Teachers, take charge! Ind e p end ent Ed ucation interviews Dr Sandy Gluckman

| November 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

In the search to hone teaching and learning, we tend to forget the most powerful technological tool at our disposal: the brain.

The way we use this organ – and abuse it – has always fascinated Dr Sandy Gluckman, who was back in South Africa in August by popular demand to give more of her ‘Take Charge!’ workshops – one set to parents and another to teachers. A South African by birth (she’s now based in the US) and a teacher by choice, Gluckman’s early career experience in an Afrikaans matric classroom revealed a natural affinity with young people, and led to a PhD in clinical psychology with a thesis on whole brain learning.

Whole brain learning

“Except for about five per cent of the general population, we all have a brain preference,” is how she explains the concept. “Some of us are right brain dominant and some are left brain dominant. It doesn’t mean that the other side of the brain has shrivelled up and died. It does mean that we don’t use the whole brain.”

This has especial significance in the classroom, says Gluckman. “The teacher must know whether he or she is right or left brain dominant. Teachers who favour the left brain will teach with greater structure and order; favouring numbers and sequence and logic; because that’s what the left brain is so good at. Unwittingly, however, that teacher will create stress for the right brain dominant students in the class, who like to learn with stories, pictures and movement.”

Gluckman’s thesis focused on how teachers can “teach to the whole brain”. “Then you’re speaking to every student. You’re also teaching the left brain to use the right brain and the other way around.”

Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis

Surely then most general teacher training programmes are woefully outmoded? Indeed, says Gluckman. “In fact, I believe that current neuroscience research is going to challenge everything we ever thought we knew about teaching and learning.”

By way of explanation, Gluckman implodes the traditional idea that we are born – and stuck with – a certain amount of ‘brain power’, a set intelligence quotient (IQ). “I’d like to see a total ban on IQ testing,” she says firmly, “because we have now discovered neuroplasticity; evidence that tells us that the brain is far more plastic and malleable than we had ever realised, and can be rewired or developed at any age.1

“It’s a game changer. Research now tells us that if for any reason brain cells have been damaged, we can regenerate them. Even more exciting is the discovery that we can actually create new neurons. “Can you imagine the implications of these scientific discoveries for education? It means that a teacher’s new role is to work with the plastic brain of each student so that it grows and stretches.”

There are other far-reaching implications. For one thing, these new discoveries turn on its head the generally accepted notion that ‘eight is too late’ – that should a child not receive ‘sufficient’ neural stimulation by the age of eight (by which time it was traditionally considered that the brain has been permanently ‘hard-wired’), they will be at a significant educational disadvantage. Furthermore, it means that in South Africa, for the thousands of very young children from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not receive adequate early childhood education, there is hope.

Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are already changing the face of American schooling, says Gluckman, who has seen an increase in the number of available professional development ‘whole brain learning’ courses. Teachers in South Africa are now accessing the new ideas. “I find that younger teachers are hungry to learn and are actually open to me challenging a lot of the myths they carry. Older teachers are more resistant,” remarks Gluckman.

Cortisol can be corrosive

That’s understandable, given the scale of policy change that has affected schooling in our country since 1994. You might in fact say that many teachers find absorbing more theory stressful. Stress, and its impact on learning, is another area that fascinates Gluckman and informs her work. “There is a whole new approach to the treatment of learning behavioural issues in the US. I don’t like to call them disorders because I believe that they are symptoms of extreme stress.2

“Every one of us has physiological predispositions that render us vulnerable. If we are unable to deal with chronic stress, those dispositions will be triggered, playing havoc with our health and well-being. Our brains, bodies and spirits are interconnected in complex ways.3 Stress experienced in one, will affect the other systems too.”

We’ve all heard people complain of aches and pains, or general ‘dis-ease’, when they’re stressed. What’s actually happening at a physiological level is that cortisol – a hormone that prompted the ‘fight or flight’ survival instinct for our prehistoric ancestors – is released. Excessive amounts cause inflammation. “High levels of cortisol are extremely damaging and can shrink the brain and shut down learning,” explains Gluckman.

“It’s time we face all the stressors head-on in order to provide better quality childcare and learning experiences, and it’s why Idevised my ‘Take Charge’ workshops,” says Gluckman.

Giving teachers information and tools

“When I work with teachers, I offer a three-part programme. Section one is called ‘A whole new way’. I give educators all the latest information about developments in medicine and neuroscience, and cover all the implications for teachers and for education in general.”

In the second part of the workshop, called ‘Your new role’, Gluckman shows teachers how to adapt a lesson in order to enhance whole brain learning. “I emphasise that students’ wellbeing is the responsibility of the teacher for the duration of the class. The teacher needs to have the skills to recognise and lower stress in order to promote positive learning experiences.” Gluckman gives teachers these skills in section three of her workshop, called ‘Your new toolbox’. “These tools are based on keeping brain inflammation down and triggering healthy chemistry in the body, spirit and brain so that quality learning can take place.”

Gluckman’s not only talking about student stress. Highly stressed educators will affect students negatively, she observes, acknowledging at the same time that stress is synonymous with teaching, and that this condition needs to be recognised and changed. “If a teacher learns how to nourish her body, her brain and her spirit, then she can walk into the classroom with high energy levels, she can focus well and can tune into everything that’s going on in the room. She also needs to learn the difference between inflammatory behaviour and language versus healing and learning behaviour and language.

“The healthy teacher can adapt a lesson plan to suit the brain dominance preferences of all her pupils. She can say, for example, ‘For the first 10 minutes I’m going to tell a story, or get my class to do a drawing. Then I’ll play some music and then we’ll concretise the learning through movement.”6

Teachers, take charge!

This all sounds like a tall order, but Gluckman is ready with a logical response: “Children are in teachers’ hands for up to eight hours a day, so parents have a right to expect the very best environment for their offspring.” Because, however, training programmes aren’t yet providing teachers with these important skills, she’s seen evidence of a rise in home schooling in the US. “We have to train teachers differently,” she surmises simply, adding a hopeful caveat: “In the future, all schools should employ onsite healthcare practitioners who understand the mind/body/spirit connection and its significance in education.”

Gluckman’s approach could also be beneficial for those that bully at school. “I plan to extend my work in this direction in the future, but it’s a complex issue. Bullies have depleted stores of dopamine, causing them to escalate their aggressive behaviour to accrue more of this neurochemical that regulates focus, learning, social cues and executive decisionmaking.” 7

Right now, she shares one of the many significant moments that have occurred during her workshops designed to introduce parents and educators to her drug-free approach to treating learning, behaviour and mood challenges. “A teacher told me that after attending my workshop, she was compelled to apologise to a parent for suggesting that she put her child on Ritalin. I never recommend medication as an initial response to a learning challenge.8

“I love the moments in the workshops when people realise that a healthy teacher equals healthy students, which in turn equals a positive learning experience.”

References:

1. See, for example, Sparks, S. (2012) ‘Scientists find learning is not “hard-wired.”’ Available at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/ 06/06/33neuroscience_ep.h31.html.

2. See, for example, Bremner, J.D. (2004) ‘Does stress damage the brain? Understanding trauma-related disorders from a mind-body perspective.’ Available at: http://userwww.service.emory.edu/ ~jdbremn/papers/does_stress_dir_psych.pdf.

3. See, for example, Mehta, V. (2012) ‘Learning from the wisdom of the body.’ Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/viralmehta/ mind-body-experience-_b_912703.html.

4. See, for example, Wombles, K. (2011) ‘Autism: it’s in the womb(?), but genes still play a large role.’ Available at: http://www.science20.com/countering_tackling_woo/autism_its_ womb_genes_still_play_large_role-81759.

5. See, for example, De Noon, D.J. (2012) ‘Your child and anxiety: school stress starts early.’ Available at: http://www.webmd.com/ anxiety-panic/features/school-stress-anxiety-children.

6. See, for example, Reynolds, G. (2012) ‘How exercise could lead to a better brain.’ Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/ 2012/04/22/ magazine/how-exercise-could-lead-to-a-betterbrain. html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

7. See, for example, Koller, E. (2007) ‘Developing a social neuroscientific understanding of youth behaviours: basic understanding.’ Available at: http://gwired.gwu.edu/hamfish/ merlin-cgi/p/downloadfile/d/19149/n/off/other/1/name/018pdf/.

8. See, for example Schwarz, A (2012) ‘Attention disorder or not, pills to help in school.’ Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/ 2012/10/09/health/attention-disorder-or-not-children-prescribedpills- to-help-in-school.html?src=me&ref=general.

Category: Summer 2012

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