What Does Enrichment Mean? (page 3)
Few schools and teachers understand enrichment and brain plasticity and use the knowledge properly. Most people, inside or outside the educational community, are at best barely beginning to understand the new science of the brain. New research is coming out daily that redefines what the human brain is and what it can do. Brain function benefits most if the enrichment programs provide a clear improvement over a baseline, prevailing environment in ways related to the measured outcomes. As an example, if a child comes from severe poverty, attending a Montessori preschool can and has worked wonders, all the way through middle school.2 Remember our definition:
Enrichment is a positive biological response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes have occurred within the brain.
As educational policy, enrichment means more than a commitment by policymakers and educators to create a specific climate at school. Enrichment means that curriculum, assessment, environment, and instruction all will have to be revisited. Any program will have to meet the criteria of enhancing that we introduced earlier to get the "enrichment response." Exhibit 7.1 puts the seven "golden maximizer" factors into a school context.
The Seven Golden Maximizers
Before the maximizers are detailed, let's make sure we're on solid ground in our research. With the recent emphasis on "scientific teaching" is there a solid basis for each of these factors? The answer is "Yes," and the evidence is broad-based. Here are each of the factors and a quick review of the powerful science behind them.
Exhibit 7.1. Seven Factors or "Maximizers" for Contrasting Environments.
- Physical Activity (voluntary gross motor)
- Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful learning
- Coherent Complexity (not chaotic)
- Managed Stress Levels (not boring or distressful)
- Social Support (at home, school, and community)
- Good Nutrition (balanced and healthy with supplements)
- Sufficient Time (not rushed, plenty of sleep)
Exercise helps increase the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports learning and memory function and the repair and maintenance of neural circuits. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla and his team at UCLA found that voluntary exercise increased levels of BDNF in the hippocampus, a brain area involved with learning and memory.3 Some studies have found strong evidence that in mammals exercise increases the production of new brain cells, and they become functional.4 In addition, exercise leads to increased calcium levels in the blood. That calcium is transported to the brain, where it enhances dopamine synthesis, making the brain sharper for both cognitive problem solving and working memory.5 For example, one study found that joggers consistently performed better than nonjoggers on learning and memory tests that required the use of the prefrontal cortex.6
Now all this brain stuff may sound good, but does this evidence translate to the real world? What happens to student achievement when schools engage kids in quality physical education? First, it improves selfconcept and reduces stress and aggression.7 Second, it improves academic performance.8 Various states have mandated physical activity and spoken out in favor of it. And finally, it regulates mood. Some evidence suggests that it may be a protective factor against depression, which is becoming increasingly prevalant at the secondary school level.9
A preliminary analysis conducted by the California Department of Education shows a significant relationship between academic achievement and the physical fitness of public school students.10 In the study, reading and mathematics scores were matched with fitness scores of 353,000 fifth graders, 322,000 seventh graders, and 279,000 ninth graders. Higher achievement was associated with higher levels of fitness at each of the three grade levels measured. Exercise is consistently a part of any successful enrichment program.
Recommendation: A solid body of research suggests that at the K–5 level, twenty to thirty minutes of recess (or its equivalent) should be mandatory daily. Any district that mandates this must then create a climate that encourages and supports it. In California, one hundred minutes a week of physical activity is the law at the K–5 level. But it does not happen in many classes. Teachers, who don't know the research, are tempted to cut out the recess. Mixed messages and testing pressures mean that many teachers skip recess out of fear of lowered test scores. In the United States, more than two out of three secondary students (68 percent) do not participate in a daily physical education program.11 At the 6–12 level, the research supports a daily choice of voluntary gross motor activities including power walking, swimming, jogging, team sports, cycling, treadmill, or similar choices. But again, this rarely happens. If the physical education program seems "broken," then fix it; do not throw it out.
But what about students who don't want to do exercise or physical activity? Find something they do like. It is that fundamental to the brain. The goal is to get students to participate in daily gross motor physical activity voluntarily. So offer a range of choices: team sports such as soccer, treadmill, stair climber, bicycling, power walks, jogging, swimming, cycling, or dance or ballet. More options increase the likelihood that something will be attractive to each student. The key is that they choose to do it.
When done well, athletic programs have coaches that instill selfdiscipline, high personal standards, positive attitudes, and a quest for excellence. The students learn to improve reaction times, cardiovascular capacity, muscle strength, body coordination, speed, and stress responses. Most interestingly, good athletic programs, even daily recess, can improve cognition and academic outcomes.12 This is relevant because it verifies that enrichment responses create a global, not a specific effect.
Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful Learning
The human brain is designed by nature to survive. Learning is the only way to do that, since we live in a world far more complex than one of simple stimulus-response. It seems that physical activity may enhance the production of new cells, but it is the novel learning that appears to increase brain cell survival and functionality.13 Novel, meaningful learning is key, and quality schooling changes our brains.14 Relevance is critical because meaningless tasks provide no enrichment. Just basic stimulation alone does not drive an enriching change in the brain; it has to be behaviorally relevant.
This creates the essential "cortical imprinting" needed to release the acetylcholine necessary to form the memory to "save" the new learning.15 We need a meaningful context for an activity to get purposeful changes in the brain, and studies show that more relevant, meaningful learning is better.16 All of these factors, like novel, relevant learning, allow us to make better-quality predictions. In fact, the primary strategy for schoolage survival is to predict likely outcomes and respond appropriately.
Recommendation: The most critical ingredient is contrast, so the curriculum and instruction must feature contrasting choices for students. This is a key factor for keeping kids in school. The five dominant strategies used by schools to match up learners and instruction have been
- Choice by students of what and how to learn
- The use of differentiation
- The use of pullout programs
- The use of acceleration
- Using prescreening testing to match students with curriculum
Let's walk through these suggestions that may enhance the enrichment response.
Choice. The first option is to allow students to pick their own learning, challenges, and grade requirements. I would argue against students at any grade having a total choice over their curriculum. School-age kids do not have mature frontal lobes, and their ability to make decisions with long-term consequences in mind is a bit suspect. Some moderate choices are acceptable.
Differentiation. The second option is differentiation; here teachers use instructional strategies to modify and adapt the curriculum for various ability levels within a given classroom.17 The concept can work for certain talented teachers with student populations having more narrow ranges of ability, in smaller size classrooms. This is one of the more widely accepted educational theories in the past ten years.
Pullout programs. In the third option, students are pulled out of their regular classes for special tutoring. It's primarily for those needing improvements in skill levels (reading, writing, math, and other basics).
Acceleration. Acceleration allows students to move quickly past units of content if they are able to pass the exam. Students might spend half the time on the same content as other students if they are ready to move on.
Prescreening. The last option allows schools to mix and match students at the right school based on the student's abilities and the level that the school offers. Any of these five could work, but the last one is the most ideal because of its reliability.
Complexity is a big part of what challenges the brain. It requires shifting from one cognitive factor to another, allocating resources such as working memory and stress management. The stress issue is huge because if the complexity crosses the line into chaos, the potentially good learning event becomes stressful. Neurons under distress become conservatory and won't grow or communicate properly with other cells under distress. Their dendrites, the branch-like extensions from neurons mentioned earlier, were reduced by 18 to 32 percent in one animal study that exposed them to stressors.18 The opposite condition, boredom, can also create a retracted or withered dendrite, from underuse.
This factor is a bit tricky, because it always rides the edge between boredom and distress. Complexity is a school experience in which students see school as a busy (but not chaotic), interesting (but not threatening),and challenging (but not overwhelming) experience. Two strategies are suggested to make complexity saner. First, allow a graduated level of complexity that builds over time as the human brain develops the capacity to handle multiple levels of curriculum, social structures, and the necessary emotional responses. The second strategy is the building of student assets. This includes emotional intelligence, resiliency against stress, study skills, and time management.
Recommendation: This factor means that students need to have the kinds of options that they perceive as "juicy" and "cool" subjects. That includes the arts (theater, photography, dance, music, and so on), sciences and problem-solving (talent fairs, special projects, Odyssey of the Mind, math league, debates, and so on), and exploration (field trips, internships, mentoring, community service, and so on). Without these types of options, not only can students lose interest in school, but you'll never find out what they're good at doing.
In theater, drama, dance, and other performance arts, subjects improve emotional intelligence, timing, reflection, respect for diversity, and even SAT scores.19 In fact, compared with those taking no arts courses, those taking theater and drama scored thirty-five points higher on the math part of the widely used college entrance test and sixty-six points higher on the verbal portion. In case you're thinking that sharper students simply self-select into arts (a possibility), that too has been debunked.
Showing that it's the time spent in the arts that matters, the more years one is in the arts, the greater the difference on the SAT. This suggests that it's the work in the discipline, not the selection process, that contributes to the SAT difference. The first year, there's an average differential of ten points between the mean scores of non-arts students and a firstyear student in drama. But by the fourth year of arts participation, the difference is close to forty points.20 This is a clear example of the enrichment response. Students start out above the average (ten points) and yet, still gain an additional thirty points on the SAT over time.
Managed Stress Levels
Many students experience daily stress that is over and above the healthy limits. It comes from bullying, rude teachers, overdemanding parents, and life's events. When there are unpredictable stressors, the brain's capacity to learn and remember is severely impaired.21 Animal studies show that behavior stress modifies and impairs a key learning structure called the hippocampus and reduces learning capacity. In fact, the actual brain cells in the prefrontal cortex become disfigured with chronic stress.22 In general, students learn best in a classroom climate of moderate stress (I prefer the expression, "healthy concern"). But that's just a generalization; there are plenty of exceptions. For example, many students with disabilities need lower stress or their learning shuts down. Examples include those with autistic spectrum disorders, reactive attachment disorders, attention deficit, oppositional disorder, dyslexia, stress disorders, or learning delays. So for a portion of the students, low stress does work better. Healthier students can thrive under much more demanding conditions. Figure 7.1 shows how stress affects various parts of the body.
Recommendations: Schools should adopt a three-part strategy. First, all staff should be taught and should participate in stress reduction strategies to help better manage responses to adverse events. This may include skill building, reframing, treadmill, or power-walking activities. Second, students should be taught life skills, which include time management, study skills, and emotional intelligence. They need to be taught about how their body experiences stressors and what to do about them.
Establish an environment that would typically inspire and challenge the learner. Make it less chaotic, uncomfortable, or overwhelming, and more predictable. Ensure that the physical environment has the best possible acoustics and lighting. Offer the possibility of movement, rich wall decorations, choice, open windows (if appropriate), and going outside. Give students the life skills to deal with stressors. Teach self-regulation strategies such as meditation, exercise, yoga, better nutrition, and reframing outcomes more positively. Students need the skills and mind-set to believe they can influence their environment.
Student brains never mature in a vacuum. They become human-friendly in the context of a social environment. School stress that is associated with bullying and violence hurts achievement. The stress also impairs test scores and attention span and increases absenteeism and tardiness.23 Community violence exposure—an unsafe home neighborhood or a dangerous path to school—also contributes to lower academic performance.24 It is discouraging, but many high school students either stay home or skip classes due to fear of violence. Students who have to worry too much, especially over safety concerns, will underperform academically.25 And plenty of recent evidence shows that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity in students.26
Recommendation: Schools that provide enhancement use the following: mentorships, peer counseling programs, cooperative learning, clubs, and team sports. They use whole-school assemblies and class meeting models, and ensure that every single student in the school is assigned an adult or older student as support.
The key is a sense of belonging, invitation, and connectedness. School leaders and staff that make schools a place for a positive social climate do things differently. They typically make sure the staff is prosocial and respects relationships. They use daily rituals and traditions, they hold assemblies and community functions on a schedule. They respect diversity and openly discuss diversity issues. They'll have morning homeroom meetings with familiar agendas. Students have room for expression in voice, art, and sports. The schools embrace the culture of the students with familiar themes that students, staff, and community can align with.
People also need social connectedness—the store of social capital that gives them access to a network of caring human services. Connectedness is an important enrichment factor because it can regulate stress levels up or down. If our relationships are positive, they tend to have buffering effects against stress. If they are negative, it increases our stress response.
Schools ought to foster positive social connectedness for many reasons. But the main reason is that it may keep students in school. Of those in school, it increases their likelihood of having better friends, fewer illnesses, less absenteeism, and a more positive attitude. For many kids, the main reason they're in school is because it's the law and their friends are there. Social contact can influence gene expression; improve student health; and reduce discipline, bullying, and violence. How many more reasons do school policymakers need to mandate positive social structures?
Why support this factor? The more we know about the value of both basic and enhanced nutritional support, the more important nutrition becomes for enrichment. Multiple studies show that good nutrition improves mood and behavior.27 One public school in Arizona ran a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, giving supplements to half the children and placebos (pills with no nutritional value) to the other half. Pre- and post-testing showed a statistically significant increase in nonverbal intelligence, with some increased as much as 10 to 15 IQ points.28
The average student, from kindergarten through high school, will have the opportunity for 2,340 lunches, which, at five hundred calories each, would contain over one million calories. Those meals will either support or hinder student cognition and behavior. Since positive nutrition is also a factor for enrichment, schools have to take the big step and make food healthier. In the initial animal studies in the 1960s, food was considered an automated, fixed element, and researchers simply ignored it in the studies.
Recommendation: Positive student nutrition needs a three-part approach. First, educate parents about the true cognitive and behavioral impact of nutrition. Give parents low-cost options and be specific. Second, educate students about how their brain works and how nutrition influences it. Teach them which foods have the effects of uppers and which foods can induce calm. Teach them about vital cognition-boosting nutrients, too. Third and finally, be sure to implement the modifications in the school food services. Empty calories and fatty, saturated foods do no good for the growing brain. Exhibit 7.2 shows some nutritional suggestions.
Washington Virtual Academies
Tuition-free online school for Washington students.