States in the brain are like the weather. They change all the time. Teachers need to take a deep look at how they design their lessons to ensure “climate” management.
As educators, we have limited influence over national policy and curriculum design. We certainly have limited influence or control over families and the neighbourhood, but we have significant influence over what happens to our children from the moment they enter the grounds of the school. The old paradigm under which most school leaders did their training was that the brains of students stay the same. The new understanding, based on brain research, teaches that brains can change everyday. This understanding is based on the concept of neuroplasticity which is the ability of the brain to change the neural pathway and reorganise the synapses.
From conception to death, the brain is busy reorganising. Unlike computers that need updates to stay abreast with changing needs, the brain has the ability to change according to the environment. This involves literally pruning existing synapses, deleting the connections and laying new pathways between different neurons. Whereas neuroplasticity involves rewiring the pathways, neurogenesis is the ability to grow new connections (Bergland 2017).
Every time we learn something new, new connections are developed. However, if the environment and the circumstances around the brain stay the same, so will the brain. The environment determines the ability of the brain to change. If you change the experience, you change the brain.
In terms of neurogenesis, the two areas of the brain that seem to grow the most neurons are the hippocampus and the cerebellum.
The hippocampus is the switch between the emotional limbic brain and the pre-frontal cortex which handles our spatial and long term memory while the cerebellum is responsible for our muscle memory and co-ordination. Interestingly, moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) has been found to be very effective in stimulating the growth of new neurons.
With this in mind, educators can change states in the brain and grow these brains by including moderate physical activity in the lesson. Sitting still does not grow brains.
The old view was that our genes determined human behaviour. Teachers would look at the parents of a child and often write them off based on their background. The new thinking is that environment influences gene behaviour.
Therefore, environments determine emotional states. Classroom environments are largely influenced by the teacher and the school policy. In too many systems, school is a cage where children are expected to spend 200 days, six hours per day for 13 years. They are housed in a school cage for 15 000 hours, where stress is part of the daily diet, unhealthy food is served in the canteen, physical activity is often removed as a discipline consequence, social conditions are designed to separate students in order to improve concentration and beliefs systems are driven by policy. Here, the genes of our students are influenced.
Environment determines emotional states. The best state to have in your class is the flow state. Teachers can regulate this by managing the stress, assisting students to watch their diet and tracking exercise. Educators should mirror (model) the teaching. Exercise should be a non-negotiable part of every teachers’ job description. Exercise grows brain neurons ( Running through middle age, van Praag et al, 2012).
The secret is to find an exercise that you love. This starts at school. Too often certain sports are given higher status based on school policy. This policy will negatively affect neurogenesis when students become adults.