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Monday
Jan102011

Cognition, College Readiness, Adolescence: Creating a Brain Healthy Environment

I imagine the text or email would read something like this:

Mom and Dad,

Well, I just finished my first week at the old U.  Lots of excitement here with parties, orientation, and stuff, and my roommate is even kinda cool.

Had my first classes yesterday—wow, I’ll bet that part hasn’t changed much since you were here.  Tolstoy sounds interesting.  Can’t wait to read him.  Chemistry made me sweat some.

That reminds me:  When you come to visit next week, could you do me a big favor and bring my brain?  I forgot to pack it!  Go figure!  I think it’s in my closet somewhere.  Looks like I am going to need it!

Thanks for everything.  Love you!

Oh, and I lost my credit card.  Double duh!

Jamie

 

Those of us who have taught school (especially middle school) or have raised children recognize that it does seem that they have sometimes misplaced their brains, especially when it comes to impulsive moments (ok, call it raving lunacy), lack of planning and reasoning, and, of course, organization.  Turns out there are scientific reasons for this. 

For a very good and short analysis of the adolescent brain, I recommend Judith Newman’s recent Parade Magazine article, “Inside the Teenage Brain.”  Newman provides some good science, amusing and frightening anecdotes, and a great description of the adolescent brain when she says, “Truth is, the teenage brain is like a Ferrari:  It’s sleek, shiny, sexy, and fast, and it corners really well.  But it also has really crappy brakes….”

The bad brakes have to do in part with the amygdala, a portion of the brain more dominant in teens, influencing impulsivity and making them vulnerable to emotions like fear, anxiety, even anger.  Poor planning, reasoning, and organization are the result of the immature development of the prefrontal cortex and especially frontal lobes in teens. 

It turns out that our modern world is not very brain healthy for any of us, including adults.  According to John Medina in his book, Brain Rules, we have organized our work and school lives in a manner that stifles our brains.  We were not designed to sit for long periods of time in cramped spaces like cubicles and classrooms, and our brains are still those of our evolutionary ancestors, who walked an average of twelve miles per day.  Our brains need our bodies to exercise to function at their optimum, he says, calling exercise “cognitive candy.”  In his book, Medina shares 12 principles for more effectively using our brain, discussing the evolution of our brains, how we are wired, and how stress can seriously impede our ability to process information.  As he says, “If someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not be able to perform as well, “ and “If a student feels misunderstood because the teacher cannot connect with the way the student learns, the student may become isolated.”

All of these problems are exacerbated for teens, wherein the cortex and the frontal lobes are still developing, and will continue to develop until their mid-twenties.   According to a recent article by MacLean Gander, a college professor writing in the Washington Post, college students need environments that promote brain development and help them refine their reasoning skills and their “executive functions,” including organizing, planning, and strategizing.  Even our best and brightest students are not coming to college prepared with the appropriate development of their executive functions. 

Nationwide,” he notes, “there is a large and growing group of bright kids whose brains aren’t wired right for a demanding college routine. The strategies and supports that worked in high school when they were living at home are not adequate to the new demands that college places on the executive functions of the brain.”

Gander adds that “According to current theories of the brain, executive functions are located in areas of the prefrontal cortex, and they serve as a kind of orchestra conductor, regulating other areas that control planning, goal-setting, language production, and motor activity.  Often unconscious, they operate beyond the control of will and motivation—even though the behavior that results when they fail to operate effectively is often judged in moral terms.”

While teenage blunders and irrational moments are amusing in retrospect, many of us have witnessed terrible consequences from the actions involving the immature teenage brain as well.  And there are academic consequences in the U.S., as we have fallen behind other industrialized nations in reasoning skills. 

In the 1980s, the U.S. ranked first in mathematics reasoning on the PISA test, an often-used international comparative measure.  Today, we have fallen to twenty-ninth.  This information comes from cognitive neuroscientists Drs. Sandra Chapman and Jacqueline Gamino, from the Center for Brian Health, at the University of Texas, Dallas.  In a recent paper, they asserted that our growing emphasis on rote memorization in preparation for high stakes testing may be part of the problem.  In short, our classrooms are at risk for becoming brain stagnant, not brain healthy. 

As Newman notes in her article, the adolescent brain is primed and ready to practice reasoning skills, putting the frontal lobes to work, but, if those skills aren’t practiced, they diminish.  Cognitive neuroscientists at the Center for Brain Health, led by Executive Director Sandra Chapman, have studied the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, and traumatic injury on the brain.  Now they are turning their attention specifically to the adolescent brain, designing protocols for training reasoning and tests for measuring improvements in reasoning.  It turns out that eighth grade is the perfect time for students to hone their reasoning skills.  The AVID Center is collaborating with the Center for Brain Health in piloting their work at AVID middle schools. 

What does a brain healthy classroom look like?  The AVID elective class, if properly designed and led, features many structures and teaching techniques that promote brain development, as we will see in upcoming blogs from AVID elective teacher Bill Madigan, collaborating with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jacqueline Gamino. 

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