Grounding Our Vision

Summer 2011

By Mike Walker

Healthy schools, as a matter of effective practice, guide their decision-making in strategic plans. In some institutions, these plans are the product of an ongoing analytical process about what is best for the schools, while others embark upon strategic exercises at periodic intervals, most typically during times of transition in either board or school leadership.

Recognizing the influence such plans have on the strategic directions of schools, Henry Mintzberg, in his book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, cautions us about what should be at the root of these plans: 
While certainly not dead, strategic planning has long since fallen from its pedestal. But even now, few people fully understand the reason: strategic planning is not strategic thinking. Indeed, planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.
While recognizing the value of “vision,” it could be argued that vision alone — at least in schools — is not enough to rally the financial and emotional support required to translate an idea into reality. A compelling vision needs to reflect substantive, research-based knowledge if it is to spark the kind of strategic thinking and insight capable of transforming a school. Just as an electrical circuit, when properly grounded, illuminates a darkened room, a school’s vision, when anchored in the science of learning, can power up new instructional possibilities. 

As a result of new technologies that image the human brain under various conditions of learning, a virtual “neuro-renaissance” is taking place. In some cases, this new wave of brain-based research — once the purview of neurologists, now being made available to educators — has changed and challenged much of what we have held true for decades. Given these fundamental shifts, schools have an opportunity — even an obligation — to ground their strategic thinking in what scientific researchers are discovering about how children learn. These findings hold profound implications for improving how we teach and how we structure and design our schools.

New knowledge about the growth of brain cells in adolescents can lead us to rethink how we structure and organize our schools and the school day. While the arts have always been culturally relevant, and have played an important curricular role in our schools, we are now learning how creative expression and early exposure to instrumentation nurtures neuropathways associated with fundamental cognitive skill sets. We are discovering that, while exercise is important for physical health, it also releases essential ingredients that prepare the brain for the learning process — at every stage of life.

While there are schools that are dynamic and playful, characterized by students pursuing a range of creative endeavors, the reality is that most classrooms across the country appear much as they did decades ago: students at desks, confined to seats, often in rows, facing a uniform direction, with the teacher as the predominate disseminator of information. Schools are often places where students are taught, from an early age, that effective and productive learning requires extended, often extensive periods of time in which they are predominately immobile, relatively quiet, and confined to defined spaces — a particular challenge for boys. Interactions are moderated based on the understanding that a sense of order and purpose is essential in effective schools — and, at times, it is.

That said, we all know that kids… move. And they move because they were designed to. Dr. John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, suggests that the human body is actually designed to move between 12 and 14 miles a day, based on theories of our ancestral past and because evolution is a slow process. Complementing that physical capability, brain research has found that exercise releases the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which, in essence, acts as a fertilizer for the brain. Recent studies advance the notion that exercise and movement, while good for our physical health, is also an essential element of the learning process. Not only is the brain prepped and stimulated to learn, but aerobic activity actually creates new brain cells, at any age. This phenomenon, called neurogenesis, challenges traditional notions about the role that movement plays in the learning process while creating new optimism for the adult brain. 

Exercise and Learning

Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, confirms the important link between learning and exercise. An experimental program conducted in schools in Naperville, Illinois, found that students who exercised prior to instruction demonstrated a significant improvement in reading and comprehension as compared to students who exercised after instruction, when schools typically schedule physical education and exercise. Further adaptation of this methodology has found that short “Brain Breaks,” activities that engage different parts of the brain through movement and play, when woven into instruction at regular intervals, yield similar, positive results in learning. These activities — fun, playful, and interactive — not only enliven a classroom, they also create effective transitional activities that refocus and reenergize the students by engaging them both physically and neurologically. As a result, students increase their capacity to learn.

Imagine a group of kindergarteners doing “bee breath,” a simplified yoga technique in which children focus on their breathing, humming as they exhale, swaying in alternating circles with arms extended, making a transition to a lesson. Older students learning the iambic pentameter of Shakespearian prose by rising and sitting with the inflections of the syllables. Pairs of students playing a version of rock, scissor, paper, but extending fingers and calling out the sum or the product in a lively, playful exchange that engages several areas of the brain. The cross-lateral movement of these kinds of activities, using both sides of the body and brain, readies students for learning.

The Importance of Play

Can classrooms characterized by movement be considered purposeful and productive learning environments? Dr. Stuart Brown, in his book Play, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, certainly thinks so. Dr. Brown shares the experience of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had thrived as a premier aerospace research institution for over seven decades. In the late 1990s, however, the lab began to experience a series of setbacks, which coincided with the retirement of a generation of its engineers. In an attempt to understand this change, JPL launched a study examining the backgrounds of its engineers. The most glaring difference discovered between the two generations of engineers was in their ability to take a complex project from theory to practice. The study found that the new generation of engineers, recruited from the most recognized institutions in the country with impeccable transcripts and credentials, had less experience as youngsters in taking apart clocks, building things from wood, fixing appliances — in essence, playing with their hands. 

Dr. Brown — trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry, and clinical research — founded the National Institute for Play, which consolidates a body of research from neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, animal play behavior, and evolutionary and molecular biology all for the purpose of reminding us that learning should be fun, at any age. And if learning is fun, our ability to learn is enhanced. He argues this not only because it would make schools more enjoyable and engaging places, but also because his experience and research concludes that play is a prerequisite for learning, not just a convenient byproduct. 

The Finns seem to understand this. A 2009 review by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that Finnish students scored first in literacy, when compared to 31 other countries, and placed in the top five in math and science, while U.S. students placed in the middle of the pack. While demographic variables, including a more homogeneous culture, might contribute to these results, there is a great deal of interest in how Finnish schools achieve these outcomes. Some of their educational strategies run counter to the strategic direction of many, if not most, U.S. schools: Students in Finland do not enter school until the age of seven; there are no special programs for “gifted students;” and teachers are given broad leeway in how they teach within the context of national curriculum requirements. Remarkably, Finland spends less money per student on education than the United States. 

Even with these basic, factual comparisons, a distinguishing characteristic of Finnish schools is how they embrace the role of play and movement in the instructional process. While many schools in the U.S. are dropping or curtailing recess, students in the Suutarila District in Helsinki, for example, get 75 minutes a day of recess, compared to an average 27 minutes in U.S. schools. The rationale for this relationship between playing outside and learning is explained by Finland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health: “The core of learning is not the information... being predigested from the outside, but in the interaction between the child and the environment.”

Nature and Brain Function

While the Finns embrace the relationship among play, movement, and the outdoors, Dr. Stephan Kaplan from The University of Michigan provides the neurological and psychological explanation in a paper presented in 1993 to the American Psychological Society. Dr. Kaplan’s research found that exposure to natural environments has a profound and restorative effect on the brain’s ability to focus. In one of several studies that advanced Attentional Restorative Theory (ART), participants were given a “backwards digit-span task,” a test of voluntary attention, which plays a central role in problem solving. After exhausting their voluntary attention, participants were randomly assigned to either walk through downtown Ann Arbor or through the city’s arboretum, which is noted for its beautiful lawns and abundant trees. After completing the walks, a second backwards digit-span test was administered, which revealed that the highest scores came after the walks through natural settings. Recognizing the relationship between attention and learning, Kaplan’s studies and subsequent research has confirmed the importance of providing both students and adults access to green spaces, or even just “pockets of green,” not only because it is aesthetically pleasing, but because it enhances the neurological palette and readies it for learning. 

An increasing number of schools are making a commitment to sustainable design, often reflected in LEED certification. While done to minimize the environmental footprints of schools, this approach to design also presents curricular opportunities. Students tending class gardens, using soil generated from lunchroom compost and water collected from the rooftops, develop firsthand experience with natural cycles. Students tending hydroponic systems learn science through innovative food production. Students monitoring data from rooftop photovoltaic systems adjust their energy consumption as light and temperature varies throughout the day. While attention and learning is enhanced through access to green spaces, connecting students to the resources in these spaces helps them understand that they are part of a delicate system, and can play an active role in how it is managed. 

Another passionate advocate for connecting children through their senses to their natural environment is Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv reminds us that, “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity.” This creativity comes from having both ample access to their natural surroundings, as well as instruction in the arts, particularly at an early age. Louv cites a 1995 analysis of the College Board indicating that students who studied the arts scored higher in both the math and verbal sections of the SAT. Students in Finnish elementary grades spend from four to 11 periods each week in art, music, carpentry, and metalwork — all excellent venues for enhancing learning in math and science. 

The Arts Matter

While schools have long recognized the cultural relevance and importance of the arts, the Neuro-Education Initiative of Johns Hopkins University, with support from the Dana Foundation, convened a summit in 2009 to explore the relationship among cognitive neuroscience, the arts, and learning. With the goal of building bridges between the laboratories of the neuroscientists and the classrooms of our schools, the summit explored the question of whether early training in the arts can cause changes in the brain, and how that might influence subsequent cognitive development. The report, based on multiple three-year studies from seven universities, found music training to be highly correlated with phonological awareness, a major predictor of reading readiness, and the amount of training students received correlated with improvements in reading skills. 

Executive function — attributed to a part of the brain associated with planning, prioritizing, time management, and decision-making — is improved through both vocal and instrument training. Teachers often attribute student lapses in organizational skills to lack of effort or insufficient structure. While true in some cases, it is often over-generalized as a cause. A better approach is to understand how the brain forms schemas. With this knowledge, teachers can create experiences and techniques that can help students develop these skill sets, as opposed to assuming “willpower” alone will address the problem. To maximize the learning potential of our students, in both what they learn and in how they learn, a curriculum strong in the creative and expressive arts is not a “nice thing to do,” but a prerequisite for a learning environment that is aligned with neurological research. 

Nurturing the Neurotransmitters

The neurological essence of learning is the act of synapses in which the neurons of the brain fire electrically inspired neurotransmitters creating connections between neurons. This basic neurological fact can be translated into educational practice by shaping how we organize our schools. If the brain seeks out these connections — if learning is enhanced by creating rich, complex, and interconnected neurological webs — then it calls into question organizational or curricular structures in which the disciplines of learning are fragmented, separated, or highly departmentalized. Learning is enhanced, based on the basic neurological structures and pathways of the brain, when the disciplines of learning are curricularly connected and mutually reinforcing. Haven’t we all experienced an “Ah-ha” moment when we see, or actually almost viscerally experience, the connection between two ideas, concepts, or classes that had seemed discrete or unrelated? Schools that intentionally design curriculum that creates opportunities for students to build these cognitive bridges have designed structures consistent with how the brain stores and retrieves information. The tendency of schools to fragment learning into departments and rigid content areas is often a reflection of adult preferences for organizational compartmentalization, as opposed to creating curricular structures that reflect what we are learning about how the human brains stores, retrieves, and organizes information.

Some of the most innovative corporations in the country — for example, IDEO Corp., a global design consultancy firm — manage complex projects through interdisciplinary teams. Should not schools function similarly, with math and science teachers co-creating curricula, or the social sciences and the creative arts bringing to life cultural studies, or literature being an extension of geography and history? Learning in isolation is limited and soon forgotten, whereas multidisciplinary exploration creates stronger neurological connections, thus increasing memory and retention. 

While much has been learned in this “decade of the brain,” much remains a mystery — which is why this is such a promising time for educators. As research continues and the science of neurologists is increasingly translated into instructional practices, educators have the opportunity, and obligation, to ground their strategic thinking in a research-based understanding of how students learn. This substantiated vision should inspire us to reorganize our schools so that all of the disciplines of learning are intentionally and intimately interconnected. They should embrace play as an essential ingredient that fuels and enhances the entire learning process:

• to create opportunities for students to move and exercise throughout the day for reasons related to both their physical and neurological health, 

• to understand that the arts not only enhance and advance our culture, but are the foundation of other essential cognition skill sets, and 

• to create learning environments that connect students to their natural surroundings because it enhances both their ability to be attentive and their creativity.

Educators, collectively, have a strong sense of what works for students, and what schools can and should do for their charges. The challenge, in order to attract and justify the allocation of precious and limited resources, is to ground our vision in research that is both substantiated and inspirational. The visionary aspirations of a school should be anchored in the science of learning, and done in a way that unleashes creative organizational and curricular possibilities that reflect what it is emerging in this exciting field of neuro-education. 
Mike Walker

Mike Walker is a K–8 principal at Punahou School (Hawai’i).