President's Corner

The 21st-Century Brain
By Gail Pletnick/School Administrator, September 2017

OUR WORLD IS changing rapidly, but the one thing we can count on is that, as they have done for centuries, human beings will change and adapt to their environment.

The human brain is a perfect example of how true that is. One thing we know from the study of the brain is that over time, our brains have grown in size and complexity. The other thing we know is that just as bodies differ from person to person, no two human brains are identical.

In the past, we believed a person’s intellectual ability was basically set at birth and changed little throughout life. However, re-search into cognitive development has led to new findings that indicate our brain actually changes physically when we are engaged in learning activities and that learning becomes easier as practice continues and our brain develops new connections.

Another critical finding related to the brain is that good nutrition and adequate sleep positively affect the brain and thus affect learning. Did you know the brain consumes approximately 20 percent of a person’s energy? As such, the adage that we are what we eat applies to the brain as well. And we all are familiar, I’m sure, with the research showing the negative impact of sleep deprivation on our ability to concentrate.

Think about how these research findings influence how we approach teaching and student learning. Our classrooms must deliver instruction that supports the whole child, yet we know academic learning is influenced by so many variables that are outside the school, including social-emotional factors, the physical needs of the student and the environment in which that child is being raised.

Many of us who have been in the field of education for some time know that to teach and reach a child, you must address all those things that touch his or her life. New discoveries in brain research, neuroscience and academic research are giving educators the proof that we were right about that all along.

As educators, we recognize our education systems must be evolving and iterating just as the human brain evolves. We must use these new brain discoveries to understand how students learn, focusing on the commonalities and differences of all students so we can address the uniqueness of each child. The more we learn through brain research, the more we will need to learn about adaptation and evolution in our classrooms.

It is exciting to live in a time when we can literally peer into the human brain, but with that power comes responsibility. Because we have this information, we as educators must use it to benefit each and every student in our classrooms. We need to personalize our teaching and learning environment and move away from the one-size-fits-all approach that obviously does not fit with what we now know about the brain.

Add to that what we are learning about growth mindset, social-emotional learning, the impact of stress and how technology can impact the brain, and we have a treasure trove of information that can guide our efforts to redefine, redesign and re-imagine our teaching and learning practices to better serve students.

This issue of School Administrator is dedicated to instructional applications of brain discoveries. It will be a great resource for the work we must do in our public schools to deliver a 21st-century education to students who have 21st-century brains.

Gail Pletnick
is AASA president in 2017-18. E-mail: Twitter: ­@GPletnickDysart