HOW BRAIN-BASED RESEARCH IS IMPROVING THE LEARNING PROCESS
by Tim Curdt '90, Director of SLUH's Learning Center, Freshman Class Moderator, English teacher
Today new and exciting advances in neuroscience offer a deeper understanding of how the brain operates in the learning process. Research on the adolescent brain specifically has yielded fruitful insights for what has become known within the Jesuit Schools Network (JSN) as the “Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm.”
A 2015 JSN document, entitled Our Way of Proceeding: Standards & Benchmarks for Jesuit Schools in the 21st Century, describes an authentic Ignatian pedagogy as one that “engages the world through a careful analysis of CONTEXT, in dialogue with experience, always open to EVALUATION through REFLECTION, for the sake of ACTION.” Using these guidelines as inspiration for our third century, we continually look at research-based best practices and how we can apply them to our curriculum and support services.
"Brain-based research" is a term that’s become widespread at education conferences and within the academic world – and for good reason. Its applicability is invaluable.
Executive Function Skills (EFS) represent one of the most intriguing areas in neuroscience. Located primarily in the prefrontal cortex, EFS encompass the ability to manage oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. Or, as neuroscientist John Medina humorously remarked in his recent book Attack of the Teenage Brain, EFS are “the ability to get something done – and not punch someone in the nose while doing it!”
Our student programming in the Learning Center has expanded in recent years with a focus on the acquisition and growth of EFS. In fact, this focus drives our mission to provide support for students to independently demonstrate resilience and personal accountability in the successful managing of school and personal materials, competing time commitments, academic expectations and requirements, and personal stressors.
In addition to EFS, researchers have made discoveries in “neuroplasticity,” which describes how neural pathways and brain structure change when learning and practicing a new skill. In contrast to previously established neural models, studies have revealed how focused attention and repetition in practicing a new skill or developing a new habit help neural pathways fire more efficiently. New pathways frequently used are strengthened through a process called “myelination,” and old pathways not used die off through “synaptic pruning.”
We know the teenage brain is open developmentally not only to acquiring new habits and skills through these processes, but also to finding purpose and meaning in exposure to new experiences. As Frances Jensen notes in her book The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, “This is why adolescence is a time of true wonder. Because of the flexibility and growth of the brain, adolescents have a window of opportunity with an increased capacity for remarkable accomplishments.”
The downside to the adolescent brain’s remarkable window of opportunity and growth, however, is that it can become, in Jensen’s words, “a double-edged sword because an open and excitable brain can be adversely affected by stress, drugs, chemical substances and any number of changes in the environment.” We teach our students careful discernment in the Ignatian tradition to help develop their “open and excitable” brains in the healthiest way possible.
Researchers have learned that the wiring of the prefrontal cortex supporting these skills for impulse control, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility isn’t fully complete until the age of 25 for most adults. Although there are several evolutionary reasons for the timing of this development, there is no denying it can be occasionally frustrating for a parent or teacher working with a teen who has inevitably made a rash, impulsive decision with unintended consequences.
Pathways to Success
When it comes to learning new skills, national Executive Function specialists Dr. Richard Guare and Dr. Pam Dawson say the teenage brain is like “a beautiful Ferrari with no brakes.” What are we doing to best equip these fast sports cars buzzing through our hallways at SLUH?
Recalling the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, our Learning Center operates within the CONTEXT of acute awareness of the developmental challenges and opportunities of the teenage brain, which manifests an intense openness and excitability to new experience combined with an underdeveloped self-regulation system. In addition, we take ACTION supporting students struggling academically by helping them learn to apply their brakes.
First, we give them a skill-based lens through which to see their efforts to persevere and improve in the midst of their worthy struggles both inside and out of the classroom. We help our students see their work as fundamentally one of building capacity and expanding their skills, rather than judging them or having them judge themselves. We approach our work in ways similar to a specialty hitting instructor helping a baseball player with his swinging mechanics. With a foundational focus through the lens of EFS, we work with the student as he becomes the lead detective examining his most urgent growth opportunities – and building on his strengths. We strive for the student to take ownership of the process, learning to advocate for himself while improving and growing through purposeful practice.
The core of our mission-based work centers around reinforcing the gifts that our curriculum offers students. Reflecting on the academic skills acquired by a Jr. Bill graduate, we developed the “SLUH SEVEN: Seven Academic Skills for Success at SLUH and Beyond.” These skills include:
1. Academic Resilience and Mindset
2. Materials Management
3. Task Initiation and Completion and Goal-Directed Persistence
4. Focus, Attention and Active Learning
5. Meta-Cognitive Self-Assessment
6. Self-Advocacy/ Building Rapport with Teachers
7. Impulse Control/ Responsible Technology Management
Helping our students master these essential skills calls for an agile approach to continually REFLECT and EVALUATE (a la Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm) our programming and interventions in light of best practices. To that end, our core team meets regularly to discern the most impactful, data-driven ways of helping our students to help themselves learn more effectively and take control of their academic destiny, at SLUH and beyond.
We have learned that, if approached from the right skill-based lens and given just enough scaffolding to support student growth and autonomy, academic struggles in our rigorous college-prep curriculum can become a springboard for future success by encouraging resilience, determination and a spirit willing to accept challenge and embrace risk. Indeed, many successful alumni have affirmed this potential for growth through their own stories of occasional struggle at SLUH and the purpose and meaning it has brought them in their lives of service to God and others.
Inspired by Imagining 18 and our Jesuit mission – and guided by the latest research – we look forward to continuing to help students discover pathways to success in mastering skills and seeking growth.