In a challenging world, the abilities to utilize expert thinking and complex communication are vital. Expert thinking is about identifying patterns, relationships and problem solving; while complex communication concerns listening, analyzing, evaluating and conveying communication via various means and modalities. These skill-based tools need to be incorporated in the classroom amid competing noise. Note the typical teenager, who is “working” on a homework assignment while on Facebook and Twitter, playing music in the background, while watching a favorite TV show and texting in persistent, relentless, interrupting circuits.

Adults probably cannot maintain as many tasks, but several of us drive while listening to the radio, and either talk or communicate via texting simultaneously. Insurers as well as brain researchers verify that this does not work very well. The brain does not multitask, so tell the kids to “turn off” while studying because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. It may seem that we can juggle from task to task, but in reality the brain is such a miracle that it can shift rapidly. Yet, each shift takes time and

creates a need to reorient to the task at hand. Predigested and condensed TV and theInternet content voids the need to think. Criticisms abound that we are dumbing down, so how do we ramp up and engage our precious time in this life toward love of learning and creative solutions?


[su_heading size=”14″]To Focus and Think[/su_heading]

Bored or stressed brains don’t learn, but the experience of stress is relative. Some are psychologically resilient, while others very sensitive to lessor stressors. Students can experience stress from their social circles, from home, school, and health issues. Their brains develop the ability to think abstractly if exercised, especially during adolescence.

That is why some are capable while others are struggling in the amazingly volatile years of middle school. The adage “use it or lose it” effectively describes the brain, and the economical brain builds or prunes according to usage. Exercise deeper thinking in our youth in order for them to be capable of understanding complex issues in their future. We respect the functions of the brain and our ability as teachers and parents to relate and manipulate our youth’s experiences in order to enhance learning results.


“[A]bout 10 percent of students do not have brains sufficiently wired to read at the age at which we expect them to read,” said John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. The door to learning opens if the stimulus is novel, elicits an emotion, or connects to another strong memory. If class is boring, the brain will filter it out, so lessons need to “rate” to have a chance at staying in memory.


Students are doomed if overloaded, and feel that they lack control over the outcome of their efforts. They don’t relate a link between effort and positive results if they feel hopeless. Differentiation has to encourage achievement rates across all levels, and greater depth may be the focus of the accelerated learners. Effective teachers evoke this type of intelligence; they are acutely aware, metacognitive, verifying through feedback that they are understood.


[su_heading size=”14″]Super charge and Prime the Brain[/su_heading]

Besides providing novelty and reducing stress, a neuron growth substance Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BNDF) has been correlated with decreased incidence of Alzheimer’s, depression, bipolar disorder and several other debilitating conditions. Exercise seems to play a vital role in producing BNDF and increasing neural growth, memory and learning. This is a mandate for daily gym classes, active recess times, or at least some class-bound exercise. Most studies

done on running to measure BNDF, and a very motivated PE instructor in Naperville, Ill. took the initiative to compare high school students who were enrolled in first period Learning Readiness PE versus taking the standard PE course. John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, finds that students enrolled in “zero hour” running before school that had Literacy class in the first period outperformed those who had Literacy in eighth period.


Furthermore, those in the early running class improved 17 percent by the end of the semester compared with a 10.7 percent improvement for all other students who took standard PE. Guidance counselors started suggesting that students take their hardest subjects directly after PE. Of further interest, Math scores went up 20 percent for the exercised group versus 2 percent for those who did not attend the early running class.


“The exercise itself doesn’t make you smarter, but it puts the brain of learners in the optimal position for them to learn,” Ratey says. He calls BNDF a sort of “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Medina quotes UCLA physician-scientist Dr. Antronette Yancey, herself an athlete,“Kids pay better attention to their subjects when they’ve been active. Kids are less likely to be disruptive in terms of classroom behavior when they’re active. Kids feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem, less depression, less anxiety. All of those things can impair academic performance and attentiveness.” Substantial evidence is pouring in and teachers are even having their students learn multiplication tables while doing jumping jacks. Teachers who work with ADHD specialized classes have found that 20 minutes of treadmill or weightlifting time results in two hours of focused learning. It has well been worth the investment. Everyone can benefit—parents, students, and teachers—from physical activity in the course of each day.


[su_heading size=”14″]Connecting Learning to Foster Deep Thought[/su_heading]

How do you improve the climate for a productive learning environment? Information and technological overload and a myriad of other factors can exacerbate stress to the point of inhibiting learning. We can minimize the threat to the child if we: create a connected, participatory, egalitarian community; provide a nurturing environment with consistent patterns; organize intermediate goals and deadlines for frequent feedback; and offer redo opportunities

and reward effort while minimizing risk. Design the learning experience to follow some physical activity which refreshes the learner whenever possible; use emotion to facilitate attention and readiness through telling a story, connect to previous knowledge, present an opportunity to initiate a thought-provoking question, and let the student know, “why does this matter.” Instructors should be giving students an outline for the day’s session, and help keep them focused by indicating milestones as the lesson progresses. This acknowledges pacing as well as reduces stress when students feel supported.


Attention can be focused for a recap about 10 minutes before the brain downshifts briefly—perhaps to digest. Wise instructors use the downshift time to transition to an activity, or have students use the content in a manner which internalizes it into memory. Combining modalities of input and then actually having the students do something with the material puts it into long-term memory.

Medina emphasizes memories must have relevance to the students’ minds, experiences, or interest; and must be repeated so it resides deeply; ideally have an emotional content; and be delivered in an organized, hierarchical, or patterned manner. Practical applications of evoking deeper processing include: Think-Pair-Share, Partner discussions; Compare Similarities and Differences; Games, Debates, Skits, Demonstrations; Creating Graphic Organizers, Graphs, Pictures; Use Humor, Novelty, Change Seats, Lighting, Scents; and Freshen Bulletin Boards. While we connect within each academic discipline, teachers and parents should also network to connect with other subjects. Science Fair time can combine English with science; math can combine with computer class for graphs and using Excel; Islamic studies can work with social studies and science for the prolific scholars of the Golden Age; Arabic can work with art in calligraphy; and other foreign languages with story translation and punctuation.


The permutations across disciplines are vast, and they bring more enrichment to the students’ experiences. The brain seeks to organize; intuitively looks for patterns, and young learners can anchor to the content if teachers pinpoint them. Adults must explain, connect, and verify for comprehension. With abundance of resources in this field, adults need to continue their own learning to meet the future for our students’ sake. Our students must become wise, and only the best teachers and savvy parents can cultivate stellar students who can lead and prosper with their executive skills.

Susan Labadi

Photo Credit : Danillo Rizzuti at