The Words of the Winings Family

That's Using Your Brain -- How Understanding the Brain Makes Us Effective Teachers

Kathy Winings
June 2012

Religious educator, Gabriel Moran, considers teaching a "spiritual act." Nothing could be truer than this statement; teaching is indeed a spiritual act.

To be an effective teacher, one needs to draw from all resources -- physical, mental, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, teaches that one should pray at least three hours for every one hour that one speaks or teaches. This is an example of the type of investment one needs to make in order to gain the depth of perspective necessary for good teaching. Without this prayerful investment, how can a teacher gain insight into what is being taught as well as insight into the students themselves. How can an unprepared teacher be the vortex through which he or she and the students become connected to God? Without a doubt, teaching is a spiritual act.

At the same time, effective teaching requires continual study and practice. In that regard, we are fortunate to be living in the present time, because our understanding of how people learn and what is possible when it comes to dynamic religious education has expanded by leaps and bounds. We are not simply talking about new and creative methods of teaching, though. We are talking about the profound insights concerning how we learn and how our brains function. This is the new field of neuroscience and, by extension, neuroeducation.

About the Brain

Neuroscience is the new field of study that looks at brain development. Initial studies dealt primarily with the discipline itself -- looking at the brain as just an organ. The field has now become much more developed, with several sub-specialties including: neuroeducation -- dealing with brain-based teaching; neuropsychology -- brain development and human behavior, actions and beliefs; and neurotheology -- how neuroscience impacts our understanding of God and human beings. Of particular interest to me is the area of neuroeducation. Educators have been writing and publishing in this burgeoning field, trying to bridge the gap between religious education and neuroscience. Neuroscience applied to religious instruction will help teachers teach more effectively and engagingly, regardless of the age group being targeted. The suggestions that follow are designed to provide those who teach with insights that can be utilized quickly and simply.

What makes brain-based teaching so helpful? Let's look at some of the more basic concepts of neuroeducation. The underlying foundation for this field is the way learning is defined. Learning involves communication between neurons, which are nerve cells in the brain. Neurons are the basic units of our nervous system, which processes what we learn or perceive at any given moment. We are born with most of the neurons we will ever need throughout our life, though there is a second period of major brain development in adolescence. During the learning process, everything we perceive -- what we hear, see, experience is received by our neurons through their extensions (dendrites). This information is then passed along a pathway (axon) to other neurons and on to other pathways and neurons. As more neurons are involved and more pathways are engaged, a neural network begins to form. We can either strengthen this network through continual engagement and refinement or we can prune (cut back) this network by not engaging it. This is why, as we grow and develop from childhood to adulthood, the wiring between our neurons undergoes several waves of reorganization and change. This is done at amazing speeds and involves thousands of dendrites and neurons.


What is important to remember from this is that the neurons in the brain of a child form far more connections than those in the brain of an adult, and do so at incredibly high speeds. This is why new parents and teachers of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes are urged to provide tremendous amounts of stimulation for their children. Babies, for example, should be hearing thousands of words every day and should be surrounded by varying colors and objects in order to support the formation of these neural networks. Babies and toddlers who grow up in conditions of extreme poverty are often delayed in their development once they begin school because of a lack of stimulation. Of course, as the child grows, there are important "windows of opportunity," as neuroeducator David Sousa calls them, in which the child's brain responds to, or is sensitive to certain types of input. During these windows of opportunity, Sousa says, "the child needs various types of input to stabilize and strengthen brain structures for long-term growth." These areas of input include motor development, emotional control, vocabulary, language, math and instrumental music.

Language acquisition is a good example of a skill that is affected by these "windows of opportunity." The window for learning language opens fairly quickly after birth, but tapers off around the pre-teen years (11 and 12). After that, learning language, including grammar, is harder. This leads us to question why school systems tend to wait to teach new languages until middle or even high school if our window for language is most open in our early years. Let's look at another example. Why do children often experience the "terrible twos?" Simply speaking, this is because the window for developing emotional control is most open between birth and two years of age, on average. During those years, the emotional system develops faster than the system that determines reason and rational thought in the frontal lobe. So this initial time period becomes a tug-of-war between these two areas of the brain, with the emotional areas tending to win more often than not. Therefore, knowing this is the window for emotional control, how we as parents respond to our children when they throw a tantrum can contribute to how they learn to control of their emotions. Finally, it should not be a surprise when we read about such musically gifted young people as Jackie Ivanko, the Brown family piano prodigies, or Amadeus Mozart. Again, their genius is due, in part, to the stimulation they received during their windows of opportunity and their focusing on musical skills. Brain Food

Neuroscience has now shown us the importance of that age- old dictum to eat a good breakfast, drink plenty of water and breathe deeply. If we are to maximize the development of a child's brain, they need the appropriate fuel. The harder or more challenging the task, the more fuel their brains will need. Children, teens and adults need foods that specifically contain glucose to support the learning process. If their breakfasts do not contain adequate glucose -- such as that found in fruit -- their brains will not function in a healthy manner. If they don't drink enough water throughout the day, they are hampering their brains' performance. Water is needed to keep the communication between neurons moving effectively. Water also helps our lungs stay moist which further supports the flow of oxygen in our bloodstream -- something also needed for our brains to function adequately and efficiently.

Key Resource: Sousa, David. 2006. How the Brain Learns, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 

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