Fourth Grade Brain Research Lessons: Moving Beyond Tests Scores to an Appreciation of the Uniqueness of Every Student
Kevin Sheehan: Molloy College,
Rockville Centre, NY
We get only one chance to prepare our students for a future that none of us can
possibly predict. What are we going to do with that one chance?
The Leader in Me
As our week long summer institute on brain research and its implications for struggling learners drew to a close at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY, workshop participant, Jessica Kuehn, a fourth grade teacher from a neighboring elementary school, wore an expression of anxiety that was unmistakable. At the break, when I asked her what was troubling her, she shared the worry that some of the profiles of the struggling learners that we had discussed in our seminar dominated her class register for the coming fall were frightening even now in August.
As Dr. Seuss says so eloquently in the Grinch, Then he (we) got an idea…The Grinch got a wonderful, *awful* idea! The idea we had was “awe” “full” and not awful, but it was definitely wonderful. What if Miss Kuehn’s fourth grade students could be provided with the same instruction on brain functions on an elementary level that their teacher had experienced in the weeklong seminar? Would knowledge of how the brain works and insights concerning the wonderful, unique characteristics of each brain make students feel better about their own individual and sometimes struggling brains? Would the knowledge that all brains are good at some things, but struggle with other tasks translate to a greater self-awareness and self-acceptance in fourth graders in a year dominated by state testing? The ending of the college seminar was actually the beginning of an exciting adventure which would reveal to us the impact instruction about brain research might have on our elementary students.
After our plan was hatched, we began with Friday seminars with Miss Kuehn worked in tandem with me to share the lessons of the teacher’s brain research. The modified forty-five minute sessions geared towards the energy and ability of ten year olds. Students, with all of the excitement of a field trip, anticipated the weekly seminars. The class curriculum involved twelve sessions, with each session building on the knowledge of the previous session and moving the children to greater understanding of how their brains worked and how brain functioning translated to their performance as students and functioning members of their families and the community.
We started with a teddy bear possessed with epileptic seizures in a classroom activity with students sending finger touching messages that simulated voluntary and involuntary firing of neurons. When we finally performed an imaginary commissurotomy on our teddy bear, severing the corpus callosum, students were able to draw their own conclusions on hemspheriec functioning by reviewing the neurological tests performed on the split brain teddy bear. These simulations were based on the research revealed in Left Brain, Right Brain, which was now possible because our teddy bear had surgically separated hemispheres. Students were able to arrive at the left-brain, right-brain theories of hemispheric dominance through their own analysis of their split-brain teddy bear.
Although students later learned these early beliefs were overly simplistic when they looked at MRI scans, they had fun as they played with the idea of hemispheric dominance and where they stood on the left-brain, right-brain scales. The insights that students gained from these sessions were informative and sometimes comforting to individual students. Although the left-brain, right-brain research is far from sound neurologically, it is a wonderful metaphor to introduce the differences in brain processing that are reflected in student’s daily habits.
Students now were aware of the fact that some things come naturally to certain students, but can be a struggle for others. The student who struggles with neatness is not miraculously cured by the knowledge that this is a trait does not come naturally to his or her individual brain, but they were comforted in knowing it may merely be a way that their brain processes information rather than a flaw in their character, work ethic or ability.
The next simulation involved each member of the class being labeled and assigned to represent a different part of the brain and connected together with a matrix of strings. The initial focus in this simulation was the interaction between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex. Reviewing the work of Daniel Goleman, students learned the concept of the “amygdala hijacking the brain” when danger or a threat to survival is perceived by the brain. Students learned that test anxiety (perceived danger by the brain) can have the same effect of bypassing the pre-frontal cortex and leaving them unable to remember on a test as the amygdala shuts down the pre-frontal cortex In any perceived threat to survival. Students also learned of the effect on emotion on learning and in creating more permanent and episodic memories.
As part of the simulation, students also discovered the relationship between short term, active working memory and long-term memory as they went about the business of filling the brain’s filing cabinets. Students learned that learning breaks down in math when the times tables are not in the filing cabinets of long term memory. They also learned that when we asked to solve math problems with numerous steps, the learner holds the problem in active working memory while the brain searches the long term filing cabinets for the needed to pieces of information. They learned that the failure to do a problem can be in the ability of active working memory to hold all the information in place as it moves through the steps of the problem or in other cases, the failure can be the result of the fact that the information required is not in long term memory.
This simulation, borrowed and adapted from David Sousa in How We Think, was by far the most revealing for students about their own unique brains. With specific students simulating and playing the role of the filing cabinets of long-term memory, and another student simulating active working memory searching through those student filing cabinets, students had a real world picture of what happens when they are unable to answer a question.
The schema that this simulation created was the idea that students could now begin to metacognitively think about where their individual brain breakdown occurs with an incorrect answer. Was the failure to correctly answer a problem the result of the information or process not being firmly in long-term memory or was the problem the failure of active working memory to correctly hold all the information or steps of the problem? On a practical level, students could now realize that a failure to study for a test could leave the desired facts out of long-term memory. Other students who could not remember the steps of a problem could now identify a specific failure in their active working memory and that they may need some temporary help, such as a list of steps in a problem to compensate for this brain functioning weakness. Serving as an antidote to our national preoccupation with testing, knowledge of brain functioning made failure on a test seem more understandable by relating the failure to an inability of the brain to accomplish a desired task rather than the test score measuring the worth as a student.
The other truly powerful result of the simulation was that students who had trouble with emotional control were able to identify with the idea that their particular amygdala was too easily stimulated and too often hijacked the reasoning center of the prefrontal cortex when they were emotionally aroused. This knowledge gave a name and an explanation to what had always been labeled simply as out of control behavior or bad temper. Applying Daniel Goleman’s research from Emotional Intelligence, students could identify those situations, which cause this loss of control and amygdala hijacking, and develop strategies and responses before the event occur. This knowledge allows students to make decisions, when they are in their right minds and not in a survival mode. What was powerful was that giving a name to these incidents involving a loss of emotional control, as well an awareness of the brain activity that was occurring, was a powerful deterrent to these type outbursts in general.
The final portion of the course work had to do with the eight neurological constructs developed by Mel Levine in A Mind at a Time. These constructs included memory, attention, higher order cognition, temporal- sequential ordering, spatial ordering, neuromotor skills and social cognition. The class was divided into teams and each group was assigned one of the eight constructs, provided with a simplified description of the construct, and charged with creating a skit to demonstrate to the class that construct in action. In addition to the constructs, students were also assigned elements of brain functioning that had made up the instruction throughout the year.
As students presented skits, their classmates were given a worksheet which asked for self-analysis of the construct or function by a checking a box which described exemplary performance of the construct (this is easy for me) or problematic functioning in the construct area (this is hard for me). The skits ranged from Neuromotor skits involving the simple throwing of a ball (Large Motor Skills), writing a sentence (Graphomotor), tying their shoes (Small Motor Skills) and even to more complicated skits such as a hilarious one involving active working memory in which students depicted their teacher forgetting that she had given them permission to go to the bathroom, while she taught a math lesson. This skit was drawn from actual experience and brought to life a real world connection between what they had learned and their lives in the classroom. What was really on display was the fact that students were coming to understand that they had varying levels of competence in each of the constructs. More important than the specific knowledge of the functioning in each construct was the bigger understanding that it was not only ok to have a brain that could do some things better than others. In fact, it was normal.
In the end, the problem of being assigned a class where some children in that class came to Miss Kuehn with the baggage of a tainted reputation turned out to be a gift. After the brain research seminars, and throughout the year, the class demonstrated a better and growing understanding of their brain functioning and the reasons behind the breakdowns in behavior. The perceived issues of the class never quite lived up to the reputations that had preceded them. The idea of how to incorporate the learning from the summer seminar became even more strikingly clear.
It is essential that we strive to make our students smarter than our educational policy makers, if we are to infuse a sense of hope and optimism in the face of a national educational agenda that demonstrates an increasing preoccupation to define students by their tests scores. In this age of testing accountability, where we make so many decisions on our test score data and simplistically created labels for students, it is vital that we teach even our youngest students of the mystery and miracle that is their own unique and special brain. That miracle can never be reduced to a simplistic test score. Mrs. Kuehn’s students have powerfully demonstrated that fact to all of us.
Author’s Note: One of Ms. Kuehn’s student was recently honored as valedictorian of the high school, eight years later. In a recent note to her, the student recalled his fond memories of the secrets of the amygdala and brain research revealed eight years earlier in fourth grade. This is a powerful example of the permanence of episodic memories. When teachers, such a Ms. Kuehn, now Mrs. Ryan, create experiences, and not just lessons, these lessons last a lifetime.
Kevin Sheehan Ed.D