Judy Willis

Consultant

Santa Barbara, CA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 8 Years ago
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Brain Toxic Classrooms

Judy Willis

Psychology Today

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog

Radical Teaching

Classroom strategies from a neurologist

by Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

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: http://www.edutopia.org/webinar-discussion-april-2009#comment-59931

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.

www.RADTeach.com

 

 

 

9 Comments

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Judy_Willis

02 Mar 10, 05:37 PM

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Kathy,


Thanks for continuing the dialogue. I fully agree with you and other responders that standards are important (although they need to realistic and not the current ones that according to some reports would take from 18-24 months to teach effectively starting with elementary school standards). In any case, I encourage you and other readers who have had success with strategies that seem powerful and perhaps neuro-Logical, to go to the link on my website, http://radteach.com/page43/page43.html where there is a template you can use to describe your strategy or lesson and I'll add my suggestions as to why or things in the strategy or lesson are consistent with the research as I interpret it.


Keep Igiting!


 Judy


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Kathy_Lindstrom

28 Feb 10, 05:37 PM


“Unfortunately most teachers do not receive instruction during teacher education about the neuroscience and cognitive science research related to teaching, nor the background to help them analyze the validity of research claims or use the implications of research to develop strategies and lessons...”


 


So true! Or worse, they attend a plethora of in-services and professional development but they utilize what they glean from the sessions as band-aides, or piece meal lessons, or even duct tape over traditional practices rather than fully revising their whole vision or philosophy of teaching and learning to truly integrate the information.  Maybe they are too afraid of stepping outside the box, maybe they don’t feel they can because of restrictions placed on them from principals and districts, maybe they feel too overwhelmed and think this is just another task that must be completed...I don’t know why, but because I’ve seen so many teachers utilize research, other people’s lesson plans, professional development, etc. as one step devices rather than philosophical drivers, I hesitate on sharing my lessons. Ultimately I know that the one lesson or unit, in and of itself, is successful only because the lesson complements and reinforces the full philosophical structure of teaching and learning happening in my classroom. I’ve watched other teachers employ lessons and ideas I’ve suggested but to no avail, because they just don’t “get” the full picture. Therefore, I don’t really have the confidence in my ability to comprehensively convey what it is about my lessons that make them so successful.  


 


But still, teachers sharing what has worked for them with other teachers can be helpful, so I will work on improving my skill at sharing my lessons with others.  Thank you for the suggestion.


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Judy_Willis

27 Feb 10, 09:00 PM


Kathy,


I am grateful for your comments and in no way feel they were self promoting. What you did, so well, is show what teachers can do when they have the background knowledge, experience, and confidence to use the standards for their intended uses such as promoting the necessary foundational knowledge and thinking skills for all students that will appropriately prepare them for their subsequent learning, and construct consistency such that students are successful even when they transfer to other districts. You also point out the great value of assessment to inform teachers of their own success and of areas where they can seek alternative ways of communicating needed information when their students do not seem to have learned what teachers think they taught. That is why ongoing feedback and assessment are so important so teachers and students know long before the test when there is need for reteaching or correction of misunderstandings.


As to your skill at using creating, inspiring instruction that engages students and goes beyond their test success to develop their thinking skills and empowerment as learners who reconnect with school because you showed them that learning can be a joy and that they can achieve success. 


Unfortunately most teachers do not receive instruction during teacher education about the neuroscience and cognitive science research related to teaching, nor the background to help them analyze the validity of research claims or use the implications of research to develop strategies and lessons inspired by their understanding of the how things you use such as music, social and emotional bonds, and how to help students become engaged and empowered to raise their personal achievement and reconnect with the joy of learning and discovery inherent in all children from birth.


 


When I write my books or give presentations it is to help others benefit from the background knowledge you have acquired, so they too can evaluate neuroscience and cognitive science research and use their experience, knowledge of their students, and creativity to develop and extend strategies suggested by the implications of the research.


 


When teachers don’t have your background, it is difficult to trust that alterations one makes in lessons that are very specific in some curriculum that are designed to cover all the standards, without teacher guidance in how to extend the instruction or which aspects of a very directive lesson plan can be altered without fear that something critical will be missed.


 


You can lead others to your level of understanding the creativity of classroom instruction you employ to engage your students with the natural consequence that they remember what they learn in the low stress, student-centered classroom experiences you provide.


 


Perhaps you can share some of your lessons and the brain-research understanding that led you to create the learning experiences that so resonated with your students. The EDGE has a message board on which you can post your lesson plans and even suggestions for what modifications you suggest now that you’ve had experiences and feedback on the success of your innovations.


 


Without the inspiration and positive attitude you can share with our colleagues, I fear that there will be fewer creative individuals attracted to our profession because they fear they will not have the opportunity to use their creativity. You are proof that creativity is not only possible, but life changing as your students, “raise their own personal achievement on state tests”…. and “consistently leave my class telling me they have learned more from my class, more from me, and enjoyed just being in "room 1" then they ever have before--even with the focus on state test.”


 


That can be a reachable goal for all educators as they use the available tools to motivate their students and return to them their birthright of curiosity and the confidence to follow their dreams.


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Kathy_Lindstrom

27 Feb 10, 05:46 PM


Judy Willis wrote:  "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."


        I'm going out on a limb here and dispute a couple of points--none of which, of course, dispute anything on the brain and learning. What I dispute is that NCLB and standardized testing have created the horrors you've described. I, personally, appreciate and like the fact that teachers are now asked to be "centralized" or "standardized" because the tests provide a consistent focus from one classroom to the next, one school to the next. For me, personally, the standards and the tests to measure whether I've taught to the standards have provided me, thereby my students, a benchmark goal and a sense of achievement when we reach that goal.  Does this mean that I "teach to the test"? NO. It means I teach to the standard. Does it mean that my lessons are boring rote memorization?  NO again. In fact, my lessons are more creative, utilize more data and research of best practices, highly inclusive of all that I've learned on the brain and learning, than they ever were without the focus of standards and the tests to measure them. 


       I find everything I learn about the brain, how it works, and how students learn, absolutely fascinating.  The fact that state testing can cause so much stress on the student, thereby “...producing significant disturbances in the brain's learning circuits...”, just provides me more of a challenge to make my lessons, my classroom, and the environment of testing less stressful and more related to the joy of learning and efficacy in achievement. And, I have been fairly successful at doing so by employing what I have learned about the effects of music on the brain, the effects of the social and emotional bond between teacher and students, and how to engage my teenage students' brains.  My students consistently raise their own personal achievement on state tests. But more so, my students consistently leave my class telling me they have learned more from my class, more from me, and enjoyed just being in "room 1" then they ever have before--even with the focus on state test.


     Okay, I did mean to make this entry a promotion for me, nor am I promoting standardized testing and NCLB (because I do actually find many faults with both). I just wanted to point out that regardless of the tests, or maybe to SPITE the tests, teachers learn all they can about the brain, learning, teaching and employ all of it to engage students in the joy of learning and achieving. Laughing


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Judy_Willis

27 Jan 10, 08:42 PM


  Good point about the standards. The requirements in the standards, at least in elementary and middle school, are too extensive. There is insufficient time to teach the standards completely and with enough review so the information is mastered, linked to concepts so they can be applied outside of the way they were learned, and sustained by use and review in long-term memory. One analysis I don't have on my laptop now evaluated the time to teach adequately the 5th grade standards was about 18 months. Part of the success of programs such as in Singapore is that learning is done by inquiry, concept development, and spiraling through the grades so in math, for example, the same information does not need to be retaught the first few months of each year. We could succeed at meeting the standards if the requirements for which are learned were reduced in a given year so the foundational and procedural material, which must indeed be memorized, are learned sufficiently successfully to permit advancement to new material with a solid core of support. Having taught 2nd, 5th, and 7th grade, the students are most often unprepared due to failure to have mastered the previous year's standards so time must be spend building that foundation. After that, insufficient time remains to do the quality development of new material in the time left before the current year's standardized tests.



       Currently I work with educators in my presentations/workshops to help them develop their strategies for most effective memory of required information so there is time and INTEREST in using that knowledge for applications that are personally valued by students and not the same context in which the material was originally learned. This offers better development of the neuronal circuits for long-term, conceptual learning and successful retrieval. However, even using the most neuro-LOGICAL strategies, there is inadequate time in the school year, factoring in the time for learning the missing material from the previous year, to cover all the new material with that level of depth. Part of that type of learning indeed does require making it clear to students how what they're learning relates to the rest of life and why they should care. I write about this topic in the Ed Leadership article, The Neuroscience of Joyful Learning.


 


            As to medical school, they do quite a good job in requiring prerequisites such as organic chemistry, to have applicants who can memorize unrelated facts and sustain them in memory for the necessary time to take tests and review the material efficiently when it is required in board exams year 2 and 4. However, the information we "memorized" that does not relate to our fields of specialization after medical school is almost uniformly forgotten as pruning does its job and networks not used are gradually eliminated. Try asking your doctor about something out of his/her field, such as the innervation of all the arm muscles or the citric acid cycle.


        What we memorized was available just long enough to be available in skeletal form if we went into specialties that used that knowledge as foundations for further extension in our specialties. It was not a model system for teaching, but since we were proven good memorizers from our college courses, it was adequate for us. It is unfortunate that many qualified applicants, who might do beautifully learning material in context, especially in their specialties, are not assessed in such a way that their reasoning, deduction, prediction, logic, and critical analysis are evident. The rate at which medical information changes and accumulates is such that without adequate specialists, that information that cannot be mastered by all general practice physicians, might not become part of the care of patients who would benefit by the newest research.


      Physicians need the executive functions of reasoning, judgment, deduction, prediction, logic, tolerance, empathy and critical analysis to understand, evaluate for accuracy, and apply new information in their fields. Not all physicians do that well, since some executive functions were not essential for success on the required premed courses or in med school and not adequately developed in all physicians. It is our loss that such thinking skills are not the focus of many rushed units of study from the beginning and that medical school candidates with these abilities are screened out by organic chemistry. Since we have more candidates for places than medical school spots, why not require philosophy, history, or poetry as a prerequisite by which candidates are judged along with physics and organic chemistry. I believe physicians selected with both criteria would better serve us all.


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Robert_Siegel

26 Jan 10, 07:23 PM

I believe we need to be careful in referring to "Teaching to the Test" and not confusing it with "Teaching to the Standards". There are many non-toxic ways to Teach to the Standards, even with creative ownership on the part of the learner.


Robert Siegel

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Amy_Stankus

22 Jan 10, 08:38 PM

I don't really understand your argument. When you decry


("many rote facts and procedures that are required coverage")


are you saying there should be FEWER facts students are expected to know, or that having students know ("memorize" as you call it) ANY facts is deplorable to begin with? Or just that the METHODS teachers are using to get students to learn necessary facts are bad methods? (For example, teachers neglecting to make it clear to the students how what they're learning relates to the rest of life, why they should care, etc.)


Incidentally, since you went to medical school, how well did you think that worked as school? DId they do a good job teaching unifying concepts? Was the stuff you memorized intelligently selected to really be useful and important?

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Judy_Willis

21 Jan 10, 12:35 PM

Good point about concept questions on the math standardized tests. Yes, these questions are there and on the language arts tests, but sadly those are the ones that our students most frequently miss.

 


Those who analyze these results suggest that since there are so many rote facts and procedures that are required coverage for the tests, teachers feel very limited in the time they can spend expanding the facts and procedures into concepts. The teachers I spoke with during my 5 years of teaching middle school math frequently lamented the limits they felt even against doing "word problems" because of two main reasons.


1. Remediation needed for students who did not know the requirements from the previous year's standards


2. Required amount of material for which students are accountable on this year's test.


 


The Singapore and Finland systems are very successful for a number of reasons. One is that the curriculum is well spiraled and the depth of conceptual knowledge that results from less "new material" on the curriculum each year allows for in depth, discovery and inquiry learning so the concepts are sustained in memory and the first few months of each new year is not dedicated to review. Those are problematic months as the boredom of "I already know that" or frustration, "You are telling me what they told me last year and I still don't know why I need to know it and I still don't 'get it'".


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Amy_Stankus

21 Jan 10, 09:27 AM

What makes you think all standardized tests are focused on testing memorization of isolated facts? My state's math tests aren't. I've read the released previous-year tests. They focus on ability to use math concepts in problem solving. I don't see anything wrong with judging math achievement based on these tests.


(I see a whole lot wrong with threatening or tormenting students about the upcoming tests, their importance, the shame of school failure, etc. But that's the fault of administrators and teachers, not the fault of the tests or NCLB. When I went to school we had national standardized achievement tests, but they weren't mentioned in advance; we just sat down, took them, and went on about our lives. Why can't all testing be done that way?)

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