What's really going on in children's brains?

We know more about children’s brain development than ever before—but have we figured out how to put this information at work in the classroom?


Liz DeCarlo


When she teaches workshops to help teachers create brain-friendly classrooms, one of the first things trainer Bonnie Benesh points out is how futile some of the current teaching methods are, in light of what we know about how children's brains work.

And she tells teachers that the focus on meeting No Child Left Behind standards by drilling children all day long moves kids further away from creating a brain-friendly classroom.

"The alarms bells should begin to go off when we see music, art, gym and recess eliminated. These are signs we're moving away from the whole child and they're losing the ability to interact and their physical well-being," Benesh says.

Benesh may be blunter than some, but she isn't the only one concerned with the path of today's schools. Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Education Department, and Sharon Syc, professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago, also say they have concerns about education trends as schools move the focus to meeting federal standards rather than educating the child.

"There may be evidence starting to emerge that some of the changes in teaching due to standardized tests are having a negative effect," Fischer says.

As Chicago Parent editors and writers, and as parents ourselves, the alarm bells have been going off for us for a while now.

But we were not sure if the problem was change itself-turning around the country's educational system is bound to bring out critics. And no one disagrees that the goals of this massive and sweeping federal law are admirable: All children deserve a good education regardless of their race or their special needs.

That's why Chicago Parent decided to take a closer look at recent research regarding children's cognitive development and compare it to what's happening in local classrooms. We assigned two reporters who have spent nine months interviewing dozens of experts in the field of cognitive development and education. The reporters have visited Chicago and suburban classrooms, to learn more about how the curriculum is structured and how it affects children in the classroom.

What we found we will present to you in five parts over the next months. Each part will tackle a different age, from kindergarten to middle school, and we will also include a relatively new (at least to some, but not to researchers) area of education-social and emotional learning.

Bottomline? What's going on in the classroom often has nothing to do with what's happening in a child's brain at that stage of development. And while not all research translates automatically into curriculum, there are some common sense learning strategies that seem to be falling by the wayside-nutrition and exercise-to accommodate federal mandates.

Too often there seems to be a disconnect between what researchers know about brain development and how kids are being taught.

While this is alarming, what encourages us is that some schools are making it work-they're creating classrooms that incorporate children's cognitive development into the curriculum. They're educating the whole child through music, art, recess and hands-on daily work. They're meeting No Child Left Behind standards without losing sight of the individual children whom we entrust to them.

Those brain-friendly schools will be profiled throughout this series as evidence that schools can educate our children and still satisfy the federal government.

Brain friendly?

Some might say any classroom is brain-friendly. If it's all about learning and you learn by using your brain, what more do children need, right?

Lots more, say educational researchers who want teachers and administrators to do a better job of combining scientists' research with brain imaging into productive classroom strategies.

The use of PET scans, MRIs and other scientific research has brought a new level of understanding to how children learn best, and although there's still much more to learn, one thing is clear-most American classroom strategies aren't based on how children's brains develop.

"Brain-friendly classrooms are not some fly-by-night idea," Benesh says. "There's a connection between cognitive researchers and scientists and what's happening in the classroom. Brain research shows real data-driven research why certain classroom practices need to go."

But, according to the brain-based learning experts interviewed for this series certain elements should be found in every classroom if we really want to maximize children's learning.

First and foremost, learning has to be relevant and meaningful-not just drill and practice.

"If there's no connection between my world and what you're trying to teach me, I won't get it," says Bernadette Herman, teacher of "Pathways to Learning," a course for teachers on how to create brain-friendly classrooms.

"The teachers who are naturals have it in their bones. When I get good teachers [in my workshops], they're hungry for this information. Those teachers who don't get it, well, it's simply my goal to rattle their cage, because kids deserve this. As a teacher, you have to find or help make this connection."

In first grade this may be as simple as setting up a small store in the classroom to practice counting money, adding and subtracting and reading labels. For middle-school students, it might mean a debate on a controversial topic that allows students to hone their new cognitive ability to see various sides of an argument.

The next strategy is the understanding of "patterning." Most researchers agree that the brain is continually looking for patterns and how to fit new information into what's already known. For instance, second-graders studying the solar system might take five things they learned about the solar system and write a song about it based on a melody they already know, so they're taking a known melody and putting their new information with it.

"All of learning is assimilating new pieces into what you know, and you have to do this often enough that it sticks," Herman says.

Children also have to care about what they're learning-they need to be motivated or moved emotionally to learn the information. Middle-school students can often be passionate as they begin to understand the world around them.

Parent Mary Beth Stoffregen of Orland Park was thrilled to see her son thrive in a seventh-grade classroom where the teacher tied current events into the social studies curriculum. "You have to figure out what buttons to push for kids to learn," Stoffregen says.

Kids need active learning

And children need active involvement-they can't just sit at their desks and listen to a teacher be a sage on the stage. The more neural pathways children are navigating as they learn, the more the learning will stick in their long-term memory. So a child who memorizes a list of vocabulary words in a unit on supply and demand may perform well on the test the next day, but asked to apply the information a month later may give you a blank stare.

But a child who works with a partner to create a mock business and explains to the class what their company will supply and what kind of demand they expect, that child may retain that information in several areas of the brain on a long-term basis. The more experiences the child has with navigating the information, the more neural pathways are activated and the more likely the children are to incorporate the information into their long-term memory.

Add to these classroom elements the knowledge that brains require a safe environment, food, water and movement to function properly and you have a brain-friendly classroom.

"If classrooms can increase these conditions, they can increase learning three-fold," Benesh says.

But not everyone thinks schools should be embracing "brain-friendly" theories as a way to fix problems in education. Kevin Killion, director of IllinoisLoop.org says that while there is a lot that scientists are learning about children's brains, we still haven't figured out how this applies to the classroom.

"(Brain-based learning techniques) don't really have anything to do with real brain science," Killion says. "The researchers themselves are saying we don't know a lot yet. Brain-based learning is a search for easy answers but there aren't any magic bullets."

Killion says that instead of wasting academic time on another untested educational theory, we should continue with what we do know works in education-that practice makes perfect, the best way to get children's attention is to say something interesting and that children have to learn concrete information before they can move on to the abstract.

Pushing desk time

Yet even critics such as Killion agree that schools are doing away with many of the elements that children need to learn-even if you don't call them brain-friendly.

Edison Elementary School Principal Bhavna Sharma-Lewis thinks the elements in a brain-friendly classroom are common sense.

As a parent herself, it's obvious to Sharma-Lewis that her Elmhurst students need food and water breaks, recess, movement in the classroom and a stimulating classroom environment. Edison teachers attend workshops on brain-based learning strategies, and while she admits not all the teachers are enthusiastic, most embrace the idea of creating a brain-friendly classroom.

Brain-friendly classrooms can co-exist with high test scores. Edison students have recess, snack and movement breaks every day. Their test scores exceed standards every year. Granted, Edison lies in the midst of an upper-middle-class suburb, where it can be assumed children begin learning in preschool and continue their learning at home. Contrast that to a low-income urban area, where children may start kindergarten not even speaking English, and it's easy to see how administrators in that situation feel under the gun when it comes to meeting No Child Left Behind standards.

Many schools have shortened lunch periods, eliminated recess and reduced gym in recent years as they push for more academic time to drill children on the information they need to know for the myriad standardized tests they're subjected to every year.

"Brain research shows you need regular physical activity and good nutrition," Benesh says. "One of the worst things to do is to take recess away from children. They need physical movement to help them learn."

Still, sometimes it's not as simple as just wanting to embrace brain-friendly strategies.

Schools are overseen by school boards and superintendents who may not always be educators and who may not always understand what's needed in the classroom. And the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposes sanctions on schools whose students don't meet academic standards, has pushed many schools to change the way they teach.

"Because of academic standards, we may see more teachers forced to push kids and kids lose their purpose," says Syc of Erikson Institute, which trains teachers. "We're seeing more forced reading in the early grades and if the kids aren't interested, they won't be able to pay attention."

Lloyd School Principal Miryam Assaf-Keller would love to take her Chicago students outside, but she doesn't think it's possible to accomplish the academic goals she's required to meet while still taking kids out for recess.

"There's not enough time in the day for recess, so we compensate by having them up out of their desks as much as possible," Assaf-Keller says. The children also only have gym once a week, and limited art and music classes, all things she'd like to see expanded, but she doesn't see it happening any time soon. "Given our financial limitations, we're doing all we can."

But to Harvard's Fischer, it's not all bad news. He says many educational strategies have improved in recent years. "There's less rote learning then there used to be historically and more age-appropriate learning," Fischer says. "One of the things [many teachers] are getting now is that the kid has to be actively involved in the learning. If they just recite things, they don't understand."

Fischer thinks we're learning a lot from scientific research, but he cautions that you can't take scientific studies on the brain and automatically apply them to the classroom.

It takes more than research to change how classrooms are structured. "In general, you can't take something out of the lab and tell the teacher what to do in the classroom."

Liz DeCarlo, who lives in Darien, is the calendar editor at Chicago Parent as well as the mother of Anthony, 12, Emma, 10, and Grace, 8.

Law is great politics but poor public policy

by Randolph L. Tinder, Ed.D.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the federal law that is controlling the focus of public schools across America. Advanced on the proposition that schools should "leave no child behind" the law is yet another example of great politics, compelling sound bites and focused finger-pointing but poor public policy.

Public schools are the foundation of our democracy and deserve better from our leaders. The federal government provides about 5 percent of the funding for my pre-kindergarten-eighth grade public school district in suburban Chicago, yet the guidelines in this law are the only ones used to label my schools and district as successful or failing.

I was raised with the concept of normal distribution of intelligence across society, which gave us the "bell curve." The idea is that the majority of children will fall in the middle of this distribution, with the extremes being the smartest on one end and the least capable on the other. The application of this concept is what designates C as an average grade, with A indicating superior achievement and F at the other end of the curve.

Now, with little more than a show of hands in Congress, a decision has been made that all children can be above average. We have even been told when that will happen: by 2014.


The concept that every child is capable of being above average if we would only teach them better is nonsense.

Let's start with special education. Another federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act specifies that, most commonly, a child must be at least two years below grade level to qualify for all of the extra help that special education students receive. No Child Left Behind, however, has decreed that nearly all of those students who have been judged to be at least two years behind will be able to be above average by 2014. You can't have it both ways.

The law calls for annual testing in grades three through eight in reading and math. These are the only subjects by which the success or failure of a school is determined.

Are we to believe that science, social studies, art, music, physical education, foreign language and the large number of other classes that we offer are not important parts in the development and maturation of a child? Is it really true that what gets tested gets taught?

Are we preparing our children to compete in a global marketplace when we focus so much time and energy on jumping through the No Child Left Behind hoops? Are our teachers and administrators truly failures because not enough kids scored high enough on a single measure of performance? What is the real agenda behind this law?

Needs new focus

One must wonder if the goal is to discredit public education in order to justify vouchers, which take public money for private schools. Those children who can opt out of public schools will do so and public education will become the province of poor and minority children. Private schools are not subject to the rules of No Child Left Behind. Where is the level playing field?

We need to put the focus where it belongs.

Public schools have always opened their doors to every child who comes up the sidewalk. We accept them regardless of their color, physical ability, income, religion or family status. We do our very best to give every child the opportunity to be successful in school. We do not always achieve our goal due to factors over which we have no control. Students must be in school, pay attention, do their school work and perform when required to demonstrate proficiency.

We have undergone a monumental change in our approach to public education from one of universal access to universal proficiency. Saying that all children will meet a goal does not guarantee success. Threatening to label schools as failures because small groups of students are not up to the artificial level of proficiency by a specified date does not guarantee success. Allowing parents to choose to send their children to a different school where the scores are higher does not guarantee success. Providing extra tutoring services for students who don't meet standards does have the potential to help, but the costs and distractions of the program diminish its impact.

Sound teaching, eager learning and supportive parenting are the foundation for what we do. If we will encourage those things we will continue to serve kids well.

We are not afraid of being held accountable. Leave out the politics and penalties and put children first and let's see what can really happen in public schools.

Randolph L. Tinder, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Forest Park School District 91 and president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.


Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint