A school brings brain research to the center of its curriculum

Most teachers would tell a panicked student simply to calm down, but that’s not what teacher Glenn Whitman did when a junior came to him in knots about a major oral history project. “Maddy,” he said, “I care about your amygdala.”

She stopped in her tracks. She was bewildered but also, as Whitman had hoped, plucked out of the mental trap of anxiety. “What,” she asked, “is an amygdala?”

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Specifically, Whitman, of the private St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, was referring to the almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain’s medial temporal lobe that plays a big role in the processing of emotions. He meant that the panic she had been feeling can shut down clear thinking.

More broadly, Whitman was drawing a link between the student’s school work and how her brain works, a connection that the school has made an unusual priority in the K-12 education world.

Whitman is the head of the school’s two-year-old Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning, which aims to help teachers find the best research on teaching, learning and the brain. They then apply that knowledge in the classroom to improve teaching and learning experiences for all students.

The unique center works with Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where Mariale Hardiman, the co-founder and director of Hopkins’s Neuro-Education Initiative, calls St. Andrew’s center and its focus on transformative teaching “a sterling example” of how solid research can improve teaching and learning.

“How can we use research to give kids more opportunities to transfer information and recall? To provide different strategies for solving problems on their own? To help students enjoy learning?” Whitman said. “You don’t have to choose between rigorous and happy.”

Educators across the country have embraced such brain-based research, which is an outgrowth of modern brain analysis that is uncovering how the complex human organ really functions.

Though it sounds like new brain research and education practices would marry successfully, many educators warn against it because they are concerned that the research is not ready to guide classroom work, and they are wary of how easily the subtleties of scientific advances can be lost.

Teachers in every grade of the school, from preschool through 12th, are finding ways to be deliberate about their practices. Parents such as Josh Weiner, who has a first- and second-grader at the school and is a psychiatrist for children and adolescents, said the results are real.

For example:

●Teachers have long known, and research bears out, that young students perform better when they are not stuck in chairs. Second-grade teachers have found that allowing students to sprint down the hall for less than a minute before they tackle work sheets and tests helps improve focus and performance.

●“Sleep,” Whitman said, “is an underrated educational method.” Research shows that teenagers have a hard time going to sleep before 11 p.m. and that classes should start a lot later than most schools do. St. Andrew’s High School now starts at 8:20 a.m., while the public Churchill High School next door starts at
7:25 a.m.

●Amy Helms, 27, is a graduate of St. Andrew’s who now teaches third grade there. Research shows that students retain the most at the beginning and end of a class. She and other teachers at St. Andrew’s carefully plan their class time around that idea, she said.

●In preschool, students are allowed to learn through play, which research shows to be most effective, rather than through letter memorization and other academic techniques. The emphasis is now on the social-emotional development of young kids, said Dresden Koons, head of the lower school.

St. Andrew’s students contributed samples of saliva — which have enzymes that can measure emotion — to a Johns Hopkins research study designed to answer this question: “How do peer relationships in the 2nd through 8th grades influence students’ stress levels and academic outcomes?”

Students may one day benefit from the results.

 
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