Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Which Lens? A Choice in Educational Reform

• Resiliency

• Service and Perspective
• Optimism
• Brain Plasticity/ Experiences changing the brain structurally and functionally
• Emotional Engagement
• Enthusiasm
• Inquiry: What do you need? How can I help? Who and what are your resources?
• Assessment- to sit beside ( Latin root)
Which Lens? Do We Actually Choose or Do We Integrate Both?

• School Vouchers
• Common Core Standards
• Charter Schools verses Public Schools
• No Child Left Behind
• Race to the Top
• Teacher Evaluations
• Impoverished Environments
• Failing schools /No excuse cultures

I am observing and questioning individual and group responses in this time of national and state educational reform; wondering and pondering, “why,” as a society, we have forgotten that education is a “living and breathing system” where emotions, intentions, thought processes, behaviors and prosody sculpt the extravagant landscape of the teaching and learning process as thriving is our birthright and as natural to us as breathing. And yet, we are drawing lines around or in front of one another, unintentionally or intentionally creating parameters for whom or for who occupies the “in” group and “out” groups. We do this in all areas of life: religion disparities, land acquisition, politics and within our own families. If we are truly relational people and we need one another to survive, but more importantly thrive; how have these polarities and hardened divisions in education reform been established , angrily debated while sacrificing our children’s’ and educators’ well-being? It has been said that our education system mirrors the global landscape of unrest, fear and warring hearts and nations. I believe this to be a reality in this time.
This is not an article to debate policy, persons in leadership roles or systems; we read and speak of these divergences every day. We are keenly aware of our opposition and the contrasted feelings, values and philosophies these disparities bring forth, bubbling to the surface inside our individual lives.

It is my intention to plant the seeds and reel us back inside the neurobiology that makes each of us tick, that breathes life into our thoughts, visions, goals, and fears, propelling us to affirm or attack one another in areas of conflict. If we desire to teach our students the critical and creative thinking and problem solving processes that deepen our understanding on any topic, then we cannot afford NOT to explore the mind and the brain, and how this vibrant creative organ changes its structure and function with every thought, action, experience and feeling! How have “mindful teaching practices” been left out of the national, state and local district discussions and circling pronouncements about raising test scores and morales of both teacher and student while examining the multi-faceted landscape of poverty in our country that has been so intimately tied to educational reform?

I feel that most systems, organizations and individuals who work inside the arena of education embrace a purposeful vision for all students and teachers, but have our own egos and fears of the unknown capitalized on the changes we face in this time of reform? As an educator, I have reflected, wondered, listened, over and over… feeling an array of emotions as my personal beliefs have been affirmed or challenged by those who may or may not agree with the principles I covet; but there is much more at stake than A-F grading systems, teacher evaluations, charter vs. public schools and implementing common core standards. Where are the questions that promote dialogue and are we acknowledging and building upon the “teachable moments and experiences” inside our own lives and those of our students, children and colleagues that strengthen our reflective, broadened and responsive perspectives? What is the purpose of education? I have toggled with this question subconsciously all my life, but consciously, the question rings in my head and heart daily, and as one of my mentors mirrored my own thoughts, but with a fresh perspective:

“I wish there was a way to connect with everyone Lori, allowing one another to see the inner benefits of knowledge and education from a self-empowering and self-motivating perspective. We are our own biggest obstacles nine times out of ten. If we can find breakthroughs for self-empowerment, inside our own experiences, I feel those are the things that will bring us closer together as a society, where one’s own fear, guilt and hatred are pushed aside. How do these collective mindful and humane inter-relational thought-processes find their ways into our lives, homes, businesses, schools and classrooms?”
Education begins with learning how to live outside the walls of school and as Paul Tough examined in his book, “How Children Succeed” the non-cognitive skills of self-regulation, response inhibition, flexibility, and strengthening the working memory are a few of these emotional skills that create some of the positive resilient differences we see in children and adolescents who are taught “how” to be self-aware, self-reflective while delaying gratification in ways that benefit their personal and collective life experiences and outcomes!

Unprecedented rates of stress and anxiety are permeating our society in this time and so if we are to look within, to the root causes of “educational breakdowns,” we cannot neglect to see how the part of the brain most affected by early stress is the pre-frontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. And as an outcome, children who grow up in troubled, stress-filled environments are in the fight, flight and freeze response most of the time with little or no guidance or resources to move them out of this damaging and debilitating thalamic response of perceived stressors.
So what can we do? As educators, policy reformers and a community, it begins inside each of us with the deep understanding of how our brains are wired, control, attach, release and fashion a plethora of responses based on perspective and choice.

Built within our neurobiology is a “negative bias” and this has always been a part of our evolutionary heritage… when we understand how this bias directly contributed to our survival as a species and we needed it; “to enjoy lunch rather than be lunch” we can begin to understand our pull or reactionary response to the negatives in our lives.. we worry, we awake in the middle of the night with perceived stress. The brain is designed for learning and particularly we learn from negative experiences, but to recognize this as a part of our nature we also know that positive experiences need to be savored in the working memory for up to 30 seconds and this is why the practice of gratitude and noticing anything and everything positive, are so important,. Noticing the small positive occurrences in our lives structurally and functionally reshape and rewire the brain so the circuitry we use is strengthened. This is extraordinary teaching for our children and adolescents because in a time of felt and experienced chronic stress and anxieties, these neural circuits can be fortified and exercised in the early years so that optimism, critical thinking skills, resiliency and substantiated creative thought processes are a part of the child’s skill set polished and refined for traversing through life and school.
As we desire to raise test scores and re-invigorate an already over packed complex educational curriculum, we would benefit collectively by recognizing that educational reform is not a static one –dimensional system in need of a solution or fix. And when dialogue and equity are missing in the recovery of a broken system, coercion and authoritarian directives and leadership DO NOT shift minds and hearts in positive directions.

As a living organizational system, the contribution of all individuals raises the consciousness and the options for dialogue, questions and self-reflections. If we are to come at any problem or challenge with equity and leverage enfolding clarity of thought, we must embrace the resources we have within us to ignite the part of our nervous systems that calms us and relieves the fight flight anxiety producing response that accompanies agitation, stress, anxiety and fear. . To calm the nervous system we engage with the parasympathetic system that slows us down, releases neurotransmitters that create clearer thinking and an enhanced memory system.

As a parent and partner in education and advocate for transformative educational change, I have circled back from big top down thinking and strategic strategies, and systemic solutions to, initially… a disappointing response or thought for lasting changes… it begins and ends with “me”-nothing more or less, and as I delve into my University’s coursework, mentoring new teachers in the Indianapolis Public schools, and blog about the woes, failings, challenges and successes of school reform, I am reminded by that inner voice inside my head and heart that feels to be endlessly patient with my cognitive smorgasbord of concrete, viable and tangible fixes. Only when another is ready and listening, coming from within, ripe for the inner changes that call us to be awake to our own vulnerabilities, capabilities, weaknesses and proverbial egos that point us continually outside ourselves, will we be prepared and participate in a healthy reform movement which again begins with me. How do we move within? How do we ignite our inner landscape where mindful teaching approaches connect our cognitive health and wealth to our well-being? These strategies are only a few of the hundreds of mindful inner resources and tools that stimulate positive emotion when the learner is ready and awake to his or her contributions to this chaotic time of creating a new… In the beginning, our openness and our ability to feel and see the inner lives of one another rest on our neurobiology and in 2012, the science behind these practices is emerging at rapid speed and receptiveness.

1. Long slow breaths with exaggerated exhales activate the parasympathetic nervous system helping to release anxiety and frustration with a few exaggerated and long exhales. ( Dr. Rick Hanson neuropsychologist at UCLA and international author)
2. Ask the questions and track the child’s successes, no matter how small or minor. Self-tracking is a powerful motivator for change and as we track the cognitive skills, do not neglect those areas of Executive Function that directly and intimately affect a child or adolescent’s effectiveness in planning, prioritizing and shifting perspectives that employ empathy while exploring a life that potentially is filled with troubling circumstances.
3. Experience dependent neuroplasticity allows us to create experiences and communication for one another that builds on positive thought processes, reducing our fear responses.
4. Plant the seeds… Educator and school leader Michael McKnight shares, “To begin, observe- but on an intuitive level. No checklists, no notes, no histories- just watch him. Watch him watching his world. Go silently behind his eyes to see his world. When you see what he feels, you will have learned all that you need to know…
Then begin! (L. Tobin)

‘Goodbye,’ said the fox. ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’
‘What is essential is invisible to the eye,’ the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.'”
The Little Prince

“In developing leaders, we need to move away from problem solving toward purpose finding. We need to help people identify their strengths, and we need to help them hold a compelling picture of a better future.
Robert E. Quinn, Author of “Building the Bridge As You Walk on It”

As an educator in the 21st century, it is my honor and responsibility to hold a magnificent vision for my students when they are unable to see the weavings and design, just yet…

Lori Desautels, Ph.D.
School of education
Marian University
November 20 2012

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