Brain matters: Growth change, and thank goodness for neuroplasticity.

five-foods-for-yours-kids-brainphoto from

“On every single day of school your students’ brains will be changing. When their brains change, so do their levels of attention, learning, and cognition. Whether they are changed for better or for worse depends heavily on the quality of the staff at your school.”

-Eric Jensen

In education research and practices today, I feel like the term metacognition and whether a lesson allows students to “think about their thinking” is a bit of a buzzword. I don’t mean that negatively, I just state it as fact. After all, that level of cognition usually leads to deep engagement in content, and authentic, meaningful learning experiences – the gold standard of education and what we strive toward. It dawned on me, however, that while we are asking students to think about thinking and to notice how that thinking changes through reflection, we may overlook the fact that in that process, their brains are changing too. We are cultivating knowledge, skills, actions, and a way-of-being through physical development of neuropathways that has a significant impact on who students are and who they can, or will, potentially become.

In the context of Jensen’s statement, which comes from his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, he speaks about the impact adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have on a child’s brain development, how poverty tends to amplify the frequency of those experiences, and how schools can work with families to change the negative impact. What was striking to me about what he wrote was that I began to think about how much my brain has changed through my life experiences, and how those experience have shaped me into the person, educator, and leader that I am now. I’ve never really taken the time to fully understand the impact this has had on me as a person on a wholistic level (mind, body, and soul, if you will). Furthermore, this sudden realization made my understanding of Jensen’s work even deeper and increases my urgency to ensure I am creating an environment that meets the social and emotional needs of students so that their brains are ready to move past survival and onto learning.

I remember beginning an assignment as a high school band director a few years ago, and coming realizing the impact my practices and interactions with students had on them and, (now) subsequently, their brains. I was a really good teacher, understood good pedagogy, set clear expectations for students, and built really solid relationships/culture with them. So I thought.

I can be an intense person at times (those who know me well, I’m sure, would agree), and I noticed that on evening of the first concert, my ensemble members were really tense, anxious, and even a little nervous. It isn’t uncommon for young musicians to have butterflies before a performance so I didn’t think anything of it. The concert went well (so we thought), but when we listened to the recording as a reflective exercise a few days later, the overall sound quality wasn’t good, and I could hear that tension in the tone of their instruments. Students also heard the less than stellar tone quality, and I knew when I saw the disappointment on their faces that something different needed to be done.

A few weeks later,  a colleague gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received as a teacher when he told me, “I don’t know what you do with those kids, but I have never seen a group of students want to work so hard or be so good for a teacher.” At the time, I thought about that on two levels. 1) I was proud of the relationships I built with those students and how quickly I done so, and 2) I asked myself if I had inadvertently created a stressful or toxic environment in which students were so desperate to not let me down, it caused their performance to suffer. That compliment, and reflective question that came from it, led me to take a new approach to the performance elements of my discipline which I always held secondary to the musical growth I wanted my students to experience anyway.

We began focusing on breathing and fundamentals more to establish good habits and routines that would override any anxiety or stress. This was in response to the fact that when people experience higher pressure situations, they default back to the unconscious, and usually destructive, habits they have. Building coping mechanisms was important. I also never again let students play an entire piece during the dress rehearsal before the concert so that A) they wouldn’t burn out/get fatigued, and B) we could create a healthy excitement about getting to finish the polished work. The students would get so mad because they would be playing so well that morning or day before, and I would cut them off right before the end, I’d only let them start in the middle, or we wouldn’t even play their favorite measures. This built a fun suspense for what was to come on concert night. It was a healthy anticipation of showing off our hard work as opposed to the notion that everything we’d done has led up to this one moment and if we don’t get it right (fill in the rest). Finally, I emphasized to always live in the moment of the music and focus on what you see, hear, and feel around you.

Was this approach right or the best way to go about making change? Maybe or maybe not, but we got the results we wanted. The ensemble improved immensely, I grew enormously as their teacher, we had more fun, accomplished more, and most importantly, students had a healthier image of performance preparation and developed coping skills for high pressure situations which some told me they used for presentations in other classes. Winner!

The point in all this is that, as educators and leaders, the experiences we create each day in our schools or classrooms have a truly profound impact on brain development, thinking, and the type of people around us become. And it goes far beyond academics. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “learning environment” or “school culture.” As Jensen points out, it comes down to the quality of the educators, or people, we and our students encounter. As relational beings, we can develop the habits of those around us, and it is important to the take the awareness of who we are, and the impact we have, to a whole to level so we understand that we aren’t just shaping thinking, we are shaping brains that are impressionable, moldable, and need to be guided in a healthy direction each and every day.

Here are some questions to ask about changing thinking and changing brains:

Have I taken the time to get to know others, understand who they are, and what their needs are?

Am I truly creating a positive, healthy environment for my staff and students?

Am I teaching or leading with empathy to move people forward?

Am I modeling and helping others develop good habits and routines?

Am I appreciating the fact that the human brain is malleable and that many struggles can be overcome?

Do I understand the power I have to help myself and others change for the better?


Stephen Schwartz: For Good from the musical “Wicked

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow






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