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Atkinson Series: Brainstorm | What neuroeducation can do
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sat Oct 31 2009
ABOUT THE SERIES
Alanna Mitchell is a Toronto-based writer and journalist who specializes in
global science issues.

The author of two books, Mitchell spent much of the past year investigating
the controversial push to use brain science to improve education.
She travelled to England, France, Australia and the U.S. as part of her
2008 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, a $75,000 prize with an expense
budget of up to $25,000.

The fellowship, sponsored by The Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the
Toronto Star and the Honderich family, aims to further liberal journalism in
the tradition of legendary Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson.
CHELTENHAM SPA, ENGLAND-A line of barefoot 5-year-olds, all dressed
in shorts and white T-shirts, walk into the light-filled auditorium of Lakeside
Primary.

The kids aren’t sure what’s about to happen. They only know that it is to be
an unusual half-hour gym class with a new teacher.

“I’m a dancer,” Sarah Shaw, also barefoot, tells them, in a version of the
speech she will give to the six grades she will teach at this public school
today. “And when you’re a dancer you can pretend things and put things
together to make a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We’re
going to tell the whole story without talking.”

The kids appear baffled. She puts on music. “We’re going to warm up by
climbing a mountain,” she says, briskly, arms and legs struggling up her
imaginary peak. “Jump around and look at the view!”

The kids leap to their feet, arms in the air, pretending to climb. Some grunt,
simulating extreme effort. Smiles abound.

In their usual classes, the children have been learning about construction.
So Shaw has choreographed a play to music about the Three Little Pigs to
help them live what they’re learning.

They are the pigs from the story, she tells them. They are in a field of straw.
Modelling her, they leap into action, fluidly picking up imaginary bundles of
straw in groups of three. Then they become the houses they are building,
linking their bodies into whatever shapes they think represent walls and
roofs.

Along comes the wolf, in the guise of Shaw banging a tambourine. The
children who are straw houses wave from side to side and fall down.
They practice this energetically a few times, then add a beginning part in
which they become their own homes and their own mommy pigs, leaving
home to make their own way in the world.

“Because we’re dancers, we can be pigs one minute and mommy pigs the
next,” she explains.

Finally, they put all the chunks together, flowing seamlessly through the
performance. At the end, one of the 5-year-old boys is so pumped with joy
and endorphins from the exercise that he gives a bow and a flourish.
Triumphant, they hop out of the room and back to their classrooms.
This is one of the few classes in the world being taught according to the
principles of neuroeducation, a fledgling movement that some argue could
- and should – radically change schooling. It means teaching in ways that
deliberately trigger the brain’s biological ability to learn. (Good teachers
may already be doing some of those things unintentionally.)
Shaw, 54, happened on the movement a few years ago when
neuroscientists at Oxford University offered teachers a seminar. Slowly, as
she learned about how the brain learns, she began to refine her teaching
or, in some cases, to understand why her teaching was already effective.
So, neurologically, what took place when she taught the Three Little Pigs?
It all has to do with building stronger connections among the neurons in the
brain, a process that changes the structure of the children’s brains, building
intelligence. This is the essence of learning.

Shaw’s teaching builds stronger connections by:
ï‚· Combining learning through several senses at once.
ï‚· Building on information and patterns the children have just learned in
order to deepen their understanding.
ï‚· Giving the children some creative control over their dance.
Encouraging visualizations – of fields of straw, pigs, a wolf, houses,
mommies – which activates the visual part of the brain just as if the
children are actually seeing what they imagine and releases
neurotransmitters. And visualizing a positive outcome creates
optimum stress for the kids. If the brain has too little stress, it
becomes complacent. With too much, it goes into anxious lack of
focus.
ï‚· Making connections among physical, mental and emotional states
while they rehearse and perform.
ï‚· Using music to help the children tag the memory emotionally so it is
easier to recover later.
ï‚· Helping the children take risks, stimulating the production of dopamine
in their brains and further strengthening the neural connections.
Imagining is harder for some children than for others. When the Year 2
class of 6-year-olds comes in, Shaw begins to take them through a play on
the theme of transportation and, showing them pictures of the era, asks
them to imagine that they are dressed in Edwardian clothing on the deck of
the Titanic.

“But we’re in a hall,” says one literalist, a girl.
“Yes, but because we’re dancers, we can do anything,” Shaw tells her.
“We’re going to go into a time machine and go back in time. We have
landed on the south bank of England in 1912.”
“But we’re in a hall,” the child asserts, before reluctantly deciding to play
along after the rest of the class leaps into action.
The older children get led through far more complex choreography.
The Year 6 class, who are aged 10, are learning about World War II in
class, so Shaw puts on “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the Glenn Miller jazz
classic from 1941. The kids strut and cavort, following her guidance to the
happy bop of the music, before Shaw switches the tune to a Jewish dirge.
They’re living in Holland during the war, she says, and they are Jewish.
Then they begin enacting the story of Anne Frank.
For the last scene, one child becomes Anne, arrested and led down a
corridor of unfeeling soldiers to her death in a concentration camp.
Finally, they put it all together for the performance, moving rhythmically
through the complex choreography. The energy in the auditorium is high
and so is the emotion.

At the end, the onlookers applaud wildly. Mike Allen, the acting principal,
gets to his feet, chest puffed. He tells the students that he felt like he was in
Amsterdam during the war. “I could almost feel it and touch it.”

One Response to Doing the Education Dance

  • Ben says:

    The main point is that the youngsters felt the education coming to them, which is what is missing these days. Great job to them then. Thanks for telling us about it.

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