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Educational best practice or malpractice: Our choice

Steve Van Bockern and Laurie Wenger

Emerging research on the brain and learning is challenging long-established, prescientific nations about how children should be taught. The authors use this research as a basis for providing more powerful strategies for reaching all students, including those whose learning and behavior problems have led to educational failure.

Imagine a modern hospital emergency room with used and discarded syringes and scalpels lying carelessly about. The front desk is unattended while doctors nap on examination tables. A nurse fumbles a biopsy slide under a 19th-century microscope while another holds the bleeding arm of a patient who has been the recipient of a bloodletting. Nobody uses rubber gloves, and surgical masks aren’t to be found.

Now imagine entrusting your health to this emergency room. Because it is obvious that this place is both a nightmare and a malpractice lawyer’s dream, only those who have no other options would. This emergency room ignores best practice — a term in the medical field that is often associated with solid, reputable, state-of-the-art work (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 1993). In much the same way, when teachers and youth workers ignore educational best practice, educational malpractice is taking place.

Neuroscientists and researchers are using the advanced technology of magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, computers, and electron microscopes to “watch” the brain as it works. This adds even more credibility to what thoughtful educators and educational research have been suggesting for years, which is that the brain learns best in non-threatening, meaningful, and enriched social environments. To ignore this is to invite educational malpractice. Using information generated from brain research, we would like to suggest ideas and practical strategies for building best practice.

Creating non-threatening learning environments
Experience acts as the organizing framework of the brain. Traumatic experiences activate hormones such as cortisol that in effect can give the brain a toxic bath. A traumatic experience becomes the most powerful architect of the child’s brain. This neurochemical wash decreases the number of synapses, or connections, that are so necessary for learning. High cortisol levels during a child’s early years increase activity in the brain structures that are involved in vigilance and arousal. Consequently, a traumatized brain has a hair-trigger set point that is easily activated whenever a child dreams of, thinks about, or is reminded of the original trauma or stress. Self-regulation and control are difficult for a child whose brain has been, or is being, flooded with stress hormones. It has also been found that the hippocampus, a memory-making part of the brain, is smaller in adults who were abused as children (Begley, 1997).

Other researchers have found that the human brain will “downshift” to more primitive structures when under stress. Goleman (1995) referred to this as a “neural hijacking.” When under stress, the brain is programmed to respond in two ways: fight or flee. In times of perceived or real danger, it makes sense that the brain would resort to simple, basic patterns of self-preservation; however when the brain is hijacked, it is at the expense of critical and careful thought.

For today’s youth, stress or fear in schools or residential settings can come from a variety of sources. It can be quite overt: Heads banged against lockers, weapons in the classroom, and fighting in the hall creates an unsafe environment that paralyzes learning. On the other hand, a variety of subtle practices exist that raise levels of anxiety and fear and also result in diminished learning.

For example, schools and youth agencies often use forms of threat, disguised as tough love, that disconnect the child from important relationships. Doing so raises stress levels. In-school suspension for punishment purposes, use of ridicule, and teasing are kinds of “discipline” that may shut down learning. Creating lists of rules and consequences that tightly control student behavior and choice defeats the community’s ability to build safe environments. Writing names on chalkboards and taking away points for misbehavior may act as brain inhibitors. Sarcastic teacher comments delivered endlessly in power stances with pointed fingers, elevated voices, and red faces undermine learning.

A different kind of subtle threat exists when a teacher takes complete charge of the curriculum, knows all the answers, and determines the length of learning time. Learners are left with little self-efficacy, which often becomes apathy. Questions asked in rapid-fire game-show style with little “wait or think time,” or questions used to determine who did their homework, tells the child to be on guard. Tests or activities designed specifically to label or sort students serve few purposes other than to create stress. When teachers delight in taking total control, pointing out a child’s weakness or advertising what students don’t know, the brain downshifts.

A certain amount of stress can be helpful and even motivating. When the brain is comfortably challenged in a safe, secure climate, students experience a “state of flow” and become so engaged in what they are doing that all tasks seem within their capability (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The Caines (1997) referred to this as “relaxed alertness.” Relaxed alertness is evident in a learning environment of low threat and high challenge. Students feel safe to try new things, think new thoughts, and learn from their mistakes.

Creating a safe, secure environment can begin with simple strategies. Calling students by their names, having students help construct their classroom’s physical environment, and establishing a coherent routine reduce stress and fear. Other strategies call for long-term commitment to change traditional practices. Bullying behavior creates threatening environments. Without planned intervention to change the silent majority’s tolerance of such behavior, insecurity is perpetuated. It has been found that some teachers often lack concern about bullying behavior, viewing it as useful in controlling social norms in a school (Hoover & Oliver, 1997). Training and resources are available for changing this attitude and reducing the bullying climate (Garrity, Jens, Porter, Sager, & Short-Camilli, 1994). Classroom meetings are another opportunity for students to participate in building a safe community (Kohn, 1996). Self-governing and community-made rules, easy to understand and apply, provide students with a shared vision of a safe place.

Many schools deal with safety and security issues by implementing conflict and mediation programs. The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (Lantieri & Patti, 1996) provides school-wide formats for addressing conflict concerns. Many schools and youth agencies are encouraging youth workers to employ Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) skills or other conflict management frameworks. The LSCI model provides a systematic approach for determining why a young person continues to engage in self-defeating behavior patterns. Trained staff members problem solve with youth to find workable alternatives (Long, Fecser, & Brendtro, 1998).

School communities that work for safe and secure environments recognize that adopting a zero tolerance policy isn’t a solution — it only sends angry youth to places outside of school. Communities seeking a long-term solution are responding by countering with a “zero reject” policy (Allen & Edwards-Kyle, 1995). Maintaining safety for all students may necessitate removing some of them from classrooms or schools; however, in a zero reject school such a removal triggers an action plan to help the child.

Learning in a meaningful context
The brain learns continually and consistently, without effort, in meaningful circumstances (Hart, 1983). Researchers agree that the brain is a pattern-making device. It takes multiple input and then goes about its business of making sense of the data. Neural pathways or circuits are built around experiences. Reinforced or consistently used pathways are ingrained and become schema that the brain uses as a reference library for processing new information. Unused neural connections are pruned (Sylwester, 1995). Pattern making doesn’t necessarily happen in logical, linear, or sequential steps but in a highly personal and mainly random way. From multiple patterns, programs or fixed sequences for doing, thinking, and feeling are created. Learning occurs when programs are created. Unless the brain can make some kind of connection between new experience and established programs, that experience is lost and is filed as nonsensical, useless, or unimportant. In essence, any new experience needs to be attached to a context or program for it to be meaningful. Any kind of input without a program "hook" is decontextualized. Instruction that knowingly denies or ignores children’s previously learned patterns and programs decontextualizes learning and constitutes malpractice. According to Cardellichio and Field (1997),

Good teaching requires that students have the opportunity to select and assimilate enough data to force them to challenge misconceptions. They cannot do this if the curriculum or the methodology or the structure of the school is so rigid that students experience only the presentation of data without the opportunity to make sense of it. (p. 33)

To create optimal learning, the school should consider an environment that reflects life outside of the building. Students walking through the doors of their school should not feel as if they are entering an alien country. Schools often ignore the skills and life patterns that allow the brain to learn in efficient, unobtrusive ways; instead, schools fragment the day, disconnect content areas, break skills into unrelated ideas, and corral the complexity and richness students bring with them into a bland normalcy of grade-level assignments, standard workbook pages, packaged programs, and teacher-proof manuals — all in the name of “back to basics.” Brain-based studies suggest that a different perspective would be much better.

Music and art often play an important role in the lives of young people, but they are the first to go in times of budget turmoil. Optimal school environments should treat the arts as essential to learning. A multitude of studies have provided evidence that arts education facilitates language development, enhances creativity, boosts reading readiness, helps social development, assists general intellectual achievement, and fosters positive attitudes toward school (Jensen, 1997).

Tightly controlled, orderly, sequential lesson plans may bring coherence and order to the teacher’s brain, but they don’t necessarily guarantee understanding in the child’s brain. If a plan of study is to be effective, teachers need to build on what the child brings to the learning experience and willingly modify content, process, and product. Learning that is contrived results in failure for many students.

Assessment tools and practices are often disconnected from classroom goals and objectives. Tests often do not align with the content of the existing curriculum, nor do they provide accurate, timely feedback. Best practice suggests that students have the opportunity to express their learning through alternative assessments. Portfolios, student self-evaluations, and project presentations are options that have a greater likelihood of showing what a child knows.

Textbooks are useful tools, but they can too easily become the driving force of a curriculum. Without careful framing, modification, and vocabulary and concept building, the textbook can become a source of malpractice. Framing a textbook could include using a video to illustrate the content to be read or having students complete a reading guide. Audiotapes, an outline of important ideas, or even elimination of poorly written sections are ways the text can be modified. Generating a “KWL” chart during a classroom discussion is an effective example of building vocabulary and concepts. Students are asked what they already know about a topic, what they want to know, and what they learned. Best practice dictates that teachers supplement the text with multiple sources, including quality literature, multimedia, and firsthand experiences. When such brain-friendly practices are part of instruction, a context for learning happens.

Enriched social environments
Neuroscientist Marian Diamond studied differences between the brains of rats that experienced enriched environments and those of rats exposed to impoverished environments. Enriched environments contained toys, mirrors, blocks, obstacles, and other rats. Impoverished environments contained only food and water, and contact with other rats was eliminated. Diamond’s research team found that the rats from enriched environments had developed significantly more dendritic branching, more growth spines, and larger cell bodies, resulting in brain cells that “communicated” better. Diamond’s work supports the thinking that consistent, new learning challenges are necessary for brain growth (Jensen, 1997).

It can’t be denied that early experiences in a healthy and vibrant environment act as powerful "brain food," but it is wrong to assume that those early experiences define a person’s brain potential for life. Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development in New Jersey and author of Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future (1997), estimated that experience ultimately rewrites 90% of a child’s personality traits, leaving an adult with only one tenth of his or her inborn temperament. Greenough (1997) argued that there is probably no time when the brain structure isn’t modified by experience, suggesting that the brain has a great deal of plasticity that makes it susceptible to environmental stimuli — positive and negative. Kagan (in Goleman, 1995) found that children are generally born with one of four temperament traits — timidity, boldness, upbeatness, or melancholy — but he was adamant that temperament is not destiny. Even a child’s personality can undergo changes over the years. The brain is very pliable, and experience ultimately defines a person. The debate that has long engaged philosophers — whether nature or nurture dominates development — no longer perplexes the neuroscientist.

Children need multiple opportunities to access information and use learning tools. Best practice encourages a stimulating and relevant curriculum that stretches students. Real experiences give children opportunities to make choices about what they are learning and understand why that learning is important. Brain-friendly learning finds ways for children to work and learn with others and to work independently on substantive, worthwhile, long-term projects. Teachers need to “orchestrate immersion” (Caine & Caine, 1991) through differentiated curricula that purposefully meet the varied interests, styles, and levels of all learners in the classroom.

Low expectations for children ultimately result in limited teacher effort to provide interesting or challenging experiences. Once the teacher decides that a child isn’t able, it gives him or her permission to limit experience. It may be that the teacher thinks appropriate experiences are being provided, but the reality is that he or she is insulating the child’s brain from the kinds of enriched experiences that are so desperately needed.

Humans are social creatures. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, theorized that it is only through human interaction that learning occurs (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). Concerned with what he considered to be the most important subject for humankind — the development of children’s thinking — Vygotsky argued that measuring a child’s intelligence in isolation from interaction with other persons is a mistake. Through social interaction, a child learns to talk and also listen to the self. This inner speech serves as the foundation for the development of neural pathways. Caine and Caine (1997) reported that the brain is social and changes in response to engagement with others. Consequently, conversation is not a frill; indeed, it is a necessary learning tool. Dialogue and conversation enable learners to change or refine how they think and what they do. Part of successful student learning, it follows, depends on establishing relationships in the community and finding ways to belong.

Humans are also emotional beings; therefore, it can be understood that information sent and received is embedded in an emotional framework. In his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Dan Goleman (1995) suggested that the intellect cannot work at its best without emotional intelligence, which he defined as knowing and managing the emotions of self and others:

“In the dance of feeling and thought the emotional faculty guides our moment-to-moment decisions, working hand-in-hand with the rational mind, enabling — or disabling-thought itself.”

 As a result, Goleman stated that it is imperative that we build schools that care about and teach emotional literacy:

“In a time when too many children lack the capacity to handle their upsets, to listen or focus, to rein in impulse, to feel responsible for their work or care about learning, anything that will buttress these skills will help in their education”

 Although any number of commercial programs and materials are available to teach emotional intelligence,

 “there is perhaps no subject where the quality of the teacher matters so much, since how a teacher handles her class is in itself a model ... in emotional competence — or the lack thereof. Whenever a teacher responds to one student, twenty or thirty others learn a lesson” (Goleman, 1995, p. 279).

Emotional literacy can be fostered through the use of classroom rites, celebrations, and rituals. Today, unfortunately, the pledge, school song, homecoming, and other events simply fill up the day, serve as entertainment, or are vestiges of a forgotten tradition. This is not the case at an alternative school in Rapid city, South Dakota, where attachment and detachment rituals are used. Passed from foster home to foster home, school to school, and community to community, many of this school’s students have had few chances to build meaningful social attachments. Staff members understand what it means to be treated like a Ping-Pong ball. Students gain permanence by carving their initials into a log placed at the entrance of the building. When they leave, candles are lit, stories of praise are told, and songs are sung to signify how the student touched others’ lives (Van Bockern, 1993).

A critical ingredient in any best practice program is the opportunity for students to learn from experience through interactive feedback. Because the brain is self-referencing, it decides what to do based on what has just been done. For example, if you tell a joke and no one laughs, you probably learn to tell the joke differently or not at all. Students’ talking to students is a powerful way to provide feedback on ideas and behaviors. Writings that are shared and discussed with other students are more sophisticated than those written in isolation. Students who share projects followed by open discussion without teacher controls are given an enriched social environment that supports learning.

Simply gathering students together doesn’t automatically guarantee a positive social environment. Building a healthy social environment takes time and energy. A starting place is helping students know one another. Team-building activities (Rohnke & Butler, 1995) and even simple assignments such as writing and sharing autobiographies or résumés are useful. Best practice schools understand that it is difficult to know a child only through numbers and objective reports from adults. When a teacher and students know a child’s story, relationships begin.

In schools and classrooms where learners are continually pitted against each other are separated by ages for all parts of the day, and are isolated from decision-making processes, there is little or no sense of a healthy social community. By contrast, service learning is a way to build a positive social community. Hedin (1989) summarized studies supporting the positive results of volunteer service, including increased responsibility, self-esteem, moral development, and commitment to democratic values. Intellectual gains also accrue from helping others. Cross-age tutoring and peer mentoring programs are other ways to provide a social environment where students learn from one another. Extracurricular activities such as student councils and task forces where meaningful assignments are given offer opportunities for social engagement and empowerment. Once considered extras or “frills,” these activities help build social environments that reflect best practice.

The best practices classroom
Imagine a classroom — a messy one, at that — with a low-level hum of conversation and activity. At first, it is hard to find the teacher. She is spotted at a side table engaged in reading a book with three of her students. Another group of students are helping one another with math word problems. A third group seems to be finishing the final draft of a writing project. Three students are hard at work at the computer as they put together a slide show on ancient Egypt. More children are searching the Internet for information on raptors. Several students are playing board games. Two students are cleaning the rabbit cage. A small group struggles with hands-on pre-algebra problems. A student lies on the reading carpet, book over his stomach, as he tries to keep a feather in the air with his breath. All of this takes place in a safe, meaningful, enriched social environment. Imagine being part of this classroom or having a young person you know being part of it. It isn’t hard to do, because it is a learner’s dream. Using best practice knowledge will help us make these dreams a reality.


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This feature: Van Brockern, S & Wenger, L. (1999). Educational best practice or malpractice. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol.7 No.4 pp 212-216