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from Fall 97 issue

Brain Gardening

by Rhonda Adams, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, and Jill Hay, Inclusion Educational Specialist, Region 12 Education Service Center

Flowers, I love them! They brighten any room with their magnificent colors and skin-tingling aromas. As much as I enjoy flowers, I am not very good at growing them. I usually kill everything I plant. I water them too often or forget to water them at all. True gardeners take pleasure in the backbreaking job of preparing the soil for the seed, choosing the best seeds, deciding when to plant, tending the small buds, and waiting patiently for the beautiful flower to bloom. I keep trying, but a flower gardener I'm not. Recently though, I have come to think of flower gardening when I think about learning. For knowledge to grow and bloom the brain needs preparation and nurturing.

HOW DOES THE BRAIN WORK

When we are born, researchers believe that our brains already have many neural connections. They believe the experiences we provide children at an early age will define the neural networks and help develop the foundation of all learning.

To understand neural connections and the role they play in learning, think of a sunflower. The dark center of the sunflower is like the neuron. The dendrites like petals attach to the neuron and serve as receiving sites for incoming impulses. The axon which carries the outgoing impulses is like the flower's stem and at its base are the axon branches much like the roots attached to the stem. These axon branches act on the message sent down the axon and chemically send impulses to other dendrites which are attached to another neuron.

We are born with approximately one hundred billion neurons (cells). Each neuron has the potential to connect with ten thousand other neurons. That's over a trillion possible connections. When a neuron is stimulated an electrical impulse travels through the axon to the axon fibers and is chemically released to the dendrites on another neuron. The dendrites and the axon fibers do not actually touch. This space between the axon fibers and the dendrites is known as the synapses. This is where learning occurs. The impulse then travels from the dendrites to the neuron and the cycle begins again. These connections allow information to be sent all over the brain in just milliseconds.

By the age of two a child will have formed most of the synapses he is ever going to have and will burn two times the energy of his parents (Jensen, 1997). Although learning is a life long process, there are windows in our development in which things will be easier to learn (Jensen, 1997).

Impluses from other axon fibers--are received by the dendrites--Cell body of the Neuron--Dendrites--Impluses travel along the axon--Synapses--Axon--Axon branches--Impluses are sent to the dendrites of other neurons

HOW DO WE HELP THE GARDEN GROW

One of the first parts of the brain to develop is the cerebellum. It is in the cerebellum that motor activities are believed to originate. Therefore, early emphasis on motor skills and experiences involving motor activities are essential. Some researchers estimate that children today have less opportunity for early movement activities than did children in the 1960's. For example, it is estimated that in 1960 children spent approximately 100 hours in a car seat, versus the 1995 estimate of 500 hours (Jensen, 1997). Although we know car seats are very important and should always be used, this example shows that children today spend less time in open, spacious, movement-enriched environments. That being the case, we need to consciously plan for more movement opportunities for infants and toddlers. When a child is blind or visually impaired, movement is generally reduced, especially if the child has other disabilities. Taking your child through movement activities, even from infancy, is extremely beneficial to overall learning.

Another area of the brain is the limbic system which is a group of structures in the middle of the brain that play an important role in emotion and motivation (Russell, 1979). It is through emotion that we are able to retain information since it is one of the keys to getting the brain's attention. We must have attention to have learning and the learner must determine what is meaningful. Emotions are believed to be key in the brain's ability to start making more complex connections around the age of two months (Nash, 1997).

It is important to create a good environment for learning. An enriched environment with novel challenge, an absence of threat, and learner controlled feedback is just the environment we want to create. Challenge is important because learning takes place when we are outside of our comfort zone. Combining novelty with routine or ritual is a good way to push the comfort zone without making a child feel threatened. This could be why the use of activity routines appears to be so effective with children who are deafblind.

However, there is a fine line between challenge and threat (Jensen, 1997). When threat is present the learner does not feel safe, and can go into the "flight or fight" state. Learning is not taking place in this state. It's just instinct. For children with visual impairments and especially deafblindness, there are many more "threats" in the environment because things are often literally on top of them before they are aware they exist. Slowing the pace a bit and making the environment safer for independent exploration can reduce some of the stress these children may feel.

Feedback is essential in providing an enriched environment. The most important concept regarding feedback is that it needs to be learner controlled. Often we think feedback should be immediate and verbal, but this does not work for all learners. When you allow choice in how feedback is given, then the feedback is better received and processed. Feedback is at its best when provided by a peer. Helping peers to understand the child's visual impairment, and/or communication system in the case of a child who is nonverbal, allows them to be able to provide feedback to the child.

Providing an environment of relaxed alertness stimulates the connections in the brain. Many times we focus on having the learner's attention. Attention takes place in the conscious mind, but ninety-nine percent of learning is done unconsciously (Jensen, 1997). This means when we have the learner's attention they are taking in information. However, formulating meaning from this information occurs when the learner has time to process the information.

Neurological impairment impacts learning. Often children with neurological impairment can not maintain this calm alert state. They may need a much more structured routine and more subtle novelty to meaningfully incorporate new information. This makes the learning process much slower and much more difficult for these children. Still the brain is driven to find meaning. We can assist this process by providing learning environments that involve emotional, relevant, and contextual learning (Jensen, 1996).

The brain is an awesome and amazing organ, and we are learning more about it all the time. In fact, some researchers say we have learned more about the brain in the past five years than in any other time in recorded history (Jensen, 1997). What we do know is that the blossoms of learning are just waiting to be stimulated. They grow with real world experiences, an environment without threat, activities that students find meaningful, novel ways of presenting information, challenge, affirmation, time for processing information, collaboration with peers, and choices in how feedback is given. Brain gardening is hard work. As teachers and parents we will find many weeds (obstacles) as we grow our garden, not the least of which is the difficulty of incorporating new teaching techniques into our approach to providing instruction. As we gain more understanding of how the brain assimilates information, each of us will have to decide whether we will change our techniques to help our children grow.

References

Jensen, Eric. (1996). Brain - Based Learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point Publishing.

Jensen, Eric. Brain based learning (handout), Six Day Brain Based Certification Level One Conference, San Antonio. August 4-9,1997.

Nash, J. Fertile minds. Time, February 3, 1997, pp. 48-56.

Russell, Peter. (1979) The Brain Book. Penguin Books USA, Inc. New York, NY 10014, pp. 42-46.


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