Blogging and the Neural Highway

Over the winter holidays, I wanted to focus a little more on the question of “why blogging?” I want to ensure that as my school adopts blogging and the Eportfolio, we are doing so deliberatly and in a way that is well-informed. Also, I want to make sure that it will have its focus on student success. The more I read about cognitive approaches to education, or brain-based approaches, the more blogging makes sense.
I watched this fantastic TED talk from June 2012 delivered by Sarah-Jayne Blackmore entitled “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain”. In it she explains the role of the pre-frontal cortex, and how much we have learned in the last 15 years. That is NOT a long time, but advances in functional MRI and structural MRI have opened up a whole new understanding of brain development. She has come to some conclusions about the adolescent brain:

1) Adolescence is defined as the period of life that take place from the onset of puberty and ends when an individual has obtained an independent and stable role in society. Isn’t that the goal of education?

2) The pre-frontal cortex is undergoing incredible changes during adolescence. This happens sooner in girls than in boys because girls begin puberty earlier than boys. Teachers would be fools to dismiss this in their planning – thus differentiation of teaching is fundamental!

3) The pre-frontal cortex is also responsible for the social development, and understanding the emotions and thoughts of others – i.e. empathy. However, adolescents are using different areas of the brain to understand the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of others. This means that the ability to take into account the perspective of others is still developing in mid to late adolescents.

4) Adolescents take more risks than children and adults – and they take more risks when they are with their friends. We can understand this through brain research in the limbic system. In adolescence, the limbic system is heightened to reward risks in adolescence. Couple that with the pre-frontal cortex, that which would inhibit dangerous risk, we have a fantastic opportunity for learning and creativity

These behaviours, says Sarah-Jayne Blackmore, “…shouldn’t be stigmatized, it actually reflects changes in the brain that provide excellent opportunity for education and social development.” It is a great TED talk on its own. However, I then found this article on Twitter that made me think of how blogging can help students understand their own brain development.

Tony Borash wrote this piece for Edutopia entitled “Accelerating Students Along Neural Superhighways“. In it he writes:

In Writing as a Measure and Model for Thinking, John Antonetti highlights the need for all students to articulate their thinking in order to promote personal response for the individual learner. When each learner draws his or her own map, he or she has an opportunity to learn about where we currently stand and where we need to go as a result.

It is the active thinking, and deliberate guidance to think about how they are thinking, that will help students to understand their learning. Blogging is just that – at least the way that I want to roll it out. It is to prompt students and ask them to question their learning, experiences, and challenges and to directly think about their reactions to them. Tony Borash also quotes Henry David Thoreau:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

The more we ask students to think about their learning, the more they can learn; however, the prompts must be appropriate for students’ age and stage. This is an area that I will be exploring further in my Adviser-leader meetings as I want to get the input from teachers and those that know these students closely. Prompts are also a great way to help personalize the blogging experience, so it doesn’t feel like, look like or sound like institutional learning.

One final resource that was very helpful was from the ASCD website “Brain-Based Learning Strategies Webinars“, where I found a great resource on strengthening the brain’s executive functioning. In it, Judy Willis writes that to practice reflection is key, because “practice makes permanent”. Some of the strategies that I will incorporate into my blogging prompts are:

• Opportunities to build flexible perspectives: Encourage prediction and revise of opinions
• Communicate & collaborate: Group projects
• Build skillset of interpreting and applying new future information: Incorporate choice and open-ended tasks

And, most importantly, brain-based research is emphasizing that we, as teachers, must stretch our students to transfer learning and knowledge to different (and I would add authentic) contexts.

So what have I learned about education from a brain-based perspective: we would be foolish, as 21st century educators, to ignore the insights that science has provided for us in how and why students behave the way they do. We would also be foolish to ignore in our planning the needs of the teen-aged brain.

So, what can we do next? Simple, just take a visit HERE for some fantastic resources on brain-based learning strategies that can be employed in classrooms.


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