Optimising brain systems to maximise learning
Andrew Fuller and Vicki Hartley
Teachers know that the composition of any class of students is as diverse from year to year as the range of plants in our world. However, like plants, our classes always have distinctive similarities.
There are always students who would be placed at the extremes of various spectra indicating how much they enjoy coming to school and how often they actually attend, their favoured subjects, how likely they are to be found enjoying a book or climbing a tree in the out-of-bounds area of the playground.
In our experience, though, every classroom has a student, or sometimes two (who seem to be joined at the hip), who take on the self-appointed role of class police officer. Similarly, every year we seem to be confounded by a few students who, despite seeming to have all the right combinations of enthusiasm, intellect and work ethic, just don’t make the expected rates of progress in one or more areas of their education. There are also the students who successfully demonstrate the learning from your lesson, only to arrive at school the next day with absolutely no idea of the concept. Then there are those who, regardless of how hard they try, just can’t avoid bumping into their classmate’s carefully constructed artwork, causing irreparable damage and an accompanying degree of frustration that once again, Hannah/Omar/Alex/Li-Pang has ruined everything.
When we encounter these students each year we remind ourselves, as all good teachers do, that students progress at different rates, learn in different ways and come to school with a wide range of life experiences and strengths. So we try another approach. We remind Hannah/Omar/Alex/Li-Pang about moving carefully in the classroom and respecting personal space, we revise the work with the student individually, we teach it in three other ways, we adjust the requirements of the task, we make links with other learning, we use relevant digital tools, create visual reminders and stick them to desks, the walls and sometimes to the students themselves. And in the afternoons we stare at the inspirational quotes that adorn our desks, reminding us that No two flowers bloom in exactly the same way and struggle with the fact that there must be something going on (or not) for these students, but we just don’t know what it is or how to help. At these times it is important to remember that when a flower doesn’t bloom, we first look to fixing the environment in which it grows, not the flower.
Education is about the development of individual minds. Effective teachers help each of their students’ minds achieve their potential.
Traditionally we have thought about differentiation as the way teachers individualise the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning) to meet the needs of individual students (Tomlinson, 2017). However, processes that develop naturally for some children have to be taught explicitly to others.
Neurodevelopmental differentiation (NDD) involves parents and teachers helping students to increase the effectiveness of each of their brain system areas and finding ways to have students succeed by compensating for areas that are taking longer to develop. This may require teachers making small but significant changes to their teaching practice. For example, using flexible groupings or giving visual prompts to students who struggle to follow verbal instructions. It also involves teaching students about their brains and how they learn so they can use their strengths to overcome obstacles to learning. Catering for these differences is what we call “neurodevelopmental differentiation” (NDD). This article aims to provide a brief overview to the approach.
The Brain Systems
Our brains consist of interlinked systems. As we develop and mature our brain systems function more efficiently within themselves and communicate with other areas more quickly. For all of us, there are times when these systems can be over or under-activated and we see the results in our learning and in our actions. The contributing factors for under or over activation include genetics, trauma, maturity, depression and anxiety, sleep deprivation and poor food intake. Additionally, some people have established patterns for either good or poor functioning in these areas.
The main brain systems include:
- Concentration and Memory
- Language and Words
- Spatial Reasoning
- Perceptual/ Motor Co-ordination
- Thinking and Logic
- Planning and Sequencing
- People Skills
Neurodevelopmental differentiation involves teachers:
- understanding the role of each of the systems in student learning,
- acknowledging that all students may experience challenges with one or more of the systems,
- understanding that brains develop individually and what may be tricky at age 5 may be age appropriate, but if the same problem is present at age 10 it may be significant,
- considering the current level of functioning,
- giving students opportunities to develop their skill level in brain systems and tracking their progress,
- determining the next priority areas for development.
The profile of brain systems can be integrated into a Learning and Skills Strengths Inventory (LASSI) for each student.
Developing Brain Systems to Build Learning
In all of these brain systems, teachers can impact on:
As soon as information enters a child’s brain, signals are sent to various relevant brain systems. Inputs include sensory awareness and integration, concentration, pattern detection, listening skills and perceptual awareness. Some students are overly vigilant to any disruption from the norm. Others can be so “teflon coated” and dulled or distracted that a new idea would need to shout loudly to get noticed. Refining our radar and prioritizing inputs is an essential skill for effective learning.
Processing sorts out all of the sensory inputs (sights, sounds, smells) and connects them to usable thoughts and actions. They are like a router taking different inputs from the internet and directing them towards different computers in a house. Processing includes recognition, comprehension, understanding, noticing similarities and differences, rationalization, meta-cognition, thinking, decision-making and planning.
Some of us have brains that are wired to handle a lot of information at once, others have brains that can absorb and process only a little information at a time (often with greater accuracy). Some students have brains that process at lightning speed while others amble and meander about before developing answers. Interestingly, many notable and creative thinkers were described when they were at school as a bit “slow”. School often rewards faster processing. There is value in learning how to process quickly and there is also value in processing slowly.
Outputs are what we do as a result of the inputs and the processing. Output controls are responsible for behaviour, impulse control, previewing, planning, spoken and written expression, report writing, self-monitoring, and the completion of tasks. Some students are impulsive and rush into action and outputs before thinking things through. Others dawdle and procrastinate or become disorganised and have trouble monitoring their own progress. When outputs are efficient, we can conserve mental energy.
Summary of the Major Brain System Areas
1. Concentration and Memory
When concentration and memory systems work well, we can be productive and learn to behave appropriately. Dysfunctions of concentration create mayhem in the learning process and also in family life. Concentration and memory require alertness, orientation to sensory events, processing of incoming information and regulation of output and behaviour. Concentration can be thought of as the gear shifter of the human brain – it allows us to focus and to shift our focus and our actions according to different demands and contexts. Some aspects of concentration may function well and other aspects may not function optimally. The concentration system is particularly susceptible to distractions, stress and disturbances. Even people with very good concentration may have difficulty processing auditory sounds in a noisy environment.
The strongest correlate of school success is intelligence and the strongest correlate of intelligence is memory. Memory is particularly important for learning to read. This is why the development of memory is a skill worth developing.
2. Language and words
Language is central to thinking. We build our language from sounds to fragments of words, to entire words, to whole sentences, to lengthy chains of sentences, and finally to the process of not just thinking in language but thinking about language.
Language links with sequencing. When we tell a story the sequence of our ideas is critical. Language also relates to spatial ordering and visual processing. Being able to visually imagine a story dramatically enriches language experiences. Language also plays a significant role in motor function. During the early stages of building any skill, we are likely to think aloud through the steps involved.
There are three main phases of learning to read.
1. Pictorial stage – children “photograph” a few words and treat words like pictures. Both hemispheres of the brain are involved. Infants extract, sort and classify segments of speech. The best predictors of early success in reading are letter knowledge and phonemic awareness involving the development of the alphabetic principle.
2. Phonological stage – children learn to decode graphemes (letters or groups of letters) into phonemes (sounds). Activation becomes more focused and slowly converges on the ventro-occipital temporal region. Phonological awareness involves speech being segmented into sounds, for example ‘cat’ rhymes with ‘hat’, the first letter of snake is ‘ssss’.
3. Orthographic stage – word recognition becomes fast and automatic. Several brain circuits are altered during this process, especially the left ventro-occipital temporal region. The conversion of letters into sounds is the key stage in reading acquisition.
In order to move beyond the pictorial stage a child must learn to decode words into component letters and link them to speech sounds. Children who are most fluent in
phonological games such as rhyming learn to read more quickly. Practice with speech sound manipulations at an early age improves both phonemic awareness and reading scores. Vocabulary knowledge involves the recognition of words when they are read and memory capacity. This enables whole-word recognition and the ability to derive meaning from written text.
The goal of reading instruction is to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy so that children can recognise letters and graphemes and easily turn them into speech sounds. All other aspects of literacy – spelling, vocabulary, nuances of meaning – depend on this step.
Some students have difficulty writing, even though they have lots to say. Others can be inarticulate but write fluently.
The intra-parietal sulcus activates whenever we think of a number. Children with dyscalculia often have impairments or delayed development of the intra-parietal sulcus. This part of the brain is also involved in movement, rhythm and music.
Children first learn to count and then to add and subtract small numbers. Next, they learn about place value and working with larger numbers before moving on to multiplication and division. All of this early learning relates to whole numbers. Then students learn about fractions, decimals and percentages. This is known as the number sense from which mathematics develops. Number sense skills include: rapidly identifying small numbers, recognising how numbers can be ordered, reasoning about simple transformations (e.g. adding and subtracting), and applying counting to solve number problems.
Maths is about patterns and cause and effect chains of reasoning. It is important to encourage students to disclose their own understanding of what they have learned and to show connections between the concepts they have learned. Student explanations of their thinking and reasoning should be included as a part of many lessons.
4. Spatial Reasoning
“How many animals are hidden in this picture?” “Which of these shapes has a right angle in it?” “Touch your right shoulder with your left hand.” “Find the route on a map from home to school.” All these demands trigger our perceptions of objects in space. There is a strong overlap between spatial reasoning and mathematical thinking.
Children with poor spatial reasoning often are seen by others as clumsy. They often stand too close or too far away from the people or objects that they are interacting with. These children often find it hard to tell their left from right and they confuse positional language i.e. over, under, in or out, left or right. This makes it hard for them to follow directions that use such language.
In the classroom the child with spatial reasoning difficulties often finds mathematics hard. This is due to the abstract concepts of the subject especially where shapes, areas, volume and space is involved. They will have problems reproducing patterns, sequences and shapes. Their strengths, however, are with the more practical and concrete subjects.
These students often excel at using a multisensory way of learning. They often have good auditory memory skills and have strength in speaking and listen well. They tend to have good verbal comprehension skills and their strength is usually in verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Art teachers, PE teachers and music teachers are among the most perceptive observers of neuro-developmental function in any school setting. The development of fine and gross motor skills also relate to grapho-motor functioning and our ability to write.
5. Perceptual/ Motor Co-ordination
These neuro-motor functions make possible cursive writing, playing the fiddle, and guiding scissors. Motor coordination is important to children; being able to show off proficiency makes an important contribution to self-concept and confidence.
The sequencing of body movements is helpful in dance, sport, art and in relating to other people.
Perceptual issues may result in misinterpretation of others’ intentions and inappropriate behaviours.
6. Thinking and Logic
Higher-order thinking includes the ability to problem solve and reason logically, to form and make use of concepts (such as mass in physics), to understand how and when rules apply, and to get the point of a complicated idea. Higher-order thinking also takes in critical and creative thinking. Higher-order thinking involves decision making, reasoning, critical thinking, creative thinking and seeing the linkages between ideas and concepts.
The consideration and evaluation of different perspectives and sources of information is essential for thinking clearly.
Higher-order cognition is essential for clear understanding of the many concepts and processes that students must conquer for success at school. Examples include using logic to solve problems, making complex decisions, expressing ideas in writing or with other media, using evidence to justify their own opinions or challenging the opinions of others.
The opposite of impulsivity is good problem-solving skills. Higher-order cognition requires deep understanding, not just memorization and re-gurgitation. There is obviously an optimal speed range for anything that we do. Pacing can also be set at too slow a rate. Some kids with output control problems grind everything out too slowly. Some actually move around at a snail-like rate.
7. Planning and Sequencing
Planning and sequencing are essential in maths, in completing science experiments or arts projects, in playing music, understanding the plot of a story, time management and connecting new ideas to what we already know. Teachers can assume that these connections are being made. Often they are not, and we need to explicitly teach students how to do it consciously.
Planning and sequencing inputs create learning by enabling ideas to stick together. If there is no planning and sequencing nothing binds to anything else, new information rings no bells whatsoever.
Students have to practise asking themselves, “What does this fit with? What does this change my mind about? What does this new stuff remind me of? What should I do next?” We need to help them develop a plan for doing one thing at a time. All children need help to do things in steps rather than all at once. Students need well-thought-out work plans to facilitate this process.
Previewing, consideration, weighing up options, and adjusting pace, all help students become more considered and reflective. If you add together weak previewing plus the absence of options (i.e. doing the first thing that comes to mind), plus frantic pacing, you come up with the well-known trait called impulsivity. Students with output control problems tend to be oblivious of, or insensitive to, feedback.
8. People Skills
A child (or adult) may be strong in the seven other neuro-developmental systems yet seem to fail in life because he or she is unable to behave in a way that fits appropriately with others of their age group. They may have trouble establishing new friendships and keeping old ones or working collaboratively in groups. Even the most brilliant child can end up frustrated if he is too shy, socially inept, or antisocial.
Knowing your own emotions and being able to read the emotions of others is the determinant of happiness and success. Friends and peers play a dominant role in shaping the brains of their friends. Being curious about how other people think and see things is a powerful motivator of learning.
Being able to develop empathy – the ability to see things from another’s perspective – enlarges our world. Knowing how to regulate our own emotions and eventually how to help other people regulate theirs is an essential predictor of resilience and life success.
Developing compassion – the willingness to help others who are upset – is kind and also empowering and enabling. Being able to take steps to calm our own responses is a useful life and relationship skill.
We are entering an exciting new time in education – a time when we can utilise the research on brain systems and combine it with research on learning, to help our students develop their brain systems to meet their potential. The use of neuro-developmental differentiation provides a way for teachers to cater for and build different strengths for different types of students.
In the space of one article we have been able to introduce you to this concept but have not been able to outline the strategies to accomplish these gains. These are best developed with teachers in collaborative workshops. You can arrange these by contacting Andrew Fuller or Vicki Hartley at www.andrewfuller.com.au
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Fuller, A. (2016), Unlocking Your Child’s Genius, Finch, Sydney
Karten, T. ( 2017), Building on the Strengths of Students with Special Needs, ASCD, Alexandria, Virginia.
Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, The Children’s Attention Project (CAP).
Sousa, D. (2016) How the Special Needs Brain Learns (3rd edition), Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California.
Sousa, D. (2009), How the Brain Influences Behaviour: Strategies for Managing K-12 Classrooms, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2017), How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Third Edition, ASCD.
Andrew Fuller is a Clinical Psychologist, author, Family Therapist and is a Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He has been a principal consultant to the national drug prevention strategy REDI, a scientific consultant for ABC children’s television shows, is an Ambassador for Mind Matters and is a member of
the National Coalition Against Bullying. http://andrewfuller.com.au/
Vicki Hartley has taught in the early years, primary and secondary, as well as holding regional positions with the Queensland Department of Education. She currently works for the Catholic Schools Office in Armidale, NSW. Vicki is presently studying for a PhD. [email protected]