Welcome to the first issue of Points of Interest, a monthly newsletter dedicated to topics that are tangential to–but vitally important for–the field of education. Each month, we’ll focus on a different point of interest.Depending on the topic, we’ll hear from an expert in the field, offer some suggestions for where to go to learn more, and hear from teachers about the ways in which these important topics manifest themselves in the classroom. This month, we’re taking on one of my favorite subjects: neuroplasticity.
Further on in the newsletter, you’ll hear from Dr. Terry Harrison-Goldman, a clinical neuropsychologist and Director of the Neuropsychology Fellowship Program at Nemours Children’s Hospital. Dr. Harrison-Goldman provides an excellent overview of neuroplasticity for those unfamiliar with the concept. As an educator, I have become deeply interested in neuroplasticity and its applicability in the classroom. The notion of a dynamic mind that is constantly rewiring–forging new connections, strengthening connections that have been previously laid, and culling those connections no longer in use–make the possibilities of a learning environment seem endless. And it also serves as a constant reminder that we can’t leave neuroplasticity to play out in the background.
One of my favorite tactical books on the burgeoning field of neuroeducation, Neuroteach by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, makes clear the charge of schools to deeply consider brain science right alongside the pedagogical research or our years of experience as teachers. They write, “We quickly realized how critical neuroscience is for all: the most advanced student, the often-overlooked “just fine student,” and the struggling student…Neuroplasticity is something which schools, for better or for worse, whether they sign up for it or not, play a role.” The case is made, both in Neuroteach and plenty of other works on the topic, that every part of a child’s education, from the physical classroom environment to the design of homework, from a teacher’s sense of humor to the instructional routine of a lesson, impacts the way students’ brains are rewiring. It would follow that schools can either keep that in the forefront of their minds and act with great intention, or they can risk leaving those processes up to chance.
Dr. Mariale Hardiman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of their Neuro-Education Initiative, made clear the imperative of teachers to learn and integrate brain science into their classrooms in her celebrated Brain-Targeted Teaching Model. Among other things, her work emphasizes the importance of arts integration as a way to promote long-term retention of content. Going beyond engaging art “for its own sake,” Hardiman outlines the research that shows the ways in which teachers who use the arts as an instructional method “increase learning through the promotion of artistic thinking and habits of working.” The interplay here between teaching praxis and biology is exciting. And the outcome? Students who remember more and transfer their knowledge with greater ease.
Worth noting, an understanding of neuroplasticity should not only be reserved to teachers. In what has now woven itself into the classrooms of millions of students across the country, Carol Dweck’s seminal work on Growth Mindsets, taught us all the power of students’ own understanding of neuroplasticity. In one of many studies on the topic, students who were taught about the malleability of the brain demonstrated a clear increase in math achievement. Just knowing about neuroplasticity can increase a child’s willingness to take academic risks, to expand their potential, to push themselves to new limits.
So whether you are a parent, an educator, a professional, or a student yourself, the applicability of neuroplasticity to the work of learning and growing is clear. We can mold the world around us to aid in the laying of new neural pathways and the strengthening of preexisting ones. With an eye toward neuroscience, we have the tools to enhance our learning, bolster our mental habits, and achieve outcomes previously seen as out of reach.
Alli Williams, Ed.D.
Head of School
The Pilot School
To learn more…
Read: While the two books linked above are must-reads for educators, an excellent entry into the world of neuroplasticity is The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.
Listen: Check out the Braincare Podcast, dedicated to learning in small doses (usually around 15 minutes) directly from doctors and scientists to you. Topics cover various ways to care for your ever changing brain.
Watch: Watch Carol Dweck’s TED Talk: The Power of Believing that You Can Improve. For kids, try Dojo’s series on Neuroplasticity and Growth Mindset.
NEUROPLASTICITY: Can we really rewire our brains?
Terry Harrison-Goldman, Ed.D.
Understanding the brain and cerebral organization and reorganization has been of interest to psychologists and neuroscientists for most of the 20th century. Since the establishment of the decade of the brain in the 1990s, there has been a significant increase in neuroplasticity related research, and similarly, an increased interest in the topic by the media and popular press. So, what does neuroplasticity mean? Simply put, ‘neuro’ means the nervous system, which consists of the brain, spinal cord and all the neurons that send and receive information back and forth to the brain, and ‘plasticity’ comes from the Greek word “plastos”, which means molded or moldable. Thus, the word neuroplasticity basically means “moldable brain”. Despite the popularity and increased interest in neuroplasticity, there continues to be a variety of definitions, which can lend to confusion and misinformation. In a broader, more generalized view, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize or rewire itself as a result of experience. Other researchers have reported that neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to undergo morphological and neurochemical changes as a result of experiential events. (Weyandt, et al. 2020) and others have posited that “neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to modify its neural connections through learning” (Sarrasin and colleagues, p 23).
Developmentally, human brain growth is mediated by genetic and environmental factors from the moment of conception. How the brain develops is an amazing and complex process. Simply stated, brain development progresses through a series of stages where billions of neurons and glia must form (neurogenesis), migrate to their correct locations (neural migration), mature (maturation), develop neuronal networks and synapses (synaptogenesis), as well as the elimination of extra connections (pruning) and myelin formation (myelogenesis). Historically it was believed that this process predominated throughout childhood, but that the brain underwent little change beyond such time. In fact, it was not until sometime in the late 1970s that research showed that the prefrontal cortex undergoes structural changes throughout adolescence. Even more recently, advances in brain imaging have allowed researchers to demonstrate aspects of brain development that continue throughout childhood and adolescence. However, the relationship between these changes and behavior are less well understood and are fraught by the problems often seen when inferring causation from correlation.
There is beginning to be a preponderance of research that supports the ability of the brain to change in response to repeated experiences. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is always learning and the idea that the brain is in a constant state of learning and can “rewire” itself, has implications in many different realms. Stroke and traumatic brain injuries are challenging disease processes to treat, yet understanding neuroplasticity and the intricate dance between neurobiological factors, experiential factors and recovery provides insight and information into our understanding change and aspects of recovery including age of injury, time of treatment, etc. However, understanding that the brain is neutral, and it processes and learns without knowledge between good or bad experiences is also a critical point. This implies that change can be adaptive when associated with an improvement in function or maladaptive when associated with a negative response, such as a loss of function. For example, ongoing research in the field of neuroplasticity indicates that negative environmental factors, (e.g., inadequate care, poverty, neglect, and stress) can place the individual at risk for psychological disorders. This is believed to be in part due to morphological and functional brain changes. Conversely, the brain’s ability to adapt both structurally and functionally makes childhood the preferred period for many interventions that are less effective if delayed until later adolescence. Understanding neuroplasticity during childhood and adolescence and investigating methods to foster this process across the lifespan could help to counteract negative outcomes associated with environmental factors and possibly neurodegeneration later in life.
Research in neuroplasticity is also showing promising new therapies to address mental health issues, learning, and keeping the brain sharp through old age. The power of brain training means that the brain cannot only learn “new tricks” but has the potential to restructure itself even into later years of life. There are many activities that may promote positive neuroplasticity, even playing video games! Research suggests that gaming as a hobby can have cognitive benefits including motor coordination, visual recognition and spatial awareness, as well as improving decision making and reaction speed. Learning a new language can also foster cognitive skills, strengthen white matter connections and may reduce future declines as one ages. Music, dance and art are also believed to promote brain plasticity by improving sustained attention, better memory and increased motor coordination.
The idea of neuroplasticity inevitably conjures up thoughts of hope and that our brain can be guided and enhanced. However, clearer understanding of guidelines for defining and measuring neuroplasticity are needed.
- Cramer, SC, Sur, M, Dobkin, BH, et al. Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain 2011: 134(6):1591-1609.
- Sarrasin, JB, Nenciovici, L, Foisy, LMB, et. Al. Effects of teaching the concept of neuroplasticity to induce a growth mindset on motivation, achievement, and brain activity; a meta-analysis. Trends Neurosci Educ 2018; 12: 22-31.
- Weyandt, L, Clarkin, CM, Holding, EZ, et al. Neuroplasticity in children and adolescents in response to treatment intervention: A systematic review of the literature. Clinical and Translational Neuroscience 2020: 1-21.
Neuroplasticity in Practice:
Each year, on the first day of school, Susan Stewart hands out a crisp dollar bill to each of her middle-school-age students and joyfully declares, “Today, I’m paying you to learn!” The goal: fold the dollar bill into a perfect origami ring, with the “1” facing upward. Along with the dollar bill, Ms. Stewart provides a copy of step-by-step directions to each student and projects each step in isolation on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.
The students get to work, some forging ahead easily, others stumbling with different aspects of the directions. Some have to begin again. Others find clever work-arounds to the directions. While each journey to the finished product, displayed in a picture on the directions in front of them, is a different one, Ms. Stewart has 100% success getting her students to the finish line each year. The task requires students to show perseverance, patience, and measured practice. But the end result not only yields a wearable dollar bill ring, but also contentment, confidence, and connections to other endeavors.
This dollar bill opening lesson serves many purposes in Ms. Stewart’s Language Arts classroom. Throughout the year, she refers back to this experience, reminding students of the importance of sticking with something, trusting her that they’ll get to that successful endpoint, and to the necessity (and helpfulness) of guidance. She also pairs the kinesthetic activity with a thoughtful conversation about students’ “one thing.” Ms. Stewart shares that the “1” on their self-made ring also represents that everyONE has at least one inherent strength to rely on, to feel confident about, and to enjoy or feel passionate about. This strength is often recognized and counted on by others and it is often what leads us to choose a fulfilling job and future. Our one thing makes us stand out.
None of this is by accident. Ms. Stewart knows she can rely on the neurological benefits of novelty, which has been shown to trigger alerting and orientation systems. With students’ attention and engagement at peak levels, she is able to lay new neural pathways. The multisensory nature of the activity–physically building this artifact while also discussing its importance on a metaphorical level–reinforces learning. The relative difficulty of the task requires students to effort toward completion, another aspect of learning that cognitive science supports. When students have to work a little harder than usual to “get something,” they are more likely to remember it later on. Several of the students, spurred on by the picture of the finished dollar ring, alter the steps but still end up with the proper end result. Ms. Stewart embraces this divergent thinking, using it as a moment to praise the creative problem solving and emphasize that learning does permit different tools and techniques that can yield a successful outcome.
The next day, when prompted to either remember or initiate ideas of behaviors and skills that the assignment required, students’ responses include focus, concentration, paying attention, listening, reading directions, understanding directions, following directions, following each step in order, fine motor movements, patience, asking questions, making mistakes, undoing and redoing certain steps, letting others help, careful folding, confidence, and a desire to learn.
Students also discuss their “one” area of strength and later identify their number one or top strengths on paper. Responses included music, sports, humor, writing, planning, art, working hard, creativity, reading, memory, technology, and never giving up. Further discussion highlights the assortment and range of named strengths and how necessary and important those strengths are in a classroom, a family, a community, our world. Our personal strengths make the world a better place. Each of us matters.
It’s worth noting that although Ms. Stewart regularly uses the mantra “push past the pain” to help students persevere with challenging tasks so they can experience the success that results from perseverance, no one seems to need that level of encouragement because no one expresses heightened frustration during this activity. Although difficult and new, students are personally and happily motivated to stay with it, and the results reverberate throughout lessons for the remainder of the school year.