Twenty years ago, Change: The Magazine for Higher Learning published John Tagg and Bob Barr’s seminal article “From Teaching to Learning.” In the article, Tagg and Barr outlined what has come to be known as Learner Centered Teaching (LCT). By definition, LCT employs instructive practices designed to optimize opportunities for student learning. In order to optimize students’ learning, teachers must be able to answer two essential questions:
- Am I up-to-date on what is known about how learning happens in the human brain?
- Do I know what teaching actions are in harmony with what is known about human learning?
My conclusion is that most teachers are up-to-date and continually integrate new findings about teaching and learning as they are revealed. However, I am dismayed that as our knowledge about human learning has dramatically increased, in turn providing solid evidence that LCT practice is the best way to teach, improvements based on this research are still not prevalent in American education. In the past 20 years, college graduation rates have not improved, and the national K-12 system continues to be criticized for failing our students.
A New Paradigm for Students
So how do we improve performance? We need the students’ help. It is clear from research findings that the human brain needs to be prepped for learning in order to learn at its best. I am proposing a new paradigm for student learners, one in which they take on a greater responsibility for their success by preparing their brains for effective learning. I see no other pathway to improved school success. Teachers alone, even learner-centered teachers, cannot fix the problems facing the current education system. We need help, and that help must come from our students.
Five Areas that Improve Learning Readiness
Brain researchers have discovered there are five things that humans must provide their brain for it to function at its optimum level for learning. These five things are adequate oxygen, ample hydration, a proper diet, healthy sleep habits and aerobic exercise. These key elements are, to a great extent, controlled by students once they reach adolescence. Students at younger ages will need parental and school assistance to prepare their brains for learning.
- The Brain Needs Oxygen for Learning
Proper delivery of oxygen to the brain is crucial for developing the energy the brain needs to learn. Although the human brain represents only two percent of the body’s weight, it receives 15 percent of the cardiac output and 20 percent of total body oxygen consumption. As learning challenges increase, so too does the brain’s demand for energy in the form of oxygen and glucose. To keep up with the high energy demand of the brain, oxygen delivery and blood flow to this organ are essential for learning. The bottom line is that students need to be taught how to breathe correctly (diaphragmatic breathing), must choose to get daily physical activity and must be aware that when learning gets difficult or challenging they need to add some extra deep breaths.
- Hydration and Brain Communication Systems
Many students leave for school dehydrated on a daily basis. A large reason behind this is that humans lose two pounds of fluids through normal respiration while sleeping. Given that many students don’t adequately hydrate in the morning, they arrive at school with a brain that will have trouble learning. Even mild dehydration can influence mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly.
When students lose too much water, their brain cells lose efficiency. Research by EM Gorman in 2012 showed dehydration can impair short-term memory function as well as the recall of long-term memory. Even mild levels of dehydration can impact school performance. It seems like a simple thing, getting hydrated in the morning and maintaining it throughout the day, yet few students are even aware of how a lack of hydration impairs their learning and memory. Teachers need well-hydrated learners.
- A Balanced Diet
The brain requires about 22 times as much energy to run as the equivalent mass in muscle tissue. The energy required to run every bodily process comes from the food we eat. The foods we consume greatly affect brain function, including everything from learning and memory to emotions.
Hungry students are poor learners. It is crucial to eat before new learning and before studying, because the brain needs energy to learn. It also is important to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Diets that are high in saturated fat have been shown to reduce molecular substrates that support cognitive processing. Research by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla in 2002 found this kind of diet also reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is crucial to new learning and neuronal plasticity. Students who eat a balanced diet have brains that are ready to learn.
- Sleep and Learning
Sleep likely has the greatest impact upon the brain’s readiness to learn. Sleep is the one student behavior that teachers have virtually no control over. It’s no revelation that a tired brain doesn’t learn very well, but what is so significant about proper sleep, which for adults is 7.5 to 9.0 hours per night and for teens 9.0 to 10.0 hours, is that memories are made during sleep. Research by Bryce Mander and colleagues in 2011 discovered that when we sleep, “sleep spindles” or bursts of brain waves help to shift memories from the brain’s hippocampus — which has limited storage space — to the nearly limitless prefrontal cortex, thus freeing up the hippocampus to take in fresh data (new learning) the next day. Much of this process occurs during the second half of the night, so if students sleep only six hours or less, they are shortchanging themselves and impeding both learning and memory.
In addition, the work of Alhola and Polo-Kantola in 2007 demonstrated that brains that are sleep deprived actually shut down key mental functions needed for learning and memory because the brain is exhausted. This shutdown has consequences on mental performance and function worsens correlatively with more time spent awake.
The effects of sleep deprivation on learning are profound. Poor memory, attention and judgment are just a few of the consequences of not getting enough sleep. If students are to be optimized for learning then adequate sleep is a must.
Sleep researcher Dr. Jessica Payne follows her own research findings, “I give myself an eight-hour sleep opportunity every night. We can get away with less sleep, but it has a profound effect on our cognitive abilities.”
- Exercise and Learning
Laura Carstensen, the Director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, explains that rarely do neuroscientists, psychologists and physicians unequivocally agree on anything, but they do agree that exercise is the best thing one can do for the brain. John Ratey writes in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “Exercise is the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.” This is because exercise that causes one to raise his or her heart rate and break a sweat, and lasts at least 30 minutes, allows the brain to release greater amounts of three important neurochemicals: noradrenalin, dopamine and serotonin. These three neurochemicals improve several brain functions that are vital to new learning. The first vital function is the brain’s ability to pay attention, which is the cornerstone of learning. The brain only learns what it pays attention to, and when it comes to new learning, it can only pay attention to one thing at a time. The second function improved by these neurochemicals is the brain’s ability to stay on task for longer periods of time. Third is improved mood and motivation for new learning.
In addition, and perhaps even more exciting, exercise causes the brain to make more of a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning, and actually makes it easier for neurons to wire and fire, the basis of new learning. John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the Brain.”
A brain that has benefitted from exercise is a brain ready to learn. It is a brain that is motivated to pay greater attention and focus on tasks longer. It is a teacher’s dream brain. If students can run or walk at a rate above three mph for a half hour or more, they can have a brain optimized for learning.
A Shared Responsibility
If teachers alone could repair what is wrong with schools by changing their teaching behaviors, the problem would already be fixed. I’m not claiming that all teachers have embraced LCT, but after 20 years of LCT methods being proven effective and a decade of brain science findings, most teachers are much better practitioners. Our students have to step up. They have to see that their long term success is tied to their ability to be lifelong learners. They have to become equal partners in their education. We can’t do it without them. We have been trying for 20 years, and it hasn’t worked.