What the Neuroeducation Revolution means for private schools

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Voiced through her own love of learning, Star Academy teacher Kelly Farrell explores topics of interest for educators who strive to inspire motivation, confidence and self-identity for students on their personal learning journeys.

The Brain Power conference on May 3-4 in Toronto began a valuable discussion seeking to revolutionize the way we think about child development and consequently, education.

The first annual conference brings together researchers, parents and educators to bring light to issues and recent developments in brain research and child development. It was an invaluable experience to be part of this initiative; I learned a great deal about current trends in research and issues that are important to parents of young children. Main topics at the conference included music, bilingualism and technology. After reflecting on the discussions of each during the conference, I decided to bring to light three lessons to be learned for private schools and parents.

It became clear from many discussions that I overheard in the presentations and workshops that many people are frustrated, and even angered, by the Ontario government's decisions to cut funding to music and other arts programs. The question was raised many times: If music is so important to the development of a child (especially to their language development), why are schools not doing more? To answer this, I began to think of what we can do as private schools to ensure we are meeting all the needs of the children we educate and the way in which we can provide a valuable alternative to mainstream classrooms. Private schools have an inherent advantage over publicly funded schools in that their programming is not set by government bodies, but developed and implemented by individual school administrators. As a result of this unique opportunity that private schools have to educate children, they can embrace both time-honoured and research-proven programs that can only lead to positive development for the whole child.

Lesson 1: Music and Language

The links between language and music within the brain are very clear. Dr. Sylvain Moreno of the Center for Brain Fitness at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute shared data showing how music instruction can directly improve a child's ability to learn. Dr. Moreno explained how learning music through intensive and repeated exercises can actually prepare a child's brain for learning by increasing higher cognitive functions such as attention, focus, memory and problem solving. A child's ability to learn and process language is also greatly improved by preparing the brain to learn through learning music. Dr. Moreno and his colleagues have tested and developed a program designed to "train" children's brain to learn. By using an engaging video game interface, they have developed a program called "Smarter Kids" which they hope to make available in the next year. This is a huge leap from the once-popular Baby Einstein videos, which were thought to passively affect a child's brain development through exposure to classical music.

Schools can benefit from this recent research too; instead of playing classical music and hoping that it will improve a child's cognitive functioning, teachers could be teaching mini-lessons on music before or during language classes. Music can also be incorporated into many curriculum areas. By actively engaging and including students in the creative process of writing songs, for example, or choreographing dances to describe scientific concepts or turning points in history, teachers can positively improve the cognitive functioning of their students, and thus, their ability to learn.

Lesson 2: Bilingualism

Similarly, John Godfrey of TFS, explained how learning a second language, such as French, can lead to a stronger usage of a child's native language. When considering the large roles that both language and sound play in our lives, it is easier to understand how closely they are linked in the brain. Children's brains are not hard-wired to learn one particular language. As they grow and develop and are exposed to the sounds of the language of adults in their life, babies' brains begin to learn the sounds that they will need to communicate and they filter out the sounds that they don't need. Reason follows that if a baby is exposed to adults in their life speaking different languages, they will develop the ability to determine which sounds work to communicate with each adult. This complicated and advanced form of cognitive reasoning is lost out to other skills as children grow older. What research is showing, though, is that by exposing children to more than one language when they are young, we are helping to develop and cultivate this higher cognitive function to learn language. As a result, bilingual children are more equipped to be proficient at language-based skills.

Of special note here is that it was widely acknowledged that not all children are capable of learning more than one language as a child. Children with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, will have a very difficult time processing a new language, and would not benefit from bilingualism in the same way. It is important for schools to offer native language strengthening classes for these children at the same time as offering French to other students. All children have individual strengths and weaknesses, and this fact can be acknowledged by unique programming options. Many early childhood centres and daycares offer bilingual education options, and most private schools offer French as a second language for their students. When considering the intensity of a bilingual program, consider the student population as well as the options for learning available to all students.

Lesson 3: Technology and Child Development 

It is no surprise that children's entertainment options played a significant role in the debates heard around the conference. Many parents and educators are concerned with the amount of screen time their children face. Additionally, changes in children's programming over the past 20 years have seen television shows become more fast-paced and action-oriented than before. While there remain concerns over television programming, it was interesting to hear how current brain research is helping to influence the way children's entertainment options are being developed. Television shows are attempting to fuse educational concepts into their plots while video games and apps are reinforcing academic learning.

As educators and schools, it is important to have a clear policy on digital education. There is an infinite number of options for ways to integrate technology into our schools, as the very nature of technology means that the options are increasing daily. Digital citizenship is a HUGE issue, and one that private schools have the power to teach more so than public schools. With more resources, and lower student-teacher ratios, we can use digital learning opportunities to teach our children how to grow up responsibly in the digital world. Similarly, it is important to work together with parents to choose appropriate entertainment options for children that enhance, rather than negatively impact, their academic or social lives.

—Kelly Ferrell
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