Chicago area schools putting brain research to work

For decades, researchers have studied the brain and how students learn. Out of it came findings educators have implemented into the classroom to help children optimize their potential.

At some schools throughout Chicago, modern research is only confirming the way they have been teaching for decades, while at other schools, new research is shaping what they are doing inside the classroom.

Marsha Enright, president of the school board at Council Oak Montessori in Chicago, says modern research and studies keep confirming that the philosophies Maria Montessori began using more than a century ago still prove true today.

“Research in neuropsychology and development has been confirming what we do in Montessori. Maria was an absolute genius scientist who was able to observe how children learned and acted and then came up with a program that uses things that modern researchers are still discovering today,” Enright says.

Specifically, researchers like neuropsychologist Stephen Hughes and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are reinforcing Montessori’s belief in positive psychology and helping students achieve “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi believed that flow-state was one of increased concentration on a task that is so interesting you’re paying attention and working hard and when you’re done, you have a pleasant tiredness.

“This is how our lessons at Montessori function. We give students the materials they need to do the lesson, and they are just hard enough to be interesting and engaging and help them achieve that ‘flow state,’” Enright says.

At Pilgrim Lutheran Church and School in Chicago, the staff is incorporating theories they learned at an in-service workshop by Wheatridge Ministries to help increase students’ learning. That workshop taught that “brain breaks” are essential to student learning, and therefore, teachers are regularly leading their students in kinesthetic activities in the classroom to help them boost their performance, says Pilgrim Principal Chris Comella.

“Especially before we do any testing, teachers will be doing stretching or dancing or some kind of physical activity to get the blood flowing to the brain,” he says. “In other activities, teachers will musically chant things, or make up raps for prayers. Or they get up in math class and sing and dance the math rules, which helps ingrain them on the brain.”

They also use things like sign language and “reader’s theater” performances during chapel time to reinforce learning and engage the brain, he says.

“Anecdotal evidence shows us that kids are happier and more enthusiastic about learning if it’s fun,” he says. “It’s fun to do raps and chanting and reader’s theater. And in terms of test results, we think their scores spike by at least a few points because the physical activity helps keep them mentally focused.”

The Chicago Grammar School preschool and junior kindergarten program is designed with opportunities for the children’s neuro-development in order to maximize those periods in which the brain responds to certain types of input to create or consolidate neural networks, says Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Chicago Grammar School.

Scientists have firmly established — and progressive educators have long recognized — that learning and knowledge in children does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Learning is a consequence of their activities, problem solving and environment, that is, their experience, Jackson says.

“At Chicago Grammar School, our program is designed to immerse the child in complex interactive experiences that are both rich and relevant to the child. The teacher’s role is to identify and plan for the experiences. They assume the responsibility of guiding the problem solving,” he says.

“The teacher attentively adjusts the level of assistance and direction in response to the child’s level of performance, thereby either expanding or creating a new mental model to accommodate the experience.”

This is reflected in numerous ways throughout the school: through a low student-teacher ratio; a classical education with a broad, integrated curriculum that stresses observation and experience; physical activity on a daily basis; and fields of study that begin in the grammar school stage and returned to in the later schooling years (logic stage).

“For example, the familiarity with the ancient world gained by the CGS students in first grade enables them in fifth grade to make connections between their past learning and the new learning.

The more connections made, the more likely the students will find sense and meaning in the new information, thereby greatly increasing the retention of their new learning,” he says.

Educators at the Science& Arts Academy in Des Plaines are working with researchers at the Rush NeuroBehavioral Center to implement a school-based executive function program for teachers and students. They believe executive functions, which are the cognitive processes that occur in the frontal lobe area of the brain, allow us to plan, organize, make decisions, pay attention and regulate behavior. They allow us to solve problems and evaluate the decisions we make. Current research suggests that the development of executive function skills is essential for success both in school and later in life.

“While many executive function skills are thought to be acquired naturally, we believe that these skills need to be incorporated into the educational setting, so that they can be learned through a planned, intentional approach, which is integrated into the regular school curriculum,” says Dr. Georgia Bozeday, director of Educational Services at Rush NeuroBehavioral Center.

The program at Science& Arts Academy focuses on teaching students organizational skills, time management strategies, the ability to assess individual strengths, how to set goals, and the utilization of study skills to optimize a student’s academic and behavioral successes.

There are many examples of how this is being implemented in the classroom. For example, students in the lower grades use a specialized daily assignment notebook, while middle school students use the MyHomework iPad app to stay organized, and all students use a color-coded binder system to manage all their homework and paperwork.

Students also are taught time management techniques and study strategies as part of the program. They also set individual goals, called SMART Goals, in both academic and personal areas and then create steps to achieve them.

“Working one on one with students and teaching them how to develop SMART goals gives them the opportunity to learn how to implement key strategies, so that they can strengthen their focus, develop their flexibility and learn how to plan, organize and prioritize,” says Tina Centineo, a third and fourth grade teacher at Science& Arts.

“The program focuses on teaching step-by-step development of executive functions, based on a firm understanding of brain research in this arena, to enhance the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills, in an effort to optimize educational performance,” says Tim Costello, head of school. “Knowing how to develop a study plan reduces anxiety relative to the management of assignments and the student’s work load.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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