Dr. John Medina: Brain Rules for Teachers

Dr. John Medina:  Brain Rules for Teachers

The second lecture on Friday, January 21, 2011  that Dr, John Medina presented  at PEN (http://www.parentseducationnetwork.org)  was titled Brain Rules for Teachers. Dr. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller, Brain Rules, began with a familiar theme outlined in his previous lecture, Brain Rules for Parents. The brain is designed to solve problems, related to surviving, in an outdoor setting and to do so in constant motion. Secondly, the brain is incapable of multi-tasking.  It takes a person twice as long and the margin for error is 50% when a person is multi-tasking. In other words, if you do well at task A, you don’t do well at task B. 

Keeping these core premises in mind, Dr. Medina moved on to discuss sleep. It seems that animals, particularly gazelles, sleep in short segments to keep themselves aware of any predator about to attack. Similarly, we wake up during the night and if stressed, sleep eludes us. Stress is an arousal force if left unchecked and will keep a person awake!  

Dr. Medina moved on to the topic of the brain’s need for sleep in mid-afternoon between 2 PM and 4 PM.. The brain wants a down cycle. It’s time to take a nap. Another way of expressing this idea is that the brain wants to rest 12 hours passed the midpoint of a person’s previous night’s sleep. “You may ignore this suggestion but you will not change the need,” he commented. It seems that an astronaut’s crew followed this discipline and there was a 34% improvement in the output of their work.  So, Dr. Medina’s recommendation for teacher is: Do not teach between 2 PM and 4 PM.    

Dr. Medina’s discussion moved to the importance of each person knowing their daily rhythm including sleep times. 20% of the population he calls Larks. They are early birds, ideally waking at 6 AM and going to bed at 9 PM.  Their productive time is the morning, peaking at noon. 20% of the population he calls Owls who ideally would go to bed at 3 AM and wake at 11 AM. The rest are Hummingbirds and fall into a “regular” day pattern. A person who is a Lark cannot transform into an Owl. You can try, but your body rhythm will not change.

 In summarizing sleep he said most of us are sleep deprived, a reason why school children who stay up late doing homework or other activities can seem unfocussed in school. When the students get to college and can take classes at the times when they are at the best, this behavior falls away.  Dr. Medina suggested to teachers:  The school of the future will have Owls teaching owls, and Larks teaching Larks.  At this point teachers can’t control the sleep cycles of students but teachers can control how they teach.  

In the second hour Dr. Medina described how the brain is wired. Using metaphors of Interstate Highways (trunks), city boulevards and alleys to describe the wiring. He claims trunks are the same in all people but the city boulevards and alleys are different in each person. It is in the latter where learning occurs. And, yes, we all learn differently. So teachers take note:

1.  The brain is not interested in learning, it is interested in surviving.  Teachers need to be able to improvise off this learning base.

2.  A teaching system, or any system needs to have two approaches to learning, memorizing and improvisation.  If one is taught to learn and then improvise off it, the data base of the person becomes accumulative.  The knowledge edge is accumulative.  

A teacher needs to develop their ability to have empathy. He suggests they give energy to learning how to penetrate inside the minds of their students. This can be taught, and Dr. Medina emphasized, kindness and safety will do more than anything else in your classroom. 

In the third hour the focus turned to memory.  Dr. Medina cautioned that if a speaker says that memory works in a specific way, run out of room. It is not true. There are 40 memory gadgets in the brain. At the moment we know very little about them and we know very little about how they react. 

 What we do know is that when a piece of information comes to the brain and the brain decides it is important it will put the information into a buffer memory. This buffer can hold seven pieces of information for thirty seconds.  If it is not repeated within the thirty seconds, the brain will dump it. If the teacher or the student internally repeats it, the information goes into another buffer – working memory. Working memory has its own series of rules including that it will hold the information for only two hours.  If not repeated within two hours, the brain will drop it. 

So, for teachers, Dr Medina suggested transforming the 60 minute lecture into three 20 minute segments. The first being the information, the second a different activity, the third repeating the information taught during the first twenty minutes. This approach might obviate the need for homework!

 If the information is repeated within two hours it is then recruited by brain for long term storage in the hippocampus located in the brain. It may take a decade to become permanent which is the reason why information within ourselves can become corrupted.  At some point the hippocampus releases the information into the cortex. In this final phase, the information becomes infinitely retrievable.

 This memory process is a hint for teachers. Children who learn information in grade three cannot count on the information being imprinted in the brain for ten years. Students need to be retaught what they have learned. The brain is unbelievably sensitive to repetition.  Remember, the brain was not designed to be in the classroom it was designed to be in the jungle. 

Dr. Medina had two final comments:

1.         The hippocampus is affected by drugs. Marijuana stops the process of integration of learning.

2.         The greatest predictor of the ability to learn is the emotional stability in the home! 

There is more information on Dr. John Medina’s lectures for PEN.  See blog Brain Rules for Parents. Dr. Medina’s website is: http://brainrules.net. His books are: Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby.