.

This is irresponsible at best and damaging at worst.

But, there is a simple solution: a holistic approach to educational neuroscience.

Discovering educational neuroscience completely changed the schooling experiences of hundreds of students who I have taught, from pre-primary to Year 12, and many of their parents.

Educational neuroscience revolutionised not only my classroom experiences as a teacher but entirely altered the direction of my career in the education industry.

After seven years of self-directed professional learning, a couple of neuroscience qualifications and thousands of hours of classroom teaching experience, I know educational neuroscience is why, after eight years, I still love stepping into a classroom.

Far from being a fad, linking brain-science with education is something I’ve figured out how to do – and benefited from – for the last seven years.

When I started making the link, at 24, I continually taught my Year 3-6 multi-grade class new pieces of information to add to the puzzle of how we could help our brains learn best – as I learnt it myself.

I was so excited to see the benefits we all experienced from using brain-science in the classroom.

Students in Year 3 would excitedly tell the principal, “We were running out of neurotransmitters, so we just did some exercise, and my brain released 56 different neurotransmitters to help the electricity cross the synapse between my neurons!”

I remember one little Year 4 student got excessively angry at his friends when they cheated at a footy game.

When I asked him what happens when we make ourselves feel angry by choosing unhelpful thoughts, this small Year 4 student hung his head and said: “It sends my Amygdala into super-drive and stops information you’re trying to teach me from making it to my prefrontal cortex, so I’m not going to be able to learn or remember it.”

His classmates then reminded him of ways he can ‘shut down’ his ‘angry amygdala’, such as deep breathing, dancing to music, or doing the ‘power stance’.

Instead of giving up when they made mistakes, challenges were celebrated as ways to make their neurons ‘pop out’ more branches and make new electrical connections.

Instead of getting annoyed at having to repeat their times-tables and spelling words, they loved knowing the electrical pathway through their neurons was getting stronger and quicker every time we made use of our ‘repetition really works’ rule.

Teaching students how their thoughts physically, literally affect their brain is like meta-cognition on steroids.

When I learnt that there were scientifically proven methods to get our brains to release dopamine, the best ‘messenger chemical’ for learning, I was able to include dopamine-creating experiences in every single lesson.

I came to class dressed up in costume for some lessons; in others I’d have a new accent or a weird and wonderful image on the board. I gave students cleverly designed ‘choices’ every day; I made their lessons seem like games and I would bring in ‘strange objects’.

Everything I did was purposeful – and I knew exactly when and why it would help get them engaged and remember the information – and so did they, which made it even more effective.

And goodness, it was a whole lot of fun at the same time! Instead of a mundane daily timetable on the board, students would race in every morning to see what ‘Curiosity Causers’ they had to look forward to that day.

Was it ‘cows’ stomachs’ first, instead of maths? ‘Pop, fizz, bang’ instead of science after lunch?

Or their favourite even three years afterwards, ‘Grandma’s apple monster, Vinnie’ instead of comprehension?

Like one year 6 student said: “It is good to write crazy things on the board because it causes us to be curious and when we are curious we get dopamine, and it makes us learn more and also feel good, not bored.”

This is more insightful than it seems.

In 2017, the Grattan Institute reported that nearly half of school-aged students in Australia are disengaged from the learning process, bored and uninterested in school.

This, in a first world country offering boundless, incredible learning opportunities.

This, in a 21st century world where students have all the technology and resources they could possibly want at their fingertips.

This, in a world where 264 million children dream of being able to attend school but are sadly denied this right.

And as a teacher, this is unacceptable – and avoidable.

Sandra van Aalderen, senior researcher at Saxion University of Applied Sciences, said in her 2015 TED Talk: “We expect teachers to teach for the 21st century, but at the same time we equip them with knowledge about learning that is more than 100 years old.”

We can purposely choose activities, actions and words to enhance engagement when we know what causes the brains of our students to be engaged – whether they want to be or not!

I taught Year 7 HASS for five weeks full-time as a relief teacher at a public high school in Perth, with a population of just under 2000 students.

It was not uncommon for students to swear aloud in class, play computer games in lessons, or just stand up and walk out, or skip class altogether.

After just five weeks, on my last day, these same students surprised me by filling the classroom with balloons and gifts and covering the entire whiteboard in messages of: ‘We will miss you – please stay’ and ‘You’re the best teacher we’ve ever had'.

Little did they know, I had employed my entire repertoire of educational neuroscience techniques to teach them a topic most school students universally dislike: politics.

Could using educational neuroscience for just five weeks really make that much difference for a relief teacher?

In my opinion, it’s the only thing that saved me from terminating my five-week contract (which is something I considered doing at the end of the first week).

Again, the significance of this approach is not to be underestimated; almost half of new Australian teachers quit within five years, and teaching veterans are exiting the profession, largely due to stress.

At the end of the five weeks I gave more than 120 of those Year 7 students I had taught an online survey to complete.

The results?

"You made HASS fun and non-boring, which I thought wasn't possible. You are amazing."

“She teaches us in a way that makes you actually learn instead of just memorising stuff for a test then forgetting it straight after just to repeat the cycle."

"She teaches differently (refreshingly), has new ideas.”

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development’s (OECD) Centre for Education, Research & Innovation (CERI) asks, “Is the current classroom model of learning ‘brain un-friendly’?”

Schools ban students from listening to music. Why? Music shuts down the ‘angry amygdala’ and releases dopamine.

In my class, choosing songs for the classroom play-list was a reward for good behaviour.

One hundred per cent of my year 7 students found that music playing in the classroom was helpful for their learning.

"I like that she uses different ways to try to make us understand information, and I like that she makes it much more fun than other teachers.”

"She teaches in a very exciting way and not a boring way.“

We want a solution to the nearly 50 per cent of Australian students being bored at school, right? This is it.

After their major school-wide assessment, students told me that they weren’t sure they’d be able to do well in the test because they felt they had spent four weeks ‘just having fun’ – but were pleasantly surprised when they realised they knew the answers to almost all the questions, easily.

A teacher of 38 years, Marie Arntzen, says training in educational neuroscience “demonstrated the reasons why applying different teaching strategies are more effective than others".

Using neuroscience to teach senior students how to ‘stress less’ is also proving to be beneficial: “The impact on students was obvious throughout the presentation and I have received very positive reports from our students that the session helped them immensely in the lead up to our mid-year examinations,” says ​Paul Maher, ​OneSchool Global WA & SA Regional principal​​​.

And straight from a Year 10 student: “[The] presentation was of great assistance to me and increased my study productivity majorly ... it really helped to relieve stress for me.”

A holistic approach to education is necessary to help student brains meet their potential and facilitate the learning process, as an OECD/CERI report recommends.

A student’s social environment and interactions, sleep, diet and movement are “easily overlooked in their impact on education”, but they shouldn’t be because these “everyday matters” have a massive impact on the brain.

Therefore it is vital parents are on the same page as teachers and students.

As one mother commented, “all parents in our schools need to understand this”.

Promising studies in Africa, Asia and Latin America are showing that when disadvantaged parents learn the choices to make at home to enable their children to enhance their mental achievement they have the power to potentially break the cycle of poverty in whole countries.

If students don’t get enough sleep, for example, their amygdala switches on. This in turn ‘locks down’ their prefrontal cortex, making it hard for them to learn new things at school the next day. Plus, what they were taught at school the previous day doesn’t get stored in their hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with long-term memory.

Tired children are therefore at a severe disadvantage, compared to their well-slept peers, before they even slump through the school gates.

Not to mention the toxic waste products that their neurons expel isn’t cleaned up properly, and when left floating around in their brain, may increase their risk of Alzheimer’s.

A review by the South Australian government calls for increased parental engagement and says that parents’ expectations and efforts in the home have a “resounding” impact on “children’s educational attainment”.

There has been a policy agenda shift, “with parents and educators being asked to work more closely together”.

As for those six hours of homework each week, parents need to know about the mirror-neuron effect, how and why to change thoughts and emotions, the growth-mindset, and the power of compassion and gratitude.

There’s even a strategy that parents (and teachers) can use to get kids addicted to learning, using what I call game theory – based on the reasons computer games are addictive to our brains.

One home school mother, Britt Dunn, believes, “This is ground breaking and the future. I feel like I have a ‘tool belt’ for education.”

Rachel Pontin​​, a parent of a son with ADHD, says, “We were using the concepts … as soon as we got home that night. My son was able to talk about what state his brain was in, even as he was upset. It gave me more understanding about why various parenting strategies work, and how I can make them more effective."

As a CERI paper entitled ‘Understanding the Brain – The Birth of a Learning Science’ explains, we need to realise the close interdependence of physical and intellectual wellbeing, of cognition and emotion.

It is not enough to pay attention solely to academic learning, or only to physical health, nutrition, sleep, emotions or our thoughts, they all must be considered.

As principal of Coorow Primary School Jancy White says, “It was particularly valuable having our students, our parents and our teachers all hearing the same information, but presented with a special little twist for each group so that it was meaningful for them and valuable for them… It means now we’ve got the language to speak to each other.”

Using a holistic approach to educational neuroscience – we can all help the next generation meet their incredible true potential.

Tammy-Anne Caldwell helps run motivational, interactive, multi-sensory workshops for students in Year 1-12, teachers and parents. For more information go to https://abovebeyondeducation.com.

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  1. I would be interested in how this mode of teaching and learning compares against world’s best practice, and what sort of results students can achieve in the world’s stage at the end of ten or twelve years of education. ‘Learned stuff’ can be forgotten too, but mastery of material can easily be picked up again with minimum revision even after seventeen years of lapse.

    • Tammy-Anne Caldwell

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your comment.
      This (A Holistic Approach to Educational Neuroscience) is world’s best practice in education.
      It is recommended, and studied, by leading educators, neuroscientists and institutions around the world.
      You can read a very brief summary of this evidence – and these recommendations – on my website, at the link provided at the bottom of my article. Just click on ‘Research’.
      You may also like this article from the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation: https://www.oecd.org/site/educeri21st/40554190.pdf
      And this, from the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/learning
      Plus, it is well-known that schools are now focusing more on well-being and realising its impact on learning and outcomes. By using a holistic approach to educational neuroscience, it becomes very clear why this focus is so beneficial – and how to make practical changes in the classroom and at home, to boost well-being and consequently academic achievement also.
      Taking this approach to education will become the norm over the next few years; it’s a very exciting field to part of, at the very forefront of the future in education!
      I also agree entirely that we should aim for mastery in education; not simply moving students through the curriculum outcomes, so to speak.
      Please don’t hesitate to ask any other questions.
      May I ask your position and role in education?
      (There are many more studies on the increase to GPAs etc which I could provide you with links to.)
      Warm regards, Tammy-Anne Caldwell

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